Domestic violence

Interactive app provides help for domestic violence victims

Yeardley Love. You may not remember her name, but you've likely heard her story—and countless others just like it. Love, a 22-year-old lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, meets a guy, George Huguely. After they've dated for a few years, Huguely becomes aggressive, jealous, and violent. Love ends the relationship, assuming the worst is over. But on May 3, 2010, Huguely, drunk and angry, breaks into her apartment where she lies sleeping. Not long before midnight, he beats her to death in her own bed.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 1 in 3 women have been victims of relationship violence. "The reality is most women don't reach out because they're not aware of services available, and there are a lot of stereotypes about 'being a victim,'" says Nancy Glass, a School of Nursing professor, associate dean for research, and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health. Glass has dedicated her career to studying the complex decisions and risks faced by female survivors of violence. Now, she's helping women and their friends in communities and campuses across the country determine whether their relationships are unsafe. Based on research by Glass and her team, the myPlan smartphone app helps women assess the danger of their relationships, set priorities for safety (having resources, their child's well-being, privacy), consider a tailored plan of action, and find resources nationally and locally to guide them step by step to safety.

myPlan began as a web-based tool in 2003 but has evolved into an app available on iTunes and Android through an original partnership with the One Love Foundation, a nonprofit that honors Love's life and fights to end relationship violence across campus communities. It's an interactive tool that asks users a series of questions about their priorities (the safety of their children, financial resources, education) and the severity of their partner's behavior (whether the partner owns a weapon, has threatened to kill you, is jealous of your friends and family), and provides immediate feedback on what to do next (move out, get a restraining order). It's anonymous, private, and vaguely named—a safety measure to protect against abusive partners who monitor phone activity. The app is password-protected with an emergency exit button, so users can leave the app if their partner is nearby.

One app user said, "I thought a lot about what my life [has been like] dealing with emotional and physical violence. I am aware of what I can do now. … Healing from trauma is a long road. It's painful, but I appreciate the work you are doing."

There's also access to support services, including an automatic live chat link to a 24-hour confidential hotline and campus, state, and local resources for education and advocacy. (Glass emphasizes that the app should not be used in an emergency; users should always call 911 for immediate help.) Plus, the app has a component to determine whether your friend's relationship is unhealthy. "Friends are very important, especially within the 18 to 24 age range," says Glass. "They're often the first people a victim will go to rather than a parent or teacher. But they often don't know what to say or how to respond. They sometimes minimize the situation." Love's friends, for example, had no idea how dangerous Huguely was. They knew he was verbally abusive and aggressive, but since Love and Huguely had broken up, they thought any danger had passed. After answering a series of questions, users are provided scripts for talking to their friends about their abusive relationships, plus tips on how to help.

To date, the app has had more than 13,000 downloads on iOS and Android. Since the app's launch in 2014, the National Institutes of Health (a funding supporter, in addition to the Office on Women's Health) found that after just one use, women reported less conflict in making a decision for safety, and they found it easier to set priorities. One app user said, "I thought a lot about what my life [has been like] dealing with emotional and physical violence. I am aware of what I can do now. … Healing from trauma is a long road. It's painful, but I appreciate the work you are doing."

"Women are often told, 'He can't be that bad,' or, 'He's a good father,'" Glass says. "They think, 'OK, there must be something wrong with me, then.' myPlan reinforces that what they're experiencing is real—and there's someone who can help them." So far, the app has been adapted and launched in communities and campuses in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Glass has plans to expand the app's reach—in primary care settings and health care clinics where women report domestic abuse; globally in Hong Kong and the U.K.; and in low-resource countries like Somalia and Kenya. "The tool is not about leaving or staying—it's important to understand that when women leave an abusive relationship, it can be the most dangerous time," Glass says. "Safety is the ultimate outcome. The app emphasizes how to take action as safely as possible."