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Opening the door

Social work professor Jeffrey Edleson breaks the silence in the quest to end domestic violence

Domestic violence lurks behind doors everywhere, in neighborhoods wealthy and poor, in suburban subdivisions, small towns, and rural routes as well as inner-city rentals.

Jeffrey Edleson has been opening those doors for decades. A professor and director of research in the School of Social Work, his career reflects the progress of domestic violence research and practice over 30 years.

While an undergraduate at Berkeley in the early 1970s, a friend prompted him to take a class from a professor interested in cognitive behavioral approaches.

“It was controversial at the time,” Edleson says with a smile. “But cognitive and behavioral approaches made total sense to me.”

Edleson majored in social work, became the pioneering professor’s undergraduate research assistant, and worked at several sites in the Bay Area. From there, he went to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, then to Israel for a year of postdoctoral research.

The path led in 1981 to Minnesota because the state was a leader in social services to aid domestic violence victims and to help perpetrators change. But domestic violence was a very small area of work at the time. Edleson interviewed for a faculty position in the School of Social Work.

“I extended my job interview to two days and met with all the agencies in town,” Edleson remembers. “I decided that when I came here, I was going to work with one of those agencies to help evaluate their programs and develop their services.

That’s exactly what he did, teaming up with the Domestic Abuse Project (DAP), a United Way-funded agency, to conduct collaborative research and translate it into continually improving practices.

In a single generation, the field of domestic violence has expanded beyond specialized agencies and service organizations to broader efforts in health care, education, and the justice system. Minnesota has been at the forefront of the movement, and so has Edleson.

In the School of Social Work, Edleson teaches and advises students, oversees research, writes, edits two series of books on domestic violence and prevention for Sage Publications and Oxford University Press, gives expert testimony, speaks to local and national groups, and collaborates with colleagues around the world. In 2010 he was named by the U.S. Attorney General to the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women and in 2011 agreed to chair its subcommittee on evidence-based practice.

In the past three years, Edleson has focused on children, whose exposure to domestic violence may constitute grave danger even if they are not physically abused.

Honor Our Voices, an online learning tool developed with Edleson’s leadership, tells three children’s stories of domestic violence through their diaries. It garnered headlines when it debuted in 2011. Now, a similar tool designed specifically for friends and family members of battered women and children—Edleson calls them “first responders”—is in development with foundation support.

Edleson’s optimism stems from the growing evidence that violent behavior is learned and can be unlearned, while new nonviolent responses can be learned. Research is showing what kinds of interventions are effective at reducing violence.

Read more about Honor Our Voices and Edleson’s research in the winter 2012 issue of Connect magazine.

Photo by Greg Helgeson | March 2012

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