Preventing Domestic Violence/Interview with Dr.Sally Dorman


M
 My longtime friend, Dr. Sally Dorman, will return to Alaska next week for a summer visit.

Twenty-something years ago, I worked at an agency that served battered women and children. Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis.  Sally was one of my favorite coworkers. We worked in the trenches together with other dynamic staff members, facilitating groups for battered women, creating school curricula for grades K-12 on family violence, and giving countless school presentations on the topic.

In the late 90’s, Sally moved out of Alaska to advance her education, and I became a social worker.  We lost touch.  Two years ago, we reconnected through Facebook.

Today, Sally is Dr. Dorman, a school psychologist in Maryland specializing in violence prevention programming. Her research on the impact of training school personnel to recognize the signs of childhood exposure to domestic violence was funded through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and  published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. in 2008.

Thank you Dr. Dorman, and welcome!

How did you go from working with battered women and children in the battered women’s shelter to the violence prevention work you do today?

I did clinical work for my master’s degree at a community health center while attending Mansfield University for a degree in Community Clinical Psychology. As a part of that, I worked at a local community mental health center for my internship, which got me thinking of the dire need for mental health promotion and prevention.

After the prevention work we did back in the day, it was only natural that my interests lie in violence prevention and decided to enter a doctoral program in school psychology.  I wanted to do the prevention work through policy change.

What kinds of projects have you worked on to address kids affected by domestic violence?

I worked on a coordinated community response around domestic violence in western New York.  We used a public health model, looking at primary, secondary, and tertiary responses.  The response focused on getting everyone in the community to realize domestic violence is a problem, and we all have a role in solving that problem.

As an example, if the police respond to a home in which 8 year-old Suzi is a child witness of domestic violence, they’ll make an arrest if applicable, and give community referrals to the family to address their concerns. The officer would notify Suzi’s school staff the next day so that they can follow up with Suzi to make sure she has counseling or supportive services that she needs at school.

With the coordinated community response, everyone in a community has a role in the intervention and will have training to know what that role is.  The state of Texas has a project that outlines agency roles related to domestic violence.  It is very innovative.

What’s the focus of educators today with regards to children exposed to domestic violence?

The study I worked on for OJJDP demonstrated the importance of giving educators information on how to recognize kids exposed to domestic violence and how to respond individually, in the classroom, and school wide through policy. It was important because those same kids were being mislabeled as having ADHD, and were getting medicated for symptoms that mimicked ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, inattention to classroom work, and fidgety when they may be reacting to trauma.

I’m at a the US Department of Education’s Safe and Healthy Students conference right now, and yesterday, the topic of bullying was being covered. The definition given for bullying was just about the same as the definition of domestic violence; when one person uses emotional or physical force to gain control of another person. The behavior has to be repeated,  intentional, and used to gain control in both cases.

That really surprised me, and I think we’ll be hearing more about the link between domestic violence and bullying in the future.

Please give some examples of how we can support kids we suspect are witnessing the abuse of one of their parents by an intimate partner.

I think it’s important to let them know that if abuse is happening, it’s not their fault.  Domestic violence is an adult issue, and it’s not theirs to fix. Let the child know you believe him/her, and tell them where they can get support.

For more information about a coordinated community response to domestic violence, go to or Close to Home.

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2 thoughts on “Preventing Domestic Violence/Interview with Dr.Sally Dorman

  1. Do either of you have thoughts on children exposed to domestic violence in utero? I worked with several young boys whose mothers were in severe domestic violent situations, and they seemed to exhibit similar behaviours. Mainly they seemed to be hypersensitive to criticism and react quickly to perceived threats. Perhaps the mothers state of fear contributed to their early brain development? I’m long out of the field, but this is something I’ve pondered over the years. Thanks for a great interview.

  2. Great point. Thank you.

    My experiences are mostly intuitive as a mom/survivor of domestic violence. When my relationship was at it’s worst, I was pregnant with my second child, who was born with a clenched fist, and spent her first year exceptionally fussy for a non-colicky baby. My second daughter had the startle response of babies prenatally exposed to crack.

    Later, I listened to Dr. Linda Chamberlain’s presentations about babies exposed to domestic violence and did wonder about the link.

    To me, there’s no question that there’s an impact on babies exposed prenatally, but hard to know exactly what the impact is conclusively.–Lizbeth

    ————————————–

    Dr.Dorman responded-

    While there has been evidence to remonstrate neurological differences in children exposed to violence, it is too difficult to tease out any prenatal influences without rigorous research studies that are difficult to design and implement

    However, there is plenty of research on toxin exposure in vitro (alcohol, lead) and it seems plausible that stress hormones could have an impact on the fetus during development.

    You may be able to find some of the neuro brain imaging differences that were done in the early 2000’s. I think the field has moved towards treatment of the exposure to violence rather than neruo or physical differences.

    Further related readings on the topics include:

    http://www.safestartcenter.org/pdf/childrensexpostoviolence.pdf

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20919921

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1522123/

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