To put abuse behind them, many women may need financial guidance

How to get women and children out of unsafe family situations is an often-asked question in the mental health field. To Krista Chronister of the University of Oregon, one good answer is: put more focus on bridging the gap between mental health and economic/career counseling interventions.

That idea started when Chronister, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services, moved from her home state of Florida to Eugene to begin her doctoral studies at the University of Oregon in 1996. As a volunteer at Eugene's Womenspace, an organization that provides services for survivors of intimate partner violence, Chronister noticed a disturbing trend: some women would repeatedly visit the center, unable to escape their abuser long-term.

"There was a revolving door of women and their children," Chronister said.

She began to think seriously about what kept these women and their children returning to Womenspace, and realized that their financial situation often had something to do with it.

Career counseling isn't the first thing on researchers' minds when they think of how to help survivors of intimate partner violence. Most social service agencies are focused on mental health and trauma counseling. However, Chronister said, more can be done to help women become more independent — starting with financial independence.

Through her initial research, Chronister found that little attention is focused on a woman's long-term career goals. In a paper she co-authored in a recent issue of the Journal of Career Development, she and her colleagues posit that such goals are inseparable from the personal lives of abused women. A woman's career, the paper says, is an integral part of a woman's identity, self-efficacy and personal independence. In most social service agencies, career counseling is not offered, or, the authors note, it is often too costly or too inconvenient for women who may not have stable home lives or incomes.

Her early research helped lead the way for a now-13-year-old partnership between the University of Oregon and Womenspace, where Chronister and her collaborators have been offering free career-counseling for women survivors in Lane County.

Womenspace provides the infrastructure — a physical space to do that counseling and the materials needed — while Chronister acts as trainer and supervisor to counseling and clinical psychology doctoral students who work with the women. They have provided group and individual counseling to more than 100 women from around Lane County, ranging in age from 18 to 70, of all nationalities, socioeconomic classes, educational backgrounds and family histories.

The counseling is tailored to help women identify and understand the ways in which intimate partner violence has affected their career and economic development as well as discover their interests and goals. Some women may not have any idea what interests they may have. Others might have an idea and just need some direction or focus and need help with long term planning.

"Our model is very focused on how women's experiences of violence, trauma and oppression have affected their ability to gain opportunities in work and career," said Chronister, who joined the UO faculty in 2003 after earning her master's and doctoral degrees in counseling psychology.

Unfortunately, no study is without difficulties, she said. Women and families who are survivors of violence are hard to track in the long term because they may have to move frequently, even across state lines. While she has seen success in short-term goals, such as progressing toward career goals and improving self-efficacy and self-confidence, Chronister says her wish is to get more funding for tracking long-term progress.

The curriculum she and other researchers have built at Womenspace has been sold and implemented in 11 states, including in Florida, where Chronister was invited to speak about the model. The curriculum also has been translated into Spanish for use in the United States and Latin American countries.

"Ultimately, I'd like a grant that would allow me to collect data at those sites, too," Chronister said.

Between her research and work at Womenspace, Chronister also has research projects through the UO's Child and Family Center. The center is a research facility that offers services such as family counseling and interventions, collaborates on research projects with other institutes, and provides data for other researchers around Oregon.

Chronister's research at the center focuses on adolescents and their risk for partner or substance abuse. Another project she's involved in is a study on parenting of young adults in a time when more young adults are remaining at home for longer than ever before. Both grants have just started and are being funded by the National Institutes of Health.