When Bethany Backes isn’t testing new recipes in the kitchen with her two young daughters, perfecting her famous pumpkin bread or cheering on her favorite college sports teams, she’s focused on something much more intense — researching violence against women. Backes joined UCF’s Violence Against Women faculty cluster in 2019. In addition to her position within the cluster, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to examining violence against women, Backes holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor in both the Department of Criminal Justice and the School of Social Work.
A Focused Research Approach
Although Backes’ work is based on a generalist approach, meaning she looks at different aspects of domestic violence — such as issues like stalking or solutions like access to resources — all of her efforts work together and center around the post-victimization path.
“After someone gets victimized and hurt, what is that process like for them and how can our responses be improved?” she says. “I look at how they seek help, how our services are set up to respond and how we can make that process better not only for them in the short-term but also across the lifespan.”
To examine this pathway, Backes looks at multidisciplinary responses, including community-based resources, family and friends, or departments within the criminal justice system. Ultimately, she examines how all of these resources and responses come together to inform someone, which she says contributes to their decision to seek help or not.
One of the many projects Backes is currently working on looks at the effectiveness of transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence and is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. A major reason why people do not or cannot leave abusive relationships stems from a lack of housing, Backes says. This project examines the different transitional housing models and services offered to domestic violence survivors and their children to see how stable and secure housing relates to economic, safety, and health outcomes.
“A big thing for me is the applied nature of my work,” says Backes. “The ‘so what’ question is really meant to elevate a good practice and move it forward for enhanced [federal and state] policy and funding decisions.”
Many people in the domestic violence field begin their journey due to personal victimization, Backes says. A career in this area is not for the faint of heart. Burnout can occur, and vicarious trauma during the research process happens. It’s moments like these that Backes turns to the kitchen and her daughters for stress-relief from the intense work she does every day.
Workforce Insight and Inspiration
Backes spent 10 years working as a social science analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice. As an analyst, she managed the department’s violence against women internal research, wrongful conviction research and violent victimization work. Her job was to understand what research had been conducted in these areas and what gaps existed, and then figure out a way to fill them.
One project she worked on involved domestic violence homicide prevention, which required her to look at models for identifying high-risk cases.
“It is a huge initiative, but working on these topics is difficult because people are dying in communities at the hands of their intimate partner,” Backes says. “You’re trying to figure out what [went] wrong. How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
After a decade with the U.S. Department of Justice, preceded by a director position for the victim services and community outreach arm of a Maryland-based nonprofit, Backes was ready for a change.
“I got to the point where I realized I wanted to be the one doing the research,” she says. “I wondered if my work could be more impactful by doing the research, going into academia, working with students, and really teaching and broadening minds around these topics.”
Making Her Mark in Academia
Although the decision seemed easy enough, the transition was Backes’ biggest professional challenge. Despite her belief that her experience would make her more qualified, she was surprised to encounter people who thought former federal government employees couldn’t successfully make the switch into the world of academia.
“It was hard to figure out my home and who I could trust,” she says.
But Backes, who earned her doctorate while working full-time and starting a family, has never been one to shy away from a challenge and remained persistent until she found the right fit. When she landed at UCF, she didn’t have to narrow her research focus or change her values to be accepted as a faculty member.
“As a cluster faculty member, I’m with a connected group of researchers who understand studying and teaching tough, sensitive topics,” Backes says.
As a product of research-focused universities, including the University of Michigan and University of Maryland, Baltimore, Backes feels right at home (although she admits she’s still a die-hard Michigan fan).
“One of the things that really appeals to me about UCF is being in an environment where there’s a mixture of traditional and nontraditional students,” she says. “I appreciate the different perspectives and cultures here that add so much context to the classroom and to the campus.”
With the freedom of continuing her generalist approach in her work, Backes says she also feels at home in the classroom. One of the reasons she has an appointment in the criminal justice department is so she can work with doctoral students.
“I view my classrooms as a place of learning and application — not just for the students, but for me as well,” Backes says. “It is amazing to be a part of the student journey. I strive to be like many of my women mentors who have had an incredible impact on my personal and professional path. I want to give back to students what I received. When they return asking for guidance on careers or graduate school or needing a safe space to talk, I am here for them.”