Sweden and SMU psychologists partner to launch parenting program that reduces child abuse

July 10, 2013

The government of Sweden is partnering with psychologists at SMU to launch a parenting program shown to reduce child abuse.

A two-year study funded by the Swedish government will look at the feasibility of implementing the program nationwide in that country.

The program, "Project Support," was created by SMU psychologists Renee McDonald and Ernest Jouriles. Research has shown it reduces child abuse and neglect in severely violent families.

McDonald and Jouriles are partnering with Kjerstin Almqvist, a psychologist at Karlstad University in Sweden who specializes in the treatment of children suffering domestic violence, under a $730,000 grant from Sweden's National Board of Health and Welfare. The grant was awarded to Swedish researchers investigating best practices for children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse.

McDonald and Jouriles were in Sweden recently to train social services agency staff on how to implement Project Support.

The parenting program will be rolled out initially to 100 families in the four Swedish cities of Stockholm, Trollhättan, Ronneby and Örebro. Social workers from the nation's social service agencies in those cities will take Project Support into homes in which children have been exposed to severe family violence.

At the end of the two-year study, Swedish officials will determine if Project Support is to be endorsed for routine use in Swedish social service agencies for families in which the children have been exposed to family violence.

"This project is a great example of how science can be brought to bear to help alleviate real human suffering," McDonald said. "Our Swedish colleagues are committed to ensuring that their country's social services are demonstrably effective in reducing child maltreatment and improving the mental health of children in violent families."

Project Support provides families with parenting help, emotional support

Project Support is an intensive, one-on-one program in which mental health service providers meet with families weekly in their homes for up to 6 months. During that time, parents are taught specific skills, including how to pay attention and play with their children, how to listen and comfort them, how to offer praise and positive attention, how to give appropriate instructions, and how to respond to misbehavior. Service providers also provide mothers with emotional support and help them access needed materials and resources through community agencies, such as food banks and Medicaid.

"Although the Swedish government makes sure every citizen can provide for their physical needs, many women who are victims of domestic violence need additional supports to help them leave a violent relationship and begin to live with their children on their own," Almqvist said. "Swedish programs that provide support for mothers are successful helping them become independent and autonomous. However, such programs are not sufficient to help the children in the families overcome the adverse effects of the violence. Project Support has shown substantial positive effects for mothers as well as children in the U.S., and we hope it will be equally successful in Sweden."

McDonald is an associate professor in the SMU Department of Psychology and is Associate Dean for Research in SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. Jouriles is a professor and chairman of the SMU Psychology Department.

Almqvist is Professor in Medical Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Karlstad University.

Project Support decreased reports of abuse, improved family functioning

McDonald and Jouriles launched Project Support in the United States in 1996 to address the mental health problems of maltreated children and children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse. Those factors in childhood often lead to considerable problems for children later in life, such as substance abuse, interpersonal violence and criminal activity, say the SMU psychologists.

Project Support is listed on federal and state databases as an intervention for children in violent families that is supported by research evidence.

Peer-reviewed research in Texas found previously that the program reduced abusive parenting among mothers who live in poverty and whose families have a history of domestic violence or child abuse. Mothers reduced their use of harsh discipline and physical aggression toward their children and were much less likely to be referred to Texas Child Protective Services for child abuse. Project Support also improved children's psychological adjustment, especially conduct problems, the researchers found.

That study was funded jointly by the federal Interagency Consortium on Violence Against Women and Violence Within the Family and the Texas-based Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The research was published in the quarterly Journal of Family Psychology, "Improving Parenting in Families Referred for Child Maltreatment: A Randomized Controlled Trial Examining Effects of Project Support." The study is at http://1.usa.gov/12hFzxr.

Most recently, use of Project Support was expanded in Dallas to serve some families who were previously homeless. The oldest child abuse and prevention agency in Dallas, Family Compass, is supplying Project Support services to families served by the Housing Crisis Center, whose mission is to combat homelessness. Read more about that at http://bit.ly/Wve3Po.

"Professor Almqvist approached us over a year ago about adapting Project Support for use in Sweden and conducting an evaluation of it in Sweden," said McDonald. "We recently conducted an intensive training class for the staff members of the agencies who will be providing Project Support services. The next phase begins in September, when families begin to receive the services."

Every year U.S. child welfare agencies receive more than 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect involving nearly 6 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Approximately 13 percent of children in the U.S. are exposed to severe acts of inter-parent violence.

In Sweden, approximately 5 percent of that nation's children are exposed to severe acts of inter-parent violence, according to Swedish statistics.
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