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Tackling domestic violence in Asian-American communities

UGA School of Social Work

One of every four women and one of every seven men in the United States will be victims of physical violence by their partners at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. This violence spans every culture and social class. A professor at the University of Georgia School of Social Work has found an innovative way to address the particular challenges faced by the Asian immigrant community coping with domestic violence.

Long before she was a professor or an associate dean, Joon Choi was a counselor in New York City. She helped women escape domestic violence by connecting them with community resources, but one group of women seemed to reach out only when their lives were in immediate danger - Asian immigrant women.

"Coming to the domestic violence program that I was that I was working for was their last resort and I was very curious about that,” Choi says. “Why would why would we be the last resort? And I learned very quickly because of the language difficulty. They couldn't access existing services and also, they were not aware of domestic violence laws making it a criminal offense in the US.

Joan Prittie, executive director of Athens’ Project Safe, says the problems are not just legal. There are other hurdles as well.

"You have other barriers which are very much generated by the abusers,” Prittie says. “A big one is misinformation. The abusive partner, whether they are an immigrant or not, may well tell the victim false things about what will happen if that person reaches out for help.”

Choi found that Korean immigrant women were turning first to their ministers, but usually, the pastors didn't know how to handle domestic violence in families. Choi found that pastors often gave advice aimed at preserving the family, not at protecting women. "There are stories saying, ‘I cannot believe that your husband would do that to you. He seems like such a nice guy,’”

Choi says. "And that really made them feel like they don't have any other option but to stay with the husband and just pray for his change which never came. So, by the time they came to us, they felt like their life was in danger.”

Choi tried to reach out to those ministers and educate them about domestic violence. By then she'd moved to Michigan. She set up a meeting.

“One minister said, ‘you know, I think it's a serious problem, but we are not talking about it. We are not really doing anything about it,’’ Choi remembers. "But then the second minister[said] ‘I'm so sorry to hear that domestic violence is a really big problem in your congregation, because that's not my experience.’ These ministers were feeling that they are the representative of their ministry, and if they admit that they have a lot of domestic violence, [that’s a] Bad reflection on them as a leader and also a bad reflection of the church.”

This was 20 years ago, and the experience drove Choi to become a researcher focused on effective ways to help immigrants dealing with domestic violence. Working with colleagues at the UGA School of Public Health and Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Choi designed something called virtual case simulation, where the ministers can train privately through a series of online learning modules.

"In the module, there's an avatar of the minister and avatars of their congregation members,” Choi says. “There are different cases, and in every conversation with the avatar, [the minister has] to make a decision.”

Early results suggest the virtual simulation is giving pastors a better understanding of domestic violence, and that they are better applying that knowledge with their congregants.

"They need to understand why one answer is a better answer than another,” Choi says. "The goal is to promote the safety of victims and their children. That has to be always the number one issue.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, you can reach out to Project Safe via phone at 706-543-3331 or via text at 706-765-8019.

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