Abstract: “It Shakes You for the Rest of Your Life”: An Exploratory Study of Low-Income Fathers' Understanding of Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Children (Society for Social Work and Research 21st Annual Conference - Ensure Healthy Development for all Youth)

459P “It Shakes You for the Rest of Your Life”: An Exploratory Study of Low-Income Fathers' Understanding of Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Children

Saturday, January 14, 2017
Bissonet (New Orleans Marriott)
* noted as presenting author
Kristie A. Thomas, PhD, Assistant Professor, Simmons College, Boston, MA
Fernando Mederos, EdD, Independent Consultant and Adjunct Faculty, Simmons College, Boston, MA
Geo Rodriguez, BA, MSW student, Simmons College, Boston, MA
Background and Purpose: Low-income fathers have tremendous potential as allies in domestic violence (DV) prevention efforts; yet, they largely have been overlooked due to misperceptions that they are not interested in or involved with their children’s lives. This is a missed opportunity given mounting evidence that these fathers – even when nonresidential – play a critical role in their children’s development and learning. In order to effectively engage low-income fathers in DV prevention, it is crucial to explore their thoughts about this important issue. The aims of this qualitative study were to explore low-income fathers’ understanding of what DV entails and its impact on children who are exposed to it.

Methods: We conducted four focus groups in English and one in Spanish with a racially and educationally diverse sample of low-income fathers (n = 38) who were enrolled in or recently had graduated from a Responsible Fatherhood Group (RFG). RFGs are evidence-informed interventions with specialized curricula intended to facilitate healthy parenting practices and housed within social service agencies. We used a semi-structured interview guide that was developed with input from men who have been facilitating RFGs for many years after their own graduation from an RFG. We used grounded theory techniques to analyze the data. The three authors, two of whom are bilingual, conducted the first round of open coding separately to build the initial list of codes. Subsequent rounds of focused coding resulted in the emergence of main categories and themes. Throughout data collection and analysis, we worked to address threats to trustworthiness, particularly the potential influence of our social location on participant reactivity and researcher bias.

Results: Participants descriptions of DV and its impact on children were relatively detailed and inclusive of multiple types of violence. They articulated three main categories of effects on children – immediate, long-term, and “it depends” – that manifest differently depending on the child’s gender. Moreover, we found that their understanding of DV was heavily informed by their own nearly ubiquitous childhood experiences of either witnessing physical violence against their mothers or being directly victimized by a caretaker. We did not ask specifically about their personal childhood exposure to DV; rather, these disclosures emerged spontaneously as participants responded to questions about the impact of DV. At times, participants’ cognitive descriptions of the impact of DV on children appeared to be overwhelmed by their own intense personal experiences, such that the abstract children they spoke about were indistinguishable from themselves. 

Conclusions and Implications: Low-income fathers in RFGs possess a relatively nuanced understanding of DV and its impact on children; one that aligns with current empirical and theoretical literature. They, however, developed this understanding primarily through personal experience. Findings have important implications for informing the development of prevention and intervention efforts that harness the power of low-income fathers. Findings also highlight the interpersonal trauma that many low-income fathers have endured and carry with them. It is essential that efforts to engage low-income fathers in DV prevention co-occur with efforts to address their own traumatic experiences.