A Ground-Breaking Partnership
by Gail Rice, Noël Busch-Armendariz and Marilyn Armour
Gail: In my work as Community Advocacy Director for SafePlace I share responsibility for the agency’s strategic initiative to explore innovative ways to combat and respond to domestic violence. When I came across a UT School of Social Work master’s report by Andria Salucka Sindt on domestic violence programs that are integrating practices adapted from the restorative justice movement, I felt that these practices spoke directly to issues emerging at SafePlace—in particular, to the debate about how we could, or whether we should, develop approaches to work with abusive men and possibly with couples who wanted to reunite after being in an abusive relationship. In my Community Sabbatical Research Leave application, I proposed to study the applicability of restorative justice principles to efforts to counter domestic violence in Austin and Travis County, and to develop a practical plan of action for SafePlace and other community agencies to improve or expand their services by incorporating these principles. With the assistance of Professors Noël Busch-Armendariz and Marilyn Armour, the faculty consultants whom the Humanities Institute recruited to work with me, these goals have in large part been met.
Noël and Marilyn: Gail’s project provided an unusual opportunity to bring practitioners and academics into creative partnership to develop, test, and examine the intersection of restorative justice and domestic violence. The Community Sabbatical program gave us a structure within which to work together and a vital mechanism to connect the academy to the community and the community to the academy. The program also gave two faculty members with different areas of expertise (domestic violence and restorative justice) the opportunity to work together and learn from each other. We view Gail’s project as the expanding first point of a sustained collaboration. It has provided an avenue for us, as social work researchers, to conduct community-based research guided by the community. And it has had a significant ripple effect because many other community members, beyond the original identified agency, are now involved in and benefiting from this project.
Gail: The turning point in my sabbatical research came when Dr. Armour introduced me to Dr. Rhea Almeida, a scholar-practitioner at the Institute for Family Services in Somerset, New Jersey, who has developed a Cultural Context Model (CCM) for working with families experiencing domestic violence. This approach, which its creator also characterizes as a social justice model, is aligned with core values and principles of the restorative justice movement. I visited Dr. Almeida’s program and came away inspired by how thoroughly it walked its talk on domestic violence, and how skillfully it integrated into family therapy practice core principles of empowerment and accountability while building community organically. In January of this year, the UT Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault partnered with SafePlace and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office to bring Dr Almeida to Austin for a two-day training with a cross-section of organizations working to counter domestic violence. The training, which included numerous video clips of work being done in the CCM’s culture circles, caught the imagination of the trainees. All twenty-one persons who completed evaluations said the training expanded their thinking on work with families experiencing domestic violence.
My Community Sabbatical Research Leave has resulted in a commitment by my organization to pursue a three-year pilot project, in collaboration with UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to incorporate the CCM model into our training and practice. We anticipate partnering with other community agencies in this project as well. Professionally, I am excited by this opportunity to place greater emphasis on the impacts of social inequities confronting persons dealing with domestic violence and to move from the margins to the center of our practice the reparation of damage done by crime or violence through a renewed focus on restoring right relationships and building community for lasting social change. Personally, my Community Sabbatical helped me discover fresh motivation after 25 years of working in this field; it absolutely re-energized me.