CFLE in Context: Violence Prevention

by Wm. Michael Fleming, Ph.D., CFLE
CFLE Network
Content Area
Interpersonal Relationships
Wm Michael Fleming

Often one's professional career path is the result of a combination of life events; some desired and planned, others just happen. For me, it began with a knock on the door. I clearly remember wondering who it could be at that time of night. Opening the door I was surprised to see Marge, a close family friend, in tears. She was a couple of years ahead of me in high school and was the "big sister" I never had. Through the tears she shared that she had been raped on a date earlier that evening and didn't know what to do or where to turn. Although he went to a different school, I knew the guy indirectly. I was confused about what to say or do for Marge. Subsequently I was angered by how many expressed denial that he could do that because he was a "good guy." The inference was that it must have been something Marge did or that she was overreacting. This was my first exposure to what I later learned to be a "blame the victim" mentality that is often found in society. While the incident was not career defining at the time, I recognize now that it was the first of many experiences that have influenced the choice of my professional career path.

My undergraduate degree in Psychology is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my senior year, I began working on a research/clinical project assessing family dynamics. On a whim, I also took a course on Family Relationships to meet general education requirements. That course, and the training and experience of assessing family dynamics, opened up a whole new world. The "ah ha" moment had occurred. Working with families and the struggles they encounter was my calling. I decided to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Connecticut in marriage and family therapy (MFT).

As I finished my MFT degree I was hired by a municipality as a therapist to work with families. It soon became evident that many of the issues I was encountering could have been prevented if education, skills training, and support were provided much earlier to families. This eventually led me to establishing a Youth Services Bureau (YSB). As a state recognized YSB, prevention programming became a core function. For the establishment and success of the agency it was necessary to develop partnerships and collaborations in the community to provide effective services. At one level this was in the agency's best interest, but more importantly it was in the best interest of the families and youth being served. As a result many collaborations and partnerships were developed with schools, law enforcement, the faith community, civic groups and non-profit organizations. The participation and input from youth and families was a critical element throughout these endeavors. This recognition of the value of collaborative approaches contributed significantly to the success of our work and to the sustainability of the majority of the programs even to this day.

While I was working in the YSB, I learned that a close and dear family member was a victim/survivor of domestic violence. Her limited communication with me I attributed to her being out-of-state, our busy lives, and her settling into married life. Little did I understand that the lack of communication is a common dynamic of domestic violence and is often an indicator of isolation of a victim by their offender. Nor did I fully appreciate the control one can exert over a person, especially when working in the same business. Both her and her husband were in the sales industry—in separate divisions. He was involved in direct sales, she in the "behind the scene" financing. He was outgoing, a smooth talker, and a friend to everyone who walked in the door. Thus when the abuse eventually came to light, the denial that he could be an offender surfaced. The focus often shifted to what my relative may be doing to "provoke" him or to minimizing the abuse while attributing it to his drinking. The outside world hardly ever saw the violence that was part of her private world. I was confused as to how this could happen to her. I felt a sense of outrage and helplessness in not being able to help. I also felt a sense of guilt for my partial lack of understanding of such violence—even though I was a trained clinician.

As I continued my work in the Youth Service Bureau I became more involved on a state and regional level with various task forces, committees and commissions. My awareness grew that there was often a disconnect from what is "known" from the academic world and what is implemented or developed in the "real world" whether it was program related, administrative or policy oriented. It was during this time that I learned of a new focus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in "applied research and extension outreach" in what was then known as the Department of Child and Family Studies. I returned to Wisconsin for my Ph.D. and gained invaluable education, training and experiences that better informed and prepared me in bridging the gap between research and practice. From there I pursued a Post-Doctoral position at the University of Michigan in program development and evaluation. I worked closely with one of the state's largest residential treatment centers for adjudicated youth and juvenile sex offenders in their program evaluation department. From this experience I gained experience and training on how evaluation can inform practice and practice inform evaluation. It also taught me about the power that victimization has on behavior and life trajectories.

A few years later, after stepping into my current academic position, I had the opportunity to join a project pursuing a grant from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to address gender based violence on college campuses. We were fortunate to receive one of the first such grants (back in 2000), and subsequently received a second follow-up grant. The success of our work on these grants led to subsequently receiving a "DOJ Flagship" grant where we worked with all of the Regent Universities to address gender violence on the campuses through prevention programming, policy review and revision, and developing appropriate and timely victim services. We were one of four universities to receive this grant. This 3-year grant was subsequently renewed and eventually led to the establishment of the Center for Violence Prevention (CVP). Today, a major thrust of the CVP's work is in secondary school systems around the Midwest to develop gender violence prevention programming utilizing a bystander model as one component of a multi-level, multi-systemic, approach to violence prevention. Doing so not only helps to make secondary schools and communities safer, but ultimately helps to make colleges and universities safer as students step on to campuses better informed and prepared to address gender violence.

