Black women who face increased risk of death at the hands of intimate partners struggle to access counseling services, according to researchers at Penn State and the University of Connecticut. Their new research proposes a paradigm shift in intimate partner violence (IPV) counseling that considers how the use of trauma-informed and culturally relevant counseling can help counselors provide more informed services.
Their work is rooted in Black feminist thought, a field of knowledge that is focused on the perspectives and experiences of Black women.
“For counselors in training and early career counselors, Black feminist thought provides the tools and the framework to determine how to be most useful and most helpful as a clinician from the standpoint of the person you are working with,” said Javier F. Casado Pérez, assistant professor of education in the College of Education at Penn State. “How can you possibly be an expert in counseling Black women given the nuance in the experiences of Black women without reading Black feminist theorists?”
Latoya Haynes-Thoby, an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Connecticut, is lead author and Casado Pérez a co-author on a recently paper in Journal of Couple & Relationship Theory that fosters insights from the experiences of six Black women who have experienced intimate partner violence. Julia Bryan, professor of education (counselor education) in the College of Education at Penn State, is another co-author.
“When we think about Black feminist theory, it encourages space for us to be able to self-define and work from a place of seeing women affirming Black women’s voices as they reject the label of victims but as people who deserve the tools and resources necessary to live optimally,” said Haynes-Thoby, who received her master’s and doctoral degrees in counselor education and counselor education and supervision, respectively, from the College of Education at Penn State. “This work allowed us to witness what it means to survive after (IPV), what it meant to survive as some Black women in current relationships, and what it meant for them to survive navigating social services.”
In the article, the researchers “highlight important considerations that may support the building of collaborative counseling relationships that reflect strength-based, culturally relevant, and trauma-informed service for Black women with histories of intimate partner violence.”
For Haynes-Thoby, the paper is an extension of her doctoral dissertation as well as a nearly 20-year career serving individuals, families, and communities who have been impacted by trauma, including domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. In addition, the project was a chance for her to collaborate with her former classmate, Casado Pérez, who also received a doctorate in counselor education and supervision from the College of Education at Penn State, and with Bryan.
“Latoya and Javier were two of our most amazing and successful doctoral students and now are professors whose critical work is instrumental in advancing the anti-racism revolution in counselor education,” said Bryan. “We need a transformation and they are bringing it!”
In their paper, the researchers cite 2020 statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence that showed that 25% of women in the United States will experience IPV in their lifetimes, and this estimate is much higher for Black women.
A 2017 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than 41% of Black women report experiencing IPV in their lifetimes, a rate nearing twice the national average. In addition, Casado Pérez and Haynes-Thoby noted, Black women are much more likely to be killed by someone they know compared to their Black male counterparts, and also are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner in comparison to other groups of women, including other women of color.
The qualitative study conducted by Haynes-Thoby, Casado Pérez and Bryan is an extension of Haynes-Thoby’s larger quantitative-led mixed methods doctoral research that explored specific factors contributing to resilience among Black women who had experienced IPV.
Haynes-Thoby’s doctoral study welcomed participants to self-report features of their own functioning within the framing of resilience. For the published paper, the researchers invited the larger pool of participants to self-select participation in reflexivity interviews. Reflexivity is a practice employed in qualitative research that involves examining both oneself as researcher and the research relationship.
Some participants in the reflexivity interviews, Haynes-Thoby and Casado Pérez said, described not being able to access services due to systemic and sociocultural barriers. In their paper, they cite research that examines housing policies and practices that may inadvertently make it more difficult for women to secure stable housing after having left an abusive partner. Additionally, the researchers wrote, Black women face deep-rooted barriers related to their not being seen as victims in the ways that other women are viewed and their need to sometimes resort to self-defense.
“There is not much help available for women broadly and more specifically, Black women,” said Haynes-Thoby. “Self-defense is a way in which women have been able to steel themselves in order to survive.”
“Which was an important consideration in our earlier conversations because service providers may take fighting back to mean that you’re not a survivor but an aggressor; that you’re not someone who needed services,” Casado Pérez added. “We wanted to understand that barrier to access.”
Among the major challenges that Black women face in accessing IPV services, the researchers said, are cultural mismatches between service providers and clients, as well as a general misunderstanding on the part of counselors as to how Black women describe their experiences with IPV, especially related to language and definition.
“There is a growing body of literature that talks about implications of racial attitudes for clinicians and how they respond to prospective clients,” said Casado Pérez. “Anti-Black racial attitudes are going to be part of that barrier that’s created for many Black women when they’re coming in for care.”
One of the recurring themes in the study participants’ stories was a need of personalized criteria to construct an affirming self-identity “where societally they might be viewed through a lens of deficit or victimhood.” They reported that their self-concept and identity as Black women gave them strength and resilience to navigate the challenges in their lives.
Based on information gathered in the interviews and their accumulated knowledge, the researchers recommend “critical and intersectional counseling models” that are centered on Black feminist insights and “grounded by the participation of those Black women clients they seek to serve.”
“In terms of recommendations, as we think about counselor training, it will be so important that we’re really spending time exploring what it means to allow space and to celebrate clients’ strengths, their abilities, and their whole stories as they present them,” said Haynes-Thoby.
Casado Pérez added that that they hope that this study demonstrates the benefits of qualitative research in determining “how people make meaning of challenging, traumatic situations.” “The participants are telling us how to be helpful, not the other way around,” they said. “What is uplifting is that Black women who participated in this study spoke to how the system often fails them, not how they failed the system.”