Two SMU psychology professors have partnered with the Swedish government to launch their program in hopes of reducing child abuse. Renee McDonald, associate psychology professor, and Ernest Jouriles, professor and chairman of the psychology department, founded Project Support in 1996 to address the affects of domestic abuse on families.
McDonald and Jouriles were inspired to found Project Support because of their interest in helping children who lived in domestically violent families.
“We are interested in helping children who are or have been living in families or environments that place them at risk for the development of adjustment problems like emotional disorders or behavior problems,” Jouriles said. “Families in which there is violence are very high-risk environments.”
After researching children who live in violent environments, they developed Project Support.
“We developed our program based on what research showed to be effective treatment for children with behavior problems, and we adapted it to fit the needs of violent families,” McDonald said.
Over a year ago, Kjerstin Almqvist, a psychologist from Karlstad University in Sweden, contacted McDonald and Jouriles about Project Support. Almqvist specializes in children affected by domestic violence and received a $730,000 grant from Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare for researching the best practices for children who have been exposed to abuse.
This past May, McDonald and Jouriles traveled to Sweden to train staff members of the social service agencies that will apply Project Support. Families will begin to receive the services in Sweden this month.
Project Support’s trial in Sweden will be conducted for the next two years. If it is successful, the Swedish government plans to implement the program for routine use in all social service agencies.
According to McDonald, Project Support works because it aims to improve parenting skills and the quality of the parent-child relationship.
“[Project Support] does essentially two things,” McDonald said. “For families in which parenting is overly harsh or abuse, it helps correct that, so that the risk for future abuse is reduced, and it helps repair the parent-child relationship. For children with behavior problems, such as aggression and noncompliance, it helps correct those problems.”
In Sweden, 100 families in the cities of Stockholm, Trollhattan, Ronneby and Orebro will be part of the initial program trial. Agencies will meet weekly with the families in their homes for up to six months.
According to the SMU Research Blog, during the weekly visits Project Support teaches parents “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.”
In the U.S., McDonald said Project Support has been evaluated in randomized controlled trials thanks to funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Justice. The program followed the families for over two years to continue observing the effects of Project Support.
“[Project Support] has been found to have lasting effects on parenting and on children’s adjustment problems, and these effects are superior to usual services, which showed no discernible effects,” McDonald said.
Recently, certain agencies in Dallas, have implemented Project Support. Family Compass, the oldest child abuse and prevention agency in Dallas, partnered with the Housing Crisis Center and is supplying the program to families who have been homeless.
Both McDonald and Jouriles are excited about Project Support’s international expansion.
“We see our work with Project Support and the collaboration with Sweden as another example of how scientific research conducted at SMU is shaping happenings around the world,” Jouriles said.