Janice Humphreys: Family Nurse

First published June 2003

It was not supposed to have happened this way. Janice Humphreys, a nursing and psychology major at Purdue, back home in Michigan after receiving her master's in pediatric nursing from UCSF in the early 1980s, was deep into her PhD studies at Wayne State University. "I was already a certified pediatric nurse practitioner with a good deal of clinical experience," says Humphreys. "But teaching at Wayne State was not enough to maintain my certification."

Volunteering at a battered-women's shelter in Detroit certainly met the requirement, so Humphreys began taking blood pressure and compiling patient histories. It was not long before she realized that everything she thought she knew about battered women and their children was wrong. "What I was seeing at the shelter tremendously affected me because it didn't jibe with the literature. These women were not masochists. They were not passive. They were not at fault. And they often had very good relationships with their children."

So what did Humphreys do? She changed the literature by writing a book, "Nursing Care of Survivors of Family Violence," which won the American Journal of Nursing award in 1984. It is now in its third edition. "I have spent my research career [the last eight years of which have been at the UCSF School of Nursing] trying to resolve these discrepancies between reality and practice." Along the way, she -- and the cadre of students she has inspired -- have helped hundreds of battered women in ways big and small. "Sometimes just by helping these women with an ingrown toenail or a child's ear infection I can keep them out of the emergency room. Think about what that means. Appearing in public can be very risky."

Ending the cycle of violence

Now a mother to an aspiring ballerina and a national expert on family violence with teaching responsibilities for courses in family theory and practice, data collection and ethics, and violence and health, Humphreys still finds time to offer her services to families at one of three San Francisco battered- women's shelters. Even as an experienced advocate and activist, Humphreys finds it a humbling and informative experience. "While it's true that violence often occurs in women who are young and poor, poverty is less a cause of violence than the reason they feel trapped." Indeed, most studies show, says Humphreys, that over a five-year period, a majority of abused women break away from their abuser or find a way to make it stop. And that is critically important, since violence will increase in frequency over time.

When it comes to the children of abused women, so-called common knowledge is also full of errors. Humphreys has confirmed -- and reported in her award-winning book -- that they have fewer behavioral problems and cognitive difficulties than once thought. In fact, as many as 70 percent of these children do not manifest any serious pathology at all. "There is a resiliency among them that is quite remarkable, and oftentimes it stems from the mother who has found a way to mitigate the effects of the abuse."

Still, with the estimated number of abused women and their children in the millions, there remains plenty of room for shame, desperation, tragedy and sheer exasperation. In San Francisco, for example, shelters are in short supply. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the women who seek shelter are turned away," says Humphreys. "That means we have to work with them where they are."

It also means that health care professionals must be alert to the warning signs of possible abuse -- from chronic depression to physical injuries -- and willing to intervene. "You often have to approach these women with words of care and concern to let them know that it is all right to talk about what is happening at home." The goal is to stir the women to action and to help them with such necessities as clothing, health care, housing and day care. "If you're passive, you're dead. You have to fight to survive and to protect your children. And many women, no matter how isolated, find a way. Isn't that remarkable?"

Janice Humphreys. Photo by Majed Abolfazli.

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