The Hidden Crime 

A painful look at Montana’s rise in domestic violence

You’ll get in a lot more trouble if you shoot an elk out of season in Montana than if you beat your spouse. Poaching a big game animal carries a $1,000 fine plus the estimated cost of the animal (usually $2,000 to $4,000), and loss of hunting and fishing privileges for up to five years. But punishment for a first-offense of domestic abuse is usually $250, which will be suspended if you spend that amount of money on counseling, and an order to participate in 25 hours of anger-management counseling.

Smash a stranger across the face and chances are you’ll find yourself facing assault charges—felony charges if the injuries were serious enough to require treatment by a doctor. Do the same thing to a domestic partner or family member and 34 percent of the time you’ll get away with it. Only 66 percent of reported domestic abuse cases end in an arrest.

While crime in Montana—and across the nation—is declining, domestic abuse has risen. From 1997 to 1998 (the latest available statistics from the Montana Board of Crime Control), domestic abuse jumped 28.2 percent. And that’s just among those who were willing to come forward.

“We hear about many more domestic abuse situations than law enforcement does,” said Sherri Rhodes, Pathways program manager at the Missoula YWCA. “We worked with 780 primary victims of domestic violence during the 1998-99 fiscal year and many of those never reported anything to police.”

Reasons for not reporting are as varied as the victims themselves, who come from every age, social and economic group, Rhodes said. Many domestic abuse victims contact the YWCA for support but can’t take the steps necessary to break away from the situation in which they find themselves.

“Statistics show it takes an average of seven times for a domestic abuse victim to break free and become a domestic abuse survivor—leaving the abuse behind,” Rhodes says. “We concentrate on helping people make the choice to be survivors.”

YWCA Pathways offers a wide variety of services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. A 24-hour crisis line is open seven days a week (542-1944 or 1-800-483-7858). More than 50 trained volunteer advocates work with professional staff in therapy and support groups, at a confidential shelter, on the phones and in one-on-one peer counseling.

People with a problem can talk to Pathways staff without reporting anything to law enforcement. Although they are encouraged to do so, many do not. Out of the 700-plus contacts last year, only 95 asked for help through law enforcement and the courts to seek a restraining order against an abuser.

The stories Pathways workers can tell are astounding—although they are always anonymous. It seems almost impossible that in the year 2000 human beings are forbidden to leave their homes—or if they do go out, that their partners log the odometer readings and then check the distance to where they were to have gone. But it happens a lot, Beauchene says. Any deviation from what is expected can result in verbal or physical abuse.

Just a short time ago, a woman was severely beaten by a man in a parking lot at a Missoula video store. Many passers-by saw the beating. No one stepped forward to stop the assault.

“If it had been a man beating another man, chances are someone would have interfered,” Rhodes says. “The mindset is still strong that you stay out of other people’s private business.”

That mindset has helped to perpetrate a justice system that has moved slowly to address domestic violence as a “serious” crime. Domestic disturbances are not listed as crimes of violence in the annual report issued by the state. Perhaps it is a hangover from the days when a man’s wife and children were considered his property and how he treated them was strictly his affair.

“We see a lot of second-generation situations. A daughter may bring her mother in or a mother may see how her daughter’s relationship has disintegrated and seek help. Sometimes the reason they never left such a situation is because they never knew there was any other way to live,” Rhodes says. “We’ve worked with two mother-daughter situations in the past year.”

Pathways prides itself on being completely nonjudgmental. It is open to all women and men, although the confidential shelter is only set up to provide a temporary home to women and children at this time.

“An abusive relationship is an abusive relationship regardless of who the partners are,” Rhodes says. “We’re here to provide support, to let them know they are not alone. We give them the tools to make choices but they have to follow through themselves.”

For those who are willing to start over, Pathways offers counseling for survivors and their children, training in computer skills (complete with childcare) and referral and support as survivors struggle though the search for housing, jobs and social services for themselves and their dependents.

And for those who aren’t that strong, for those who return to the situation they are in, there is compassion, says Patty Beauchene, Pathways direct services coordinator. “We support their right to make choices—even if they aren’t the choices we hope for. It is often done in baby steps and we have to encourage each person who manages to make one. We hope they will get stronger and stronger and eventually realize it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Pathways is funded by state and federal grants and is always in need of additional funds and more volunteers, Rhodes says. Anyone interested in helping can call the office at 543-6691.

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