Katrina Debnam, associate professor
Debnam, a social scientist, studies violence among adolescents and recently earned a NIH grant to focus in on Black girls' romantic relationships to better understand teen dating violence.

An icon of a shield to signify scholarship in violence affecting women, families, and individuals.With a new $440k grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia’s center to promote effective youth development, will be exploring both the contexts of romantic relationships for Black girls and the factors that influence them.

The project, led by Katrina Debnam, associate professor in both the School of Nursing and at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, will begin to uncover new knowledge about an area of adolescent development where there is currently little insight: romantic relationships.

“We know relatively little about relationship trajectories and contexts during adolescence,” Debnam said. “We know even less about romantic relationships among Black adolescents.”

This knowledge gap is significant, according to Debnam, because intimate partner violence happens at higher rates among Black couples during adolescence and into adulthood.

“One of the ways to prevent dating and intimate partner violence is to better understand the influences on relationships and how Black girls navigate them,” Debnam said.

“One of the ways to prevent dating and intimate partner violence is to better understand the influences on relationships and how Black girls navigate them."

Associate professor and NIMHD grantee Katrina Debnam

With the NIH grant, Debnam and her team will conduct interviews with Black women aged 15-21 to map out their romantic relationships. As part of the interviews, they will seek to hear how the relationship was initiated, what influences existed both internally and externally, what milestones were reached, and how it ended.

With these maps, the research team aims to identify the many influences impacting these relationships. They will also use these results to inform future teen dating violence prevention efforts.

Debnam will be working closely with other Youth-Nex faculty affiliates, as well as colleagues from other schools, including Lanice Avery, UVA assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality and psychology, Susan Kools, UVA School of Nursing professor emerita, Seanna Leath, assistant professor of psychology and brain studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and Donna E. Howard, associate professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

For Debnam and her team, this research is part of an overarching effort to identify and strengthen the elements of healthy romantic relationships.

“One of the goals of the grant is to highlight some of the cultural assets, like positive racial identity, collectivism, and spirituality, that Black adolescents bring into romantic relationships to make them healthy,” Debnam said. “I want to be able to strengthen those cultural assets during childhood and adolescence to build a better foundation for healthy romantic relationship involvement.”

In addition to this project, Avery and Debnam are partnering on a study examining the impact that the Strong Black Woman concept has on how and if Black women experiencing intimate partner violence seek help. With $431k in funding from the National Institutes of Health, Avery and Debnam will be testing the validity and reliability of the Strong Black Women Schema in intimate Partnerships (SBWS-IP) scale.