Campus News

Rap session: Professor helps future social workers learn to confront abuse

Jennifer Elkins

It is not easy to talk about, but people abuse one another. Luckily, Jennifer Elkins finds a way to communicate about this difficult subject with students who will later serve as social workers and counselors. 

Her goal is simple: “To engage their heads and hearts; to nurture their curiosity and passion.”

An assistant professor in the  School of Social Work, Elkins has intensive practical experience working with children, youth and adult survivors of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. She pulls from those real-world examples to teach her students. 

“Social work, to me, is about being able to step outside your own experience and perspective to understand where someone else is coming from,” she said. 

One way she exposes students to different situations is through the use of multimedia, sometimes using song lyrics as a vehicle to discuss characteristics of victims and abusers as well as the common pattern of violence. 

“I have asked students to speak to the differences in the abusive relationship as depicted in the song ‘Love the Way You Lie’ versus the video,” she said. “I also have asked students to role-play that they are the social worker speaking to the victim in this song so they can get some practice discussing and explaining some of the basics with respect to the dynamics of abusive relationships.” 

It is not all rap songs for Elkins.

She spends much of her time conducting research on the developmental risk and resilience in sexually abused children. 

“Mainly, my interests tend to center on understanding and addressing complex, chronic interpersonal trauma, violence and abuse,” she said. “In particular, I’m interested in an ecological, multisystemic risk and protective factors for a range of developmental outcomes, including mental and physical health.”

Her risk and resilience research aims to understand which factors cause victims to succeed or fail and how to affect those in a positive way. 

“People thought resilience was intrinsic, something you are born with, but new research shows resilience is a process and a consolidation of factors,” she said. “The good news is, if it is not all about what you are born with, we can actually make a difference and impact and change that.”

Predicting obstacles and observing patterns can offer insight to researchers and practitioners. 

“Acknowledging history as a factor and seeing how it still continues to have an impact both indirectly and directly isn’t that earth-shattering. When we look at domestic violence for example, and child abuse, we see that there is an intergenerational impact,” she said. “It is a way to address structure inequities and disparities.”

History can be a risk factor in the case of domestic violence and sexual assault, which according to the Georgia Department of Public Health are leading causes of injuries for girls and women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the state. Elkins said female victims of domestic abuse are at a higher risk for being victims of other types of violence, trauma and abuse. They also likely come from homes where they witnessed domestic violence or were victims themselves.  

“There seems to be a lot of focus on teens and on adults, however the emerging adulthood age range of college students seems to be easy to overlook,” she said. “Many of our students might not be in any current relationship but may still be trying to work through past abusive relationships and childhood exposure to domestic violence. This may be particularly salient for students who have younger siblings still in the home.”