Harrell Center a local and international force in violence prevention

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Like many entities directed at the greater public good, the USF College of Public Health’s Harrell Center was the product of a private philanthropist’s gift. James Harrell and his family wanted to do something to help eliminate family violence, and they acted on that desire. The result was a 1997 endowment that set the stage for what has become an international force.

“The intent of the Harrell family was to provide a center that would focus on family violence,” affirmed Dr. Martha Coulter, the center’s founding director, “but they were particularly interested in looking at the prevention of family violence, as well as research that would be directly applicable to prevention and intervention.

“So the mission of the Harrell Center, really, is to be an intermediary between research and practice, to do research that is focused on family violence intervention and prevention across the lifespan.

“The grant was an endowment, so the funding is very limited, because it’s just the interest on the endowment. Now, most of the income is from other grants and contracts,” Coulter said, “but what the Harrell endowment did was provide the base for doing that kind of research.”

Brick sponsored by the Harrell Center in remembrance of James Harrell after his death in 2007.

Brick sponsored by the Harrell Center in remembrance of James Harrell after his death in 2007.


One of three faculty members at the center full-time, Coulter, whose doctorate is in maternal and child health, teaches three courses: Family and Community Violence, Child Maltreatment, and Child Health, in addition to coordinating the maternal and child health academic concentration at COPH.

“In the very beginning, there was only the grant and the establishment of the center conceptually,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve developed.”

That development recently necessitated alignment into three divisions.

“The specific divisions – the redesigning of the organizational chart – has really been something that I’ve done this year,” Coulter said. “Before that, over the years, we’ve just developed these different projects and all worked together, but it looked like now we were at a place where we really needed to have a little bit more separate organization and to develop some strategic goals and objectives in each of those content areas.”

The result is a children’s services division directed by Dr. Lianne Estefan, an intimate partner violence division directed by Coulter, and an elder mistreatment division directed by Dr. Carla Vandeweerd. Dr. Karen Liller recently joined the center as a regular collaborator focusing her attention on the overlap between child maltreatment and unintentional injury, Coulter said, and “usually about 10” graduate students round out her staff. A community advisory board is among the center’s numerous external extensions.

“The children’s section has been very involved in looking at issues regarding the prevention of violence in the community,” Coulter explained, “and the center has developed a virtual research institute with one of the community agencies, Champions for Children, which is a multi-program unit, so that we can do research that is truly collaborative. We’ve worked very consistently with them over the years.”

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Graphic that Harrell Center graduate assistant Natasha Hojati created for the Center’s Facebook page.

Coulter said that much of what her intimate partner violence section does involves the courts, so much so that she has become a regular consultant for the courts and has undertaken the task of evaluating the effectiveness of their intervention programs for batterers. Developing and continually improving guidelines for batterer intervention and responses to the needs of victims have been major off-shoot projects.

Among the section’s more significant research findings is that female batterers are falling through the cracks. While the county’s intervention for male batterers has been “very effective,” Coulter said, it has largely failed to successfully intervene with female batterers, who comprise about 15 percent of all convicted batterers in Hillsborough County.

“The clinical providers of these programs,” she said, “have been saying for a long time that they didn’t think the state-mandated curriculum for men was really the right curriculum to use for women.”


Among many leaders and dignitaries who have visited the Harrell Center over the years was then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who attended an elder abuse conference sponsored by the Center in 2001. The attorney general is pictured above with students Seraphine Pitt (left) and Carol Williams, and below with Dr. Coulter.



The elder mistreatment division concentrates on elders with dementia and the kinds of violence against them, which is, Coulter said, “fairly common, unfortunately, from both spousal caretakers and children taking care of elderly parents. The dynamics of this are very different from other sorts of domestic violence and really have a lot to do with people not understanding how to help people who have dementia.”

Coulter said she considers a new project in the division to be particularly tantalizing and potentially groundbreaking.

Called the Senior Surfers Project, Coulter said it looks at the rapidly expanding but little-known phenomenon of women over 50 seeking relationships online and getting responses from people who wind up physically, emotionally or financially harming them.

All previous research on Internet connections leading to violent encounters has been on adolescents, she said, so Senior Surfers is another project aiming to keep potentially overlooked victims out of the cracks – in this case, the cracks that open at the nexus of society and technology.

Dr. Coulter chats with Judge Dennis Alvarez (left) and James Harrell at a 1997 function.

Dr. Coulter chats with Judge Dennis Alvarez (left) and James Harrell at a 1997 function.


With so much involvement in the local community, including working closely with the Spring and, until its recent demise thanks to funding shortfalls, the Family Justice Center, the Harrell Center’s global impact might be surprising to some, but global involvement has proven beneficial on numerous fronts.

Dr. Pnina S. Klein, a clinical and developmental psychologist and professor of education at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, recently led a Mediational Intervention for Sensitizing Caregivers workshop on campus to promote cognitive functioning and attachment by improving parent-caregiver interactions with infants and young children.

Attendees included community professionals, physicians and COPH students, faculty and staff.  Dr. Robert Nelson, a joint professor in COPH and the Morsani College of Medicine, sponsored attendance by a visiting group of physicians and clinicians from Ecuador.

“It’s been used all over the world,” Coulter said of MISC. “The outcomes internationally of this program have shown that it’s very effective in strengthening attachment and reducing child maltreatment, so we brought Dr. Klein here from Israel this year to do a training for community people and staff here, as well as faculty and students.”

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Dr. Martha Coulter, Harrell Center founding director (right in both photos), in Ecuador in 2007.


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Elsewhere on the international front, Coulter is working with the medical school in Panama to begin collecting information and developing guidelines for Panamanian health providers to improve their responses to intimate partner violence. She’s also working in Quito, Ecuador, to develop a program that will provide fundamental intervention services for indigenous populations.

Children in a remote Himalayan village in India read books sent to them by the Harrell Center.

Children in a remote Himalayan village in India read books sent to them by the Harrell Center.


Coulter went to India in 2012 with a group that collected data on maternal/child health and family violence among the 26 indigenous tribes in the Himalayas as a response to one tribal leader’s interest in addressing those issues. Progress has been slow, she said, because the tribes are not formally centralized in any way, and the terrain is difficult and isolating. The center recently collected books to send to children there. A librarian navigates dirt paths on a bicycle to deliver them.

Not surprisingly, Coulter’s five-year vision for the Harrell Center is about more expansion, mostly ideological, and lots of it.

“I would like to expand our depth in looking at female offenders and the way the courts respond to them,” she said.

“We’ve applied for some grants to look with a lot more depth at issues related to fathers. This is an area that has been somewhat neglected and needs a lot of attention. What are the ways that we can help fathers from the very beginning develop the kinds of skills that will be more nurturing and less likely to produce problems?

“As far as the center itself,” she said, “I think the area that we really need to expand the most is our capacity for doing community training and education and technical assistance.”

“I’d also like to see us focus on more primary intervention in a public health direction.   A lot of what we’ve done has been secondary response intervention, but I would like to see us working with primary situations – families, parent-child relationships.”

Coulter said an example of the center’s involvement in this area is its participation in the Hillsborough County Violence Prevention Collaborative, a plan for reducing violence throughout the county.

Community events also make Coulter’s expansion list. Recent ones have included fundraisers with artists and bands, and even a biker run.

“I would like to see us expand these community events, because they have been very helpful. The center doesn’t have much funding,” she said, “and the funding that we get is almost always research funding, so if we want to do things that are outside the research arena, we have to raise the money ourselves.”

Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health. Photos courtesy of Dr. Martha Coulter, Eric Younghans, Dr. Robert Nelson, USF Health and the Harrell Center.