Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Macy aims to end domestic violence with community-based research


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. One in four women will experience this kind of violence, which can cause significant difficulty with physical and emotional health long after the threat of violence is gone.

From her position at the School of Social Work, Rebecca Macy is working to end that violence and heal the survivors as quickly as possible. She looks for the innovative practices of social workers in the field to quantify the outcomes with real data that can lead to best practices nationwide.

“Research informs practice, and practice informs research,” said Macy, associate dean and L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families. “This is especially important in social work because not all the innovative ideas are going to come out of a university.”

It’s her hope that pooling the resources of social work services in North Carolina with those of a major research university will bring quicker resolution to the devastating and complicated issues of gender-based violence.

“Social workers are doing a lot of innovative things to solve these problems. They see a problem, and they tackle it,” said Macy. “What we do is put a rigorous research study behind those programs in order to develop best practices that those delivering services can use to stop this problem and help survivors.”

Positive practices and real results

MOVE, Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment, started in 2007 to help women who had been mandated by the court system or Child Protective Services to attend an interpersonal violence intervention program. It’s the project of two nonprofit groups in North Carolina: InterAct of Wake County, which provides interpersonal violence services, and SAFEchild Raleigh, which offers child abuse prevention services.

Macy and her research team worked with MOVE to shape a study and collect data at different phases of the women’s participation.

“It became clear that participants’ lives were changing. They were leaving violent partners, strengthening parenting practices and seeing hope in one another’s successes,” said Macy.

The research, funded in part by the Duke Endowment, helped them pinpoint what worked: it was MOVE’s methods of empowerment education and self-esteem-building practices that nurtured women and gave them what they needed to turn a corner.

“MOVE is incredibly positive and affirming while also making it clear that the effects of domestic violence on these women and their kids are very serious and will not go away easily. But, they are also met with positive information that will build their strengths, capacities and resources,” she said.

Up to three months after participants completed the program, there was a 96.5 percent reduction in the likelihood that they would experience a repeat of physical abuse, Macy said. There was also a nearly 84 percent decrease in the likelihood that the women would experience any form of psychological abuse. The early findings were published in the journal Research and Social Work Practice last year.

“Because domestic violence is so insidious and perpetrators can do a lot of damage to a person’s self-esteem, these were women without a lot of confidence or faith in themselves. MOVE changed that,” said Macy. “The struggle was still there – they had to figure out how to pay rents and mortgages on one income, how to help their kids – but they were finding better lives and moving forward.”

Reversing the trend

Macy comes from a family of social workers and parents who modeled social work as a fitting career. With a natural inclination to help others, Macy went to Hanover College in her home state of Indiana and got her master’s degree in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Following graduation, Macy worked in community mental health. When visiting female patients to help them work through their problems with depression and anxiety, she often learned deeper issues were at play.

“I’d walk in with my handouts on depression and anxiety and inevitably we’d end up talking about the violence and trauma they had been experiencing,” she said. “Probably if the violence had never happened, the person would not be experiencing depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Reversing those trends became Macy’s passion. She left Indiana for the University of Washington in Seattle to get her Ph.D. and focus on finding solutions to gender-based violence such as domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking. Since leaving the field for academia, she’s made partnering with community organizations that deliver services to those populations a research priority.

When she came to Carolina 12 years ago, Macy’s first project took her across the state to investigate domestic violence and sexual assault services and talk with directors of those programs in towns big and small.

“That made me think about how these directors were running these small nonprofits, trying to keep the lights on at a shelter or a rape crisis center open,” she said. “What were the challenges they were facing? What had worked well and how could we learn from it?”

What she found was a lot of reinventing the wheel.

“We don’t always talk to one another and say, ‘Here’s this novel, innovative program that we’ve been doing.’ The grant funding ends, the program goes away, and the lessons are lost,” she said.

Backing up great programs with rigorous research leads to peer-reviewed papers, standardized program models and materials, as well as tried-and-tested ways to modify programs to different communities, Macy said: “It’s important to do this, and to do it right. We can absolutely be a leader on this.”

Sharing MOVE’s success

MOVE’s methods are innovative, but so is the way Macy and two service-delivery groups put their heads – and resources – together for the greater good. Without a lot of money for social services or much funding for social work research, partnering with the community amplifies the good work of everyone involved.

“It’s not just the School of Social Work faculty and student researchers, it’s our combined brainpower with that of SAFEchild and InterAct that makes such an impact. It takes all our experiences and expertise to refine our research practices and refine our protocol,” Macy said.

She doesn’t want to overlook another important contributor to the project: the women who have offered their stories, and their lives, to a project that could be used to help others overcome the struggles of interpersonal violence.

“If you are going to require something, you need to make sure it makes lives better and not worse,” said Macy. “It was inspiring to hear that these women wanted to tell these very difficult and painful stories in the hopes that they could make a difference in the lives of others.”

A multi-site trial in other communities is needed, as is a rigorous research evaluation to figure out how to make MOVE work in any community. With those next steps, Macy said the MOVE project could be on its way to be an evidence-based practice.

“We knew MOVE worked, we’d seen it. Now we have the numbers to back it up,” she said.