Psychology, Research, Graduate Students

PhD student’s research on romantic partner violence has implications for adolescents

October 28, 2019

Catherine Shaffer-McCuish is a PhD candidate in the Experimental Forensic Psychology and Law Program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Broadly, her research focuses on the assessment of general and specialized forms of violence among youth and adults, the association between mental and personality disorders and violence, and evidence-based practices for working with individuals who engage in violence and other types of offending. She has authored over 80 journal articles, book chapters, manuals, technical reports, research briefs, and conference presentations on these topics.

In a recent interview, Shaffer-McCuish discusses what brought her to SFU, her research, as well as advice for students who are considering graduate studies.

1) Why did you choose to come to SFU to complete your MA and PhD in Experimental Forensic Psychology and Law?

During my BA Honours in psychology at the University of Victoria, I became interested in the application of psychology to understand crime and violence, which drew me to the graduate program in Forensic Psychology and Law at SFU.  In addition to being research intensive, it is widely regarded as one of the top forensic psychology training programs in the world. My supervisors, Dr. Kevin Douglas and Dr. Jodi Viljoen, are internationally recognized experts in violence risk assessment and offender management.

2) Could you tell us a bit about your research study that Jodi had mentioned, which focused on dating violence in adolescents? What are some key takeaways that study?

As part of my dissertation, I will be helping adapt an adult romantic partner violence risk assessment tool for use with adolescents. This led me to conduct a study to learn more about romantic partner violence among adolescents in BC.

Using data that was collected by McCreary Centre Society, a community non-profit organization dedicated to improving adolescent health, I was part of a research team that analyzed data collected from over 35,000 students in 2003, 2008, and 2018 to examine the prevalence and trends of dating victimization among boys and girls. Students were asked if they had been purposefully hit, slapped, or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year. Although it is often assumed that girls are more frequent victims of dating violence than boys, in all three surveys, boys reported higher rates of dating victimization than girls. We also found that dating victimization had decreased among youth over the past decade. The decline in dating violence at the population level seemed to be driven by a significant reduction in dating victimization among boys. The rate among girls, however, was stable.  These findings emphasise that both girls and boys should be the focus of intervention programming and health policies to reduce dating violence.

Findings from the study were picked up by at least 750 different new sites, including Science Daily, Breakfast Television, The National Post, The Province, Vancouver Sun, StarMetro News, News1130, Daily Mail UK, Times India, and (which is broadcast on more than 730 radio stations across the United States). In addition, study findings generated so much discussion on Reddit’s r/science channel that they made front page of the channel with 55,000 upvotes and over 5,000 comments.

3) Do you have any advice for prospective graduate students?

Before contacting a potential supervisor, do your homework: read the supervisor’s homepage and at least several recent papers to see if there is overlap with your research interests. Also try and speak with graduate students in their lab to find out more about their supervisory style and whether they would be a good fit.

4) Aside from your studies, which programs/initiatives are you currently involved with?

I have been involved in numerous grant-funded projects at SFU focusing on assessing and managing adverse outcomes among at-risk adolescents, adolescent offenders, civil psychiatric patients, adult offenders, and educators. In addition, I was the lead on a study that investigated key issues that should be considered for legislation to decriminalize medical assistance in dying in Canada. As result of this work, I was an invited member of the Canadian Psychological Association’s Task Force on Medical Aid in Dying, which was commissioned to consider whether persons with a mental disorder and mature minors should have access to medical assistance in dying, and the role of psychologists in this process.  I have completed positions with several organizations, including BC Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Protect International Risk and Safety Services, and the Global Institute of Forensic Research. I am currently a member of the Canadian Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, a non-profit agency that was formed to learn and share knowledge about how to protect victims of stalking, harassment, and threat situations. In November, I will be presenting at their annual meeting on best practices for responding to and preventing on-campus sexual violence.