Intimate Partner Violence: Its Relevance at Emory

Paula Gomes and Sheryl Heron

By Paula Gomes and Sheryl Heron

On average, more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.


In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner. In 2008 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data collected in 2005 showing that women experience two million injuries from intimate partner violence each year. Nearly one in four women in the United States reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life.

If we extrapolate these numbers to the Emory community, the facts speak for themselves. There are many at Emory who are affected by Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).

Seven years ago, we met at the When Domestic Violence Goes to Work conference annually sponsored by the Partnership against Domestic Violence. Unbeknownst to us, we were colleagues at Emory, both with an interest in educating others about IPV. Today, we cochair the Intimate Partner Violence Working Group (IPVWG) at Emory. The IPVWG got its start in 2007, in response to the increased number of men and women impacted by this societal issue.

This university-wide, interdisciplinary group consists of service providers and experts in the field of IPV in Emory’s various schools and divisions, as well as Emory Healthcare. The mission of the IPVWG is to increase awareness of IPV, which is defined as physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, financial, medical, and spiritual abuse and/or control of one partner toward another. The Emory IPVWG will identify strategies to increase awareness of and education about IPV for students, staff, and faculty as well as reach out to the larger community beyond Emory’s walls. Communication activities will highlight the resources for assisting individuals in abusive or neglectful partnerships, and the IPVWG will make recommendations that strengthen existing resources and lead to the development of new strategies and policies.

In 2007 the IPVWG met regularly because it was abundantly clear how much the issue was impacting community members. We could see it in the tragic deaths of employees and in the way that the services at Employee Health, Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP), Center for Pastoral Services, Office of Sexual Assault Prevention, Emory Police Department, Center for Women, Human Resources, the Student Health and Counseling Services, and the Office of Religious Life saw a spike in demand. The two deaths at Emory that year increased the urgency for the creation of a university-wide response to IPV. To highlight Domestic Violence Awareness month, we presented these facts to President Wagner and the Administrative Council at their October meeting. Following that meeting, we were charged with further examining this issue in the Emory community.

societal factorsIn January 2008 Rob Stephenson, associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health and a member of the IPVWG, recruited Rollins students to conduct a needs assessment of key stakeholders within the University to gain a broader understanding of IPV at Emory. The results of this study highlight the continued vigilance needed to address IPV. Furthermore, the results validated our recognition that a two-pronged approach of prevention and intervention is needed.

One year later, again timed with Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we presented a report to the Administrative Council. Tragically, in February 2009, four months after the report was presented, Sasha Smith, associate director of the Center for Women, faced the unthinkable: the murder of Sasha’s sister due to IPV. This has strengthened our resolve to ensure the visibility of this issue and implement IPV prevention and intervention efforts.

Sheryl recently was elected as vice chair of the statewide Georgia Commision on Family Violence (GCFV); she is also a board member of the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence. Along with Greg Loughlin, the fatality review coordinator of the GCFV, she recently presented to the chaplains at Wesley Woods on what the faith community can do to combat IPV. Results from the statewide fatality review highlighted that prior to their deaths, victims visited their religious leaders, the medical community, and their families to seek help for IPV. The discussion with the chaplains centered around a patient evaluated at Emory University Hospital who was a victim of IPV. Questions arose about the strategies that could have been employed by the staff in their efforts to respond to the patient’s needs. Once again, education and intervention were warranted.

Paula, in her work at the FSAP, also has seen firsthand the continued need for education and training in this area for all members of the Emory community. In the last two years, the FSAP has seen a significant increase in the number of IPV cases in the behavioral mental health services area. Societal factors—including the economic crisis, increased unemployment, growing foreclosure rates, academic pressures, and work stress—have contributed to relationship pressures, thereby resulting in more IPV cases and concerns. Currently, IPV cases represent about 5 percent of the cases presented at the FSAP.

Although other individuals may seek other resources within the Emory community, we know that many suffer in silence. These few examples among many that could be cited are testament to the work that must be continued. When we think about the secondary impact on other members of our community (e.g., supervisors, colleagues, roommates, faculty members, and students), the ripple effect is tremendous and has devastating consequences.

This year, the IPVWG had the opportunity to hear from Maggie Stephens, academic department administrator for sociology, who shared her experiences as a supervisor and friend of Cathy David, a long-term employee who was killed by her husband in 2007. This loss has continued to reverberate through the department on a deep and personal level. Her personal account of what occurred in the years leading up to Cathy’s death left us resolved to continue the fight for those who feel powerless to fight for themselves. Our hope is that we can increase awareness to ensure that we don’t lose another valued member of our community. Our faculty, staff, and students deserve this commitment.

Therefore, we will continue to educate others about this issue on an individual level; to inform managers, supervisors, and chairs on a leadership level; to provide strategies to friends and coworkers on a collegial level; and to keep this topic highly visible within the university and healthcare environments on an organizational level. Where life and death are at stake, this issue cannot be other than highly relevant to us all. Information is power, and we are our sister’s and brother’s keepers. With all of us working together, we can establish an institutional commitment to address this issue in a way that will make all of us at Emory safer.

Sheryl Heron is an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and assistant dean for medical education and student affairs at Emory University. She is the vice chair of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, a board member of the Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, associate director for education at Emory's Center for Injury Control, a member of the Center for Women Advisory Council, and co-chair of the Intimate Partner Violence Working Group at Emory.

Paula Gomes is a licensed psychologist and director of the Emory Faculty Staff Assistance Program. She serves as co-chair of the Emory Mental Health Task Force and co-chair of the Intimate Partner Violence Working Group at Emory.