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Rooting Out Domestic Abuse

A recent study finds that, while some employee-assistance programs can offer help to victims of intimate-partner abuse, none has a standardized program to screen and offer help to perpetrators of such violence. Fear of legal ramifications is part of the reason, but HR leaders can work with their EAPs to enhance services.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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A recently released study has found that many employee-assistance programs do not have a policy that would specifically help identify individuals who abuse -- or have the potential to abuse -- their intimate partners.

The study, published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and Triangle Park, N.C.-based RTI International, is the first to explore the ability of EAPs to screen and offer treatment to people who commit violence against their partners.

"What we found is that most EAPs don't have standardized programs for perpetrators specifically," says Keshia Pollack, an assistant professor with Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins' Center for Injury Research and Policy and one of the study's authors. "They really rely on people to self disclose."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that intimate-partner abuse, formerly called domestic violence, costs businesses more than $700 million a year in lost productivity. That breaks down to more than 7.9 million paid workdays lost per year.

And it's not just the victims -- studies have shown that perpetrators have lower productivity on the job in addition to missing work, showing up late or leaving early.

The Hopkins study followed 28 EAP programs and focused on screening and assessment, services provided and case-management follow-up. Of those 28, only three programs reported that their standardized assessment covered the risk for intimate-partner violence.

None of them specifically asked about committing intimate-partner violence.

"EAP's talked about a barrier, people being fearful that they're going to be arrested so they are not even stepping forward," Pollack says. "People aren't going to come forward and say, 'I'm abusing folks.' So it's about creating an environment where we try to do it in a way where the person doesn't feel at risk of being incarcerated."

EAP services are confidential but anyone admitting they are an abuser almost certainly would require involving the authorities.

The ideal is to help people become aware of the signs before they cross the line from potential abuser to abuser, says Kim Wells, executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, a Bloomington, Ill.-based national nonprofit organization to prevent domestic violence.

"Really, are you going to say to someone, 'Are you a perpetrator?' " she asked.

Employers can help, Pollack says, by encouraging employees to use their EAP, which research has shown are generally underutilized.

When it comes to abuse issues, women tended to confide in their front-line managers and a few trusted co-workers rather than rely on the EAP, she says.

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"We have to encourage employers to be really open and transparent about the services available to people that [are] already part of their benefits package," Pollack says. "People have to know they have these resources."

After discussing their research at an EAP conference, Pollack and her colleagues found that EAPs want a closer working relationship with employers to help create zero-tolerance policies to help employees understand that intimate-partner abuse is not acceptable.

"What we really see is an opportunity for EAPs to work with employers to build a program to create this culture where it's known that intimate-partner abuse is not acceptable behavior," she says. "The way to do it is through policy change, environmental change, education and different types of campaigns in the workplace that talk about violence not being acceptable -- and how you can get help."

But not all EAPs are equipped to handle perpetrator issues, Wells says. And just because a company has an EAP doesn't mean the issue is covered.

"Some EAPs are good and some are not," she says. "The perpetrator issue is difficult for companies that are trying to build policies and procedures. If an employer says they want this as part of their program, then an EAP is going to pay attention. If you ask for it, you'll get it." 

Pollack says bringing EAPs into the fight against intimate-partner abuse is just a first step. The team is considering partnering with an EAP to implement and gauge the impact of policy changes.

"We want to see if they make an impact and what are the cost savings," Pollack says.

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