Y. Joon Choi

Teaching clergy how to prevent domestic violence

Y. Joon Choi’s approach helps Asian immigrant women by showing their religious leaders how to intervene

Two decades ago, while working as a domestic violence counselor for the New York Asian Women’s Center in New York City, Y. Joon Choi, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’11), noticed women were seeking help only when their lives were in immediate danger.

She discovered the women were first turning to their pastors, who were, she observed, generally ill-equipped to assist. Often, they were giving advice that put the women in more danger by focusing on preserving the family, not protecting women. 

“When I learned that Korean religious leaders actually became barriers to abused women to seek and receive needed help, I was angry and frustrated,” says Choi, a social work researcher who immigrated to New York from Seoul, South Korea, for graduate work at City College of New York. “I could not understand why they keep telling these women to keep the family together, pray for the abusers to change and endure the pain and suffering as Christian women.”

Choi, though, “knew it was critical to work with religious leaders if we were to change the communities and help the abused women.” Now an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Social Work, she is working to help those women by educating their ministers. 

Bolstered by a two-year, $439,542 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, Choi created a set of online learning modules — not unlike the sort used by companies to train employees — to teach ministers, privately, about domestic violence and how to prevent it within their congregations. 

Part of the reason for the private nature of the training (ministers complete the web-based modules on their own) is the stigma domestic violence still carries among many pastors in Asian immigrant communities, Choi says. From her work with Korean American faith leaders, Choi knew in-person training — in a room with other study participants or one-on-one with a researcher — wouldn’t appeal to them because of their propensity to “hide any problems, including domestic violence, from others,” she says. Many faith leaders deny the problem because they think domestic violence among congregants reflects badly on their pastoral leadership and churches. 

Choi is one of only a few academics studying domestic violence in Asian immigrant communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in seven men in the U.S. will be victims of physical violence by their partners. Immigrant women report a higher level of domestic violence and less access to services, Choi says. A confluence of factors, including language barriers and cultural taboos, can make it difficult for those seeking help to find it, she says.

Choi tested early versions of the learning program, Religious Leaders for Healthy Families, among Korean American clergy in Atlanta from 2013-15, shortly after she arrived at the University of Georgia following her graduation from the VCU School of Social Work. Though it increased their knowledge of domestic violence and changed their attitudes toward it in a positive way, it did not change their prevention and intervention behaviors. “I realized that the training must be interactive, interesting and something they can keep practicing,” Choi says. 

She and her University of Georgia colleagues refined the program in 2018 and 2019, then tested it again among Korean American faith leaders in Chicago and metro Washington, D.C., in 2020 and 2021. The current modules guide pastors through scenarios they might encounter when responding to domestic violence in their congregations. They choose what they think is the best response. If they choose incorrectly, the module explains why that choice is ineffective. Six months after being introduced to the modules, faith leaders significantly increased their understanding of interpersonal violence and their belief in their capacity to intervene to prevent it, according to research Choi published this year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

The results are promising, Choi says, but the COVID-19 pandemic has limited her progress. Program participants have had fewer opportunities to meet with congregants in person during the pandemic and practice what they have learned. Choi is currently conducting another study, supported by a $477,295 grant from the Office on Violence Against Women, in Chicago and metro Washington, to reach more faith leaders.

In January 2023, Choi will become director of the School of Social Work at Georgia State University. As a domestic violence counselor in the 1990s, she “felt frustrated that not much data was out there” about violence in Asian immigrant communities. Her VCU doctoral dissertation included a survey of Korean faith leaders in metro Washington, to determine how they responded to domestic abuse survivors. Now she is trying to both study domestic violence and prevent it.

“Even though I knew from my practice experiences what the reality is, no scholars had ever studied this,” she says. “The current research that I’m doing — developing a faith leader training program in partnership with the community domestic violence agency — I really believe that this results from my work as a social worker and also my training as a Ph.D.-trained researcher. I don’t think that one can exist without the other, especially in my case.”