Stopping Violence at the Root

Violence in the United States makes headlines each day and the debate over how to prevent that violence rages on. According to Paul Schewe, director of the UIC Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence (ICRV), the factors that promote violence are found in both family systems and societal conditions.

UIC faculty members who work with the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence

Members of the ICRV faculty. Front row, left to right: Rebecca Gordon, Christine Helfrich, Sarah Ullman. Second row, left to right: Dennis Rosenbaum, Paul Schewe, Larry Bennett, Carl Bell. Back row, left to right: Patricia O’Brien, Amie Schuck, Beth Richie, Paul Goldstein. Photo courtesy of Paul Schewe

“There are community factors that promote violence including underperforming schools, unemployment, high density, low income and housing instability, and inadequate healthcare and childcare resources,” said Schewe, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice, Director of Graduate Studies in CLJ, and a faculty affiliate of the UIC Center for Research in Law and Justice. “Some of the violence in under-resourced communities may begin with domestic violence that then perpetuates the violence and poverty cycle. Much of it cuts across social boundaries and economic class.

“The work is about trying to interrupt the cycle of violence, which is why we are working with kids at younger and younger ages. Exposure to violence and trauma at a young age alters brain development. The stress causes high levels of cortisol, which can become toxic, especially to the developing brain. The toxicity results in developmental delays and social-emotional problems, hindering learning capacity, relationship skills and long-term health,” he explained.

If we can help these kids and their families early on…they will have healthy relationships and then pass on healthy relationship skills to their own kids.

“So the question is: where and when do we intervene? We have to intervene everywhere at once if we hope to make a difference,” said Schewe. “Kids are very resilient and given a stable, nurturing environment the negative impact of trauma and family dysfunction can be reversed.” 

Schewe came to UIC in 1995 as a post-doctoral fellow under the direction of Roger Weissberg in the Department of Psychology. Their work focused on getting health clinics into elementary schools and developing Social and Emotional Learning strategies for schools.

“My research began with college-age males, working to prevent sexual assault. I then started working with high school and junior high students to address sexual assault and teen dating violence prevention. Then I moved to elementary school students to address bullying,” said Schewe. “Now my work primarily involves collaborating with agencies that work with young children—zero-to-five-years-old—who are exposed to community and domestic violence.

“If we can help these kids and their families early on, they won’t be the bullies in elementary school and won’t be in abusive relationships as teens and adults. They will have healthy relationships and then pass on healthy relationship skills to their own kids.”

Violence prevention work has become so critical to the mission of the university and the health of society that in 2006, UIC provided $200,000 in seed funding for the Center. In 2010, the Board of Trustees approved an interdisciplinary graduate concentration in violence studies for students pursuing advanced degrees in nearly a dozen disciplines, including the LAS Departments of Psychology, Political Science, Hispanic and Italian Studies, Sociology, and Criminology, Law and Justice. Since its founding, the ICRV has leveraged the initial $200,000 in seed funding into approximately $9 million in external funding to further their work in the prevention of interpersonal violence.

The ICRV’s focus falls into several interrelated categories: child abuse, bullying, harassment and teen dating violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, gang violence, and children’s exposure to violence. Researchers are proactive in bringing together academics and activists to collaborate on solutions and increase access to services.

The center conducts interdisciplinary investigations that seek to impact public policy, the criminal justice system and public health systems. They work with front-line service providers including social-service agencies and grass-roots advocacy organizations. Schewe and his team collaborate with dozens of external partners ranging from the Department of Defense, the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Department of Public Health to individual agencies such as Rape Victim Advocates and Family Rescue. Projects include everything from conducting research for government agencies to working with not-for-profits to build infrastructure and professionalize client services.

Students and staff of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence

ICVR staff and students. Front row, left to right: Anna Taylor, Brittany Kappel, Fransley Robles, Lauren Dickens, Mario Hernandez, Kaleigh Clifford. Back row, left to right: David Tamayo, Shannan Chehade, Julia Wesley, Heather Risser, Paul Schewe. Photo by Micki Leventhal

Student researchers, both graduate and undergraduate, are critical to the Center’s work. There are currently 10 student researchers, a graduate student, a post-doc and a research specialist working under the direction of Assistant Director Heather Risser, investigating risk and protective factors related to children’s exposure to violence.

Undergraduate researchers work as junior colleagues at all levels, with lab activities designed to enrich students’ understanding of classroom curriculum and community-based activities that provide opportunities for students to apply research to practice.

“As students gain proficiency, they assume greater responsibility,” said Risser. “Advanced students work directly with our community partners and agencies, performing analyses vital to the program-evaluation reports that the sites use to improve their service delivery. The students make substantial contributions to the programs that serve families exposed to violence and their work helps them integrate a multitude of concepts learned over the course of their academic careers.”

“Working at ICRV has provided me with research expertise and helped me prepare for graduate school,” said Fransley Robles, who is majoring in psychology and gender and women’s studies. “The center’s work is really important because we are dealing with the lives of real people. The research is very complex and sensitive and reveals important information about people from different backgrounds, areas and cultures who are all experiencing different levels and types of violence. I have a personal connection because I grew up in a very unstable family where I experienced violence. It is important for me to be involved in anti-violence work as a way of helping other survivors.”

Robles, who is the recipient of the UIC Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship, the Hilda Arce Lopez Scholarship and several scholarships from Army ROTC, is planning on a career in academia. Her research interests focus on sexuality studies, queer theory, LGBTQ history and intergroup dialogue.

“Through all of my experiences, the most defining ones were those that centered on children’s reactions to their violent pasts,” said CLJ graduate student Anna Taylor, whose family began fostering children when she was seven years old. “All of my siblings are adopted. Understanding the long-term effects of the children’s experiences and how these effects will shape the rest of their lives was definitely the beginning of my interest in anti-violence work.”

Taylor, who helps direct the undergraduate researchers and plans to do advocacy work with survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, said that the rewards of working with the ICRV “are nearly endless” and that the experience “will definitely shape my future, allowing me to have a deeper understanding of research.”

Psychology major Lauren Dickens finds both the subject matter under study at the ICRV and the “amazing team” exceptionally rewarding. Dickens’ research work with the Center will also serve as the basis of her capstone project for the Honors College. Dickens serves as a volunteer and the co-president of the Honors College organization Project ESTEEM. Members give their time at a Department of Children and Family Services shelter where they work with children on science projects.

Before attending graduate school, Dickens plans a gap year during which she will gain more real-life experiences through non-profit work, volunteering, continued internships or service work. “I am passionate about anything that can help prevent violence or facilitate the healing process. Human suffering is something that, I believe, innately strikes the core and tugs the heart strings in any human.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by that a violence-related incident doesn’t make the headlines,” said Julia Wesley, PhD, ICRV’s post-doctoral research associate and an alumna of the UIC Jane Addams College of Social Work. “As a native south-sider, violence is not just a headline story; the people in these stories are my neighbors, my friends or their relatives.”

Wesley summed up the attitude and commitment of all those who participate in the work of ICRV: “Anti-violence work, for me, is not just a ‘research agenda.’ Violence-prevention work in solidarity with those who are directly impacted is my life’s work.”

To support the work of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, please direct your gift to fund number 337874.