Breaking the Cycle of Abuse at Miriam and Howard Steele’s Center for Attachment Research

Miriam and Howard Steele lead The New School for Social Research's Center for Attachment Research. Photo by Oren Cohen.

How can psychological intervention break generations-long cycles of child abuse?

With approximately 30,000 children known to New York City’s Association for Children’s Services as being at risk of maltreatment, the question is more pertinent than ever. At present, the typical form of intervention is an 8-12 week course of parent training seminars, built around weekly group therapy sessions for anger management training and generic advice on parenting. Unfortunately, a low success rate suggests that this traditional program meets neither parent or child needs.

But an alternative exists: it’s called Group Attachment Based Intervention (GABI), and it has its roots here at The New School.

GABI, developed by New School for Social Research Professors of Psychology Howard and Miriam Steele and a clinical and research team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM) brings children and parents together for treatment. Different from typical intervention, groups of at-risk families gather up to three times a week to learn parenting skills, share experiences and meet with a range of therapists. Using robust and previously validated interview and observation-based measures, the Steele’s research team engages the families in a range of assessments that reliably measure their progress towards goals.

This work benefits a large number of stakeholders, from the families who participate to the clinicians and grad students who are being trained through their involvement in the project,, says Howard.

GABI is a promising and novel mode of therapy, and last month, it received a significant vote of confidence from the federal government. In March, the Human Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services funded the Steeles and their Einstein colleagues (Anne Murphy, Karen Bonuck & Paul Meissner) in the amount of $900,000 over three years. The funding will enable the team to undertake a randomly controlled trial (RCT) assigning parents known to ACS’ Preventive Services to either the garden variety, parents-only weekly training seminars or the intensive Group Attachment Based Intervention.

The HRSA grant is one of the more competitive pieces of federal funding offered to medical and health researchers; only five of the best and most promising projects submitted annually qualify for the grant. What makes the Steele’s work stand out is their reliance on state-of-the-art attachment assessments, that is, measurements that capture reliably the quality of parents’ relationships with their children. In addition to the clinical group from the Bronx, the Steele’s research team also tracks and monitors normal or typical development via studying parents and families in the local Manhattan and Brooklyn community (recruited via parenting websites).

One of the unique features of our lab is what we call our ‘toolbox of measurements,’, says Miriam.

We really stress interviews and observation-based methods,, adds Howard. Rather than just relying on the standard self-reporting questionnaires, we find that interviewing and videotaping parent-child interactions provides a fuller and more accurate picture.,

The center’s system of in-depth measurement and reporting calls for a lot of heavy lifting. And with more than 50 students from across divisions participating in the laboratory, the Steeles’ work is truly a university-wide effort. Graduate students from the Psychology department at The New School for Social Research lead peer group discussions among children; Eugene Lang College undergraduates help recruit, escort, and process families; and Parsons students create personalized video keepsakes for parents, featuring footage taken in the lab.

Many students who participate in the lab get more than work, but an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to the field. The data we’re collecting here is a goldmine for future dissertations,, says Howard. Many graduate students and even undergrads working in the lab are able to use these results to satisfy Senior Work Project, or dissertation requirements.,

But it’s not only the researchers who benefit. Noting that many of the families in the group suffer from generations-long histories of violence and poverty, the Steeles hope that the Group Attachment Based Intervention sessions represent a chance to break the cycle of trauma.

In these workshops,, says Miriam, we’re helping our participants become the parents they dream of being.,