Erasing violence
“Our role must be greater than simply patching up injuries or writing prescriptions for the health consequences of intimate partner violence,” says ICFV co-director Dr. Julianne Toohey, a UCI professor of obstetrics & gynecology. iStock by Getty Images

A doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, a psychologist and an engineer walk into a conference room.

At UC Irvine, this is no joke. It’s a serious endeavor to save the 6 million children who are abused each year; the one in four women who will suffer domestic violence during their lifetimes; the one in five teenagers who will experience dating abuse; and the 1 million to 2 million annual victims of elder abuse.

UCI’s new Interdisciplinary Center on Family Violence, which unites community partners with faculty from 20 UCI departments, launched in October after the Orange County Women’s Health Summit in Santa Ana and held its inaugural lecture in November. The speaker was Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor known internationally for creating the Danger Assessment instrument to predict lethality in the domestic violence context.

It’s just the start of a collaboration that also includes artists, computer scientists, mathematicians, physical scientists and more. Organizers expect to produce curricula, research and community partnerships dedicated to violence prevention.

“The law’s response to family violence has developed rapidly in recent decades, but law can’t solve the problem alone,” says Jane Stoever, assistant clinical professor of law and director of UCI Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic. She and Ellen Olshansky, professor of nursing science, and Dr. Julianne Toohey, professor of obstetrics & gynecology, are leading the center on campus.

“Nurses are often the first to diagnose and treat both victims and perpetrators of abuse,” says Olshansky, who advocates training more forensic nurses to work with healthcare and social agencies and the legal system to investigate and interpret injuries.

Toohey, who has worked in domestic violence for many years, says she has been disappointed in physicians’ track record of appropriately screening, identifying and assisting victims of family violence.

“Our role must be greater than simply patching up injuries or writing prescriptions for the health consequences of intimate partner violence,” she says. “I am a strong advocate of universal screening in the healthcare setting. My hope is that the center can help provide excellent information, training and support for the community practitioner who currently feels overwhelmed in dealing with these matters.”

So how do engineering, math and computer science fit in? Just ask Frithjof Kruggel, professor of biomedical engineering. He and colleagues from materials science and computer science are creating a computer model to simulate brain trauma, with an eye toward learning more about the results of abuse.

Center organizers see artists providing therapy, contributions from the new Medical Humanities Initiative, and input from elder abuse prevention doctors and trauma and anger researchers. The ultimate goal is to create a vast database of applicable research and treatments that can be used to solve problems.

Vivian Clecak, co-founder and CEO of Orange County nonprofit Human Options, is a leading community partner in the group. “We have worked for many years with social ecology, Julianne Toohey in the medical school and, most recently, the law school, and each interaction has strengthened our ability to serve our clients and UCI’s ability to produce new knowledge,” she says. “I expect the center, as it expands its program, will bring many nonprofits to the table.”

“We want to be sure we include the people in the community who have been working in this area for many years,” Olshansky says. “It’s not like UCI has all the answers. We are looking to develop a translational research portfolio that can be useful in the community and to develop effective interventions.”

In her lecture, Campbell provided inspiration and suggested possibilities for research efforts. She’s a professor and the Anna D. Wolf Chair in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing; a professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and national director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholars program. Campbell has written seven books and more than 220 articles, and national and international policymakers seek out her expertise on intimate partner violence and its health effects.