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A Place for Good: VAWC Stands for Change
December 6, 2017

Every day in America, more than three women are murdered by their partners. One in five undergraduate females will be sexually assaulted as students. The same number of high school females are physically and/or sexually abused by their dating partners. Most of these acts will go unreported or unpunished. In New Jersey alone, the rate of sexual trafficking has increased over the last year, helping to fuel a $30 billion annual international industry built on the rape and subjugation of young women and men. Domestic violence remains the leading cause of injury to women across the country— more than muggings, car crashes, and rapes combined.

These startling statistics require immediate action. At Rutgers Center on Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC), finding ways to respond to and prevent similar incidents serves as a daily call to action for the faculty and staff who work there. Using research, education, and community engagement, the Center strives to change cultural stereotypes and perceptions, and to reduce the victimization and perpetration of victimization across the private and public spheres by providing concrete resources and trainings. 

While incidents of domestic and sexual violence continue to pose a major challenge, VAWC remains the only center in the country that has a certificate program specific to issues in the field. As part of the School of Social Work, the Center offers certification for students in the Master’s of Social Work program, as well as individualized classes for any student at Rutgers. 

The Center began in 2007 with start-up funding from the School of Social Work’s dean at that time, Dr. Richard Edwards. Dr. Judy Postmus was the first to come on board. “I had experience in the field with youths and families, and that’s what drew me to social work—being a voice for others,” she says. “It soon became apparent that there were very few resources for those interested in specializing in issues related to domestic violence. That lack inspired our team to develop the certificate program, the first of its kind. It’s still the only program geared toward this education.”

Today, the Center functions with a small team of dedicated faculty and staff. Their research and outreach are funded solely by outside resources. This past year, they were awarded a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to continue their work. The grant “Rutgers Violence Against Women Consortium," is one of the largest ever received by the School of Social Work. It creates space for four years of focused research to improve services for women who experience violence and to educate the greater community about best practices and policies. VAWC’s proven track record for results-driven projects such as the Campus Climate Project and Identification and Assessment of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST), helped to set them apart from their peers.

Other funding sources include Verizon Wireless, which recently renewed their commit- ment to fund scholarship support for graduate professionals to work on specific research projects related to the field and to provide on-line mod- ules for training. In addition, staff member Nicole Oceanak recently launched a crowd-funding cam- paign to provide additional scholarship support for students entering the certificate program.

Postmus and her team believe that a greater understanding of the subject, coupled with collaborative research, give them the unique opportunity to share their knowledge with students and community partners, in ways that make it both meaningful and comprehensive.

Community engagement liaison Catie Buttner explains the significance of several key sources available: “We’re focused on translating the great research work VAWC produces into more useable formats that can be directed toward prac- titioners and communities. Our goal is to use our website, training efforts, and educational programs to create a space for resources that will connect with communities inside and outside of Rutgers.”

The Center’s reach already goes far beyond the state of New Jersey. Associate Director Sarah McMahon has been instrumental in working on a national level with these issues. In 2014, she was chosen by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to pilot a campus climate survey tool developed by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Similarly, researchers from the Center engaged in a comprehensive campus climate assessment project to raise awareness of sexual violence, to give students a platform for sharing experiences, and to expand its commitment to addressing violence on campus.

Over the last 10 years, the Center has graduated 432 students from the certificate program, and over 2,500 other students have received train- ing from the Center. However, the need for specific training continues to grow. A new report from the New Jersey state police estimates that the number of domestic violence homicides increased by 16 percent in the last two years. “We don’t yet know why this number has increased, and part of our mission at the Center is to uncover why this is happening, and what can be done to prevent those numbers from rising,” says McMahon.

Despite the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence, McMahon remains hopeful that change is possible. “Most individuals aren’t abusive and don’t believe that these behaviors are acceptable.” McMahon says that services are needed not only for victims, but also for those who commit violence. “That’s a challenge for the field; finding the line between holding someone accountable and making sure that we’re providing them with whatever services they need in order to change their behaviors,” she says. “It’s really complex to create change, so my research focuses on prevention and what we can do to build programs and communities that are built on respect and healthy relationships and don’t tolerate violence. For example, bystander intervention programs allow us to see that we all have a role to play in interrupting potential volatile situations.”

As the Center celebrates its 10-year anniversary, Postmus has a clear path forward for the next decade. “Our goal is to engage more people in the work we’re doing by bringing on more faculty members and more affiliates from differ- ent disciplines,” she says. “While the last 10 years have taught us a significant amount, there is so much we don’t know from a research perspective. Plus, we need to accelerate the dissemination of that information to a larger audience.”

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