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SLU’s Nancy Weaver to Co-Direct Community Engagement Arm of New NIH-Funded Child Maltreatment Center

by Carrie Bebermeyer on 01/17/2019
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Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University, believes we can reduce childhood abuse in much the same way we’ve addressed other public health problems – by promoting healthy behaviors and improving the environments where people live.

Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Nancy Weaver, Ph.D., M.P.H, professor of behavioral science and health education and associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice

Weaver, who is also associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at SLU’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, has been tapped to lead the Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy Research and Training (CICM)’s Community Engagement Core (CEC) together with David Patterson Silver Wolf, Ph.D., associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

The CICM is a new five-year, $6.5 million National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded initiative led by Washington University’s Melissa Jonson-Reid. With a team of 40 faculty members, the Center will tackle issues related to child maltreatment through community engagement, policy development, research, education and training.  

Weaver’s expertise lies in childhood injury control and keeping children safe through positive parenting. She tells the story of a day she was eating at a local pizza parlor filled with children and parents. A woman began screaming at her grandchildren in the packed restaurant and the crowd fell silent with no observers stepping in to help. Weaver went over to the table, engaged the grandmother, listened to her high-stress concerns that were causing family situations to boil over, and sat with the kids for a while to give the caregiver a break.

The experience stayed with Weaver, and she reflected on how the crowd in the restaurant didn’t seem to know how to help diffuse the situation. With a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health, she developed Support Over Silence, a bystander training that borrows from models used to stop domestic and sexual violence, to help citizens respond to volatile situations involving children.

Weaver believes it is possible to strengthen families through education, including teaching parenting skills.

“Prevention efforts can be successful,” Weaver said.  “We’ve largely won the battle of seatbelts. Smoking habits have changed dramatically. I want to be focusing on promoting strong family structures and supportive practices that create environments where children can grow up and thrive.”

Weaver was the founding director of operations for the Research and Equity in Action for Child Health (REACH) Center at Saint Louis University's College for Public Health and Social Justice, which brings academics together to advance maternal, child and family health. The Center tackles many elements of child health, including addressing food insecurity, infant mortality, unintentional and intentional injury risks and promoting positive parenting.  

The REACH Center’s work will be supported through the new CEC, which will focus on community engagement.

“The CEC will help advance the work of the REACH Center,” Weaver said. “We’ll bring together data and behavioral scientists, epidemiologists, social workers and other experts to propel team-based science on how we can best support parents and children and the agencies that serve them.

“There are many risk factors for child abuse and neglect,” Weaver said.  “Many are related to conditions that put families in high levels of stress, such as economic stress, family stress and community stress.  Employment reduces family stress.  Food security reduces family stress. So, there is a benefit to addressing upstream factors.

“In some places, violence is a mainstay of childhood. There is no one answer to these problems. Because the risk factors are wide ranging, the answers and experts and partnerships have to be wide ranging.”

The CEC will have a dual focus on practice and research.

“We have a big focus on training students and post docs,” Weaver said. “We’re simultaneously developing evidence-based research and practice and using findings to drive social change. This is a handshake between practice and research.

“Our college really does this in earnest. Members of our research group study this topic, work with community partners and inform policies in Jefferson City.”

Weaver sees the work being conducted on child wellness as a boon for the St. Louis region.

“Child maltreatment is a very complex problem,” Weaver said. “It is going to take lots of talented people working together in new ways to see if innovative strategies can help.

“SLU and Wash U are identifying problems and solutions together. There are so many dedicated people in town and throughout the region who really make this possible.

“If in five years, practitioners on the front lines were equipped with solutions that were easy to use and there were better tools of the trade, I think that would be exciting. If we increased the robustness of networks of people working on the problem, that would be real progress.”

Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice

The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only academic unit of its kind, studying social, environmental and physical influences that together determine the health and well-being of people and communities. It also is the only accredited school or college of public health among nearly 250 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States.

Guided by a mission of social justice and focus on finding innovative and collaborative solutions for complex health problems, the College offers nationally recognized programs in public health, social work, health administration, applied behavior analysis, and criminology and criminal justice.