As an academic, and as a Family Life Educator in the community, much of my work over the last 15 years has been to increase awareness and understanding about the prevention of domestic and sexual violence through education, and building and working with partners to ensure that the needs of victims/survivors are addressed. Core principles of family life education; prevention, education and collaboration, have been formative in my work as I strive to educate students and the public on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence through my courses, or through community education initiatives and programs. As I learned as a beginning practitioner, the ability to collaborate and partner is key in moving forward toward systemic and sustainable change.

One of the benefits of being an academic at a university that values community engagement is the flexibility of being able to be involved with the community. This has manifested itself in several ways. I have been able to create several courses over the years that focus on gender violence. I have been able to integrate what I learn from practitioners in the field into my courses. For example, in my course Violence in Intimate Relationships I have worked closely with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and their member agencies, to ensure that the course meets their core educational components to become a certified level one sexual or domestic violence advocate. In doing so, students not only learn from the latest empirical studies, but also gain foundational knowledge and skills necessary to become violence prevention specialists and/or victim service advocates. This relieves the burden that many agencies have in providing the required 30 hour training for individuals who want to become advocates or volunteer with their agency. It also has the benefit of preparing all the students to better understand gender violence and to prepare them to be proactive to help prevent and/or be responsive when such violence occurs in their social or professional world; regardless of the field and career they are pursuing.

Being in a National Council on Family Relations CFLE-approved program provides many avenues to integrate gender violence information and training into other core CFLE classes. The integration of such content systematically through a curriculum builds a critical knowledge base for students to more fully understand the complexity of such violence, how to effectively prevent such violence, and how to be sensitive to needs of the victims. Integration of such content into courses on Human Sexuality; Lifespan Development, Management of Family Resources, and Family Policy and Law are among many that such information can be easily be integrated and built upon. For example, I have integrated units on gender based violence in the Family Policy class—helping students understand how policies and laws influence how such violence is defined, and how policy decisions influence prevention programming, availability of victim services and levels of accountability. In my Family Life Education course, understanding the dynamics of gender violence, the concerns and issues that may arise in programmatically addressing such violence is important, even if it is a prevention oriented program. This content facilitates developing, implementing and evaluating family life education programs which are sensitive to the issues of gender violence.

Another benefit of being in an academic position is the flexibility to become involved in special projects. One such project has focused on working with a film called Private Violence. This film highlights the work of Kit Gruelle and her advocacy work with victims of domestic violence. Featured in the film is the case of Deanne who is kidnapped and brutally beaten by her husband Robbie as she is transported across the country. As a long distance trucker, he was able to keep her and their daughter hidden from the public's eyes. We learn in the film they are eventually stopped by State Highway Police. Unable to confirm where the abuse occurred, the officer releases the husband. Through the advocacy work of Kit and Deanne's community advocate, the case is eventually picked up by a federal prosecutor who proceeds to prosecute Deanne's husband for violation of federal laws pertaining to violence against women. The film shows the strength and resilience of Deanne and survivors like her, as well as the special compassion and understanding among those who support survivors in their journey. The film has received national recognition and has been shown in film festivals around the country including the Sundance Film festival. It was picked up by HBO and premiered in October 2014 on HBO. The film was nominated for an Emmy in late spring of 2015.

A shorter training film on domestic violence was created earlier to raise awareness and to support the development of the feature film. The producer hoped to use these films as tools for increasing the public's awareness concerning violence and to inspire educational and prevention efforts. As an educator I have had the opportunity to create the educational curriculum to accompany both films. The goal of the curriculum is to create a tool to help integrate the film into a variety of settings, and for a variety of audiences. In the curriculum we attempt to incorporate a multi-systemic prevention approach to increase understanding of domestic violence and to inform and empower others to become voices of change to prevent domestic violence.

The core principles of FLE continue to serve as a basis for this curriculum and other educational efforts accompanying the film. The development of materials to accompany the film to be integrated into the marketing/promotional and educational channels of a major film distributor has been educational for me, and has really emphasized the importance of collaboration. It has been an interesting experience to work with the producers, directors, and the corporate marketing/education departments as we utilize the educational materials/curriculum we created to integrate into the various educational/communication outlets available to large media distributors like HBO.

As an academic, and a Certified Family Life Educator I strive to bridge the academic and practice worlds. Keeping my feet grounded in the practice through my community education, I also serve on various boards for non-profit agencies and serve on state and regional task forces and commissions on domestic and sexual violence. Listening to, learning from, sharing with, and collaborating with those who are in the "trenches" better informs my work as a family educator, and as a professor preparing those who are going forth to work with families.

Wm. Michael Fleming, Ph.D. CFLE, is an Associate Professor of Family Studies in the School of Applied Human Sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. He also serves as the Director of Assessment and Evaluation at the Center for Violence Prevention. He serves on the Iowa Department of Public Health's Domestic/Sexual Violence Advisory Board, and serves on the Board of Directors for Riverview Center, a multi-state non-profit organization serving individuals affected by sexual and domestic violence. As a Certified Family Life Educator since 1998, he provides community education and program consultation on gender violence and high conflict/divorcing families.

Copyright © 2015 National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). Contact NCFR for permission to reprint, reproduce, disseminate, or distribute by any means.