August 6, 2019

Fighting to Protect African American Women From Partner Violence

Bernadine Waller, MA ’10, recently received a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to complete her doctoral dissertation in social work.

Forty-two million women in America have been victims of intimate partner violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an outsize proportion of these victims are African American.

Are these women getting the help they need in these often life-threatening situations?

It is a question that consumes Bernadine Waller, MA ’10, associate director of experiential learning at Adelphi’s Center for Career and Professional Development and a PhD candidate in the School of Social Work.

“The whole focus of my dissertation is to develop a theory that explains how African American women who are survivors of intimate partner violence look for help,” Waller said. “The interventions that we have currently are not interventions African American women would use.”

Waller is receiving significant support for her research. This past December, she learned that the National Institute of Mental Health is awarding her an R36 grant to complete her dissertation, “Understanding the psychosocial processes of help seeking among African American women survivors of intimate partner violence.” She is the first scholar at the School of Social Work to receive this competitive award.

It was not the latest honor for her. In June, she was initiated as a member of the Council on the Role and Status of Women in Social Work Education, a group within the Council on Social Work Education that is responsible for the development of educational resources relevant to women’s issues within social work education. She was also recently accepted as a fellow at the University of Michigan.

In addition to her work on the council and her research, Waller—whose master’s degree in mental health counseling is from the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology—is also an adjunct professor in the School of Social Work. As director of experiential learning in the career center, she oversees the Jaggar Community Fellows and Panthers With a Purpose programs, both of which place Adelphi students in paid internships in local nonprofits. She is now working on expanding Panthers With a Purpose.

Waller’s interest in intimate partner violence and African American women is not just academic. It was inspired by a tragic event—the murder of a friend’s sister by her ex-fiancé. Waller knew she had to take action.

“African American women are two times more likely to be murdered by their partner than a white woman,” she said. “I can count on one hand the number of researchers who are doing this work for African American women.”

Waller believes that her research can serve as a model for studies of the way other groups of victimized women look for help. Her goal, of course, is to help develop more effective services for survivors of intimate partner violence.

As she explained in a TEDx event at Adelphi in 2016, effectiveness would require every service provider—the police, shelter system workers, emergency room physicians and community practitioners—to overcome underlying biases and hear what African American women are telling them. And it would require African American women to understand that it is all right to show vulnerability.

“Together,” she told her audience, “we can save lives.”


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