Rural domestic violence: Dangerous for victims, complicated for police

Chief deputy Karl Erickson checks on a motorist
Chief deputy Karl Erickson has worked in rural Polk County for nearly three decades and says law enforcement resources are often stretched thin. Here he checks on a sleeping motorist along Highway 102 on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012.
Photo by Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Our Ground Level team has brought you several stories this week on public safety in rural Minnesota: How do rural communities change their approach to public safety in these days of tight budgets, changing populations and new technology?

Reporter Jennifer Vogel honed in on one interesting topic within this subject this morning in a blog post that we've linked to at the Daily Circuit page: rural domestic violence.

It's hard to compare the rates of domestic violence in rural and urban communities, in part because the crimes so often go unreported. And also because of the way data are collected.

But Stacy Vinberg, an assistant county attorney in Yellow Medicine County, says there is a different dynamic to the way domestic violence plays out in rural communities.

Even if everything gets reported and there's an arrest, her biggest challenge is witnesses who later recant their testimony that they were abused.

"When you have a recanting victim, a lot of times it's tied to the income stream and the fear of what I would call the unknown," she said. "You might have a husband and wife who have been married since they were in their late teens or early 20s -- and domestic violence has been going on since that time, and maybe [now] they're in their 40s. Neither he nor she knows anything beyond the family farm, and when you report domestic violence, it starts a whole range of things in motion. And sometimes they're not cognicent of that when they report it, and all of a sudden it's a huge wake-up call. And I think when you tie it to the income stream and the fear of the unknown, I think it's a somewhat unique problem that we face in the rural areas."

This also is a topic Ralph Weisheit studies as a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University. He's found that the rates of domestic violence are similar between rural and urban areas.

Although rural crime rates are lower than those in urban areas, public safety takes a big share of local government budgets outstate. So it has come under scrutiny in a time of fiscal restraint, he says. At the same time, in areas where populations are dwindling and aging, security concerns can change. Telecommunications, surveillance and other technology are changing how law enforcement deals with safety. And for some, what is needed is a greater sense of personal responsibility when it comes to their safety.

That issue of 'only one person responding' is huge here in Minnesota. The Price of Safety series has a map that shows 20 rural police departments have disbanded since 2007 because of budget constraints. Weisheit says he's he heard of cases in rural America -- not necessarily here in Minnesota -- where a backup officer responding to a domestic abuse call is sometimes a game warden.

Also, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension doesn't separate domestic assaults from the larger pool of assault statistics in its annual Uniform Crime Reports. The reports do include a category called "Family/Children," which can include domestic violence. In 2010, the rate for rural family crime was roughly half the urban rate.

But there are certainly factors particular to rural areas that contribute to violent behavior and shape the way it's addressed.

"Rural areas have higher rates of poverty in general," said Joseph F. Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University. "Unemployment can create issues that show up on a crime blotter." He said there may be more traditional gender roles at play as well. "Men lose their patriarchal job and guess what happens, domestic violence against women goes up."

Vinberg, the assistant county attorney in Yellow Medicine Count, with a population of just over 10,000, spells out an all-too-typical rural scenario: "A lot of times, women will be on the farm and that is their sole source of income," she said. "They may not have had any training otherwise, so they are less empowered to make that phone call to get out of that situation. They have no idea how they are going to cope, how they are going to live. They think if they are not using the income of their husband, they have no other means. To a certain extent that can be true. You are not going to find a housewife of 20 years in a rural area moving to the city and becoming a corporate executive or anything."

Even if the wife in Vinberg's story calls the police and charges are filed against the husband, she's then got to grapple with community perceptions, the stigma. "You don't have the anonymity out here that you do in the urban center," Vinberg said. "Let's say there is a jury trial and the jury is made up of peers. In a small community, that may be people who have heard of Joe Smith. He sits on the elevator board and goes to 4H. They look at him and say, 'He's successful and she's never reported this before, so she just wants money and he's not guilty.'"

Domestic violence calls can be some of the most volatile for police, yet in rural areas, deputies and officers often travel long distances alone and backup can be far away. It might take 30 minutes for the first officer to arrive and another 30 for backup to get to the scene. Response times have become a growing issue due to recent public safety budget cuts.

"Not to be morbid," said Vinberg, "but if somebody wanted to do an officer harm, there would be nobody there to witness it."

On the other hand, there are upsides to rural familiarity. Police may know the people involved in a domestic call, which can diffuse a situation and let an officer know what to expect at the end of the long, wooded driveway.

It helps when advocating for victims as well, said Denise Loy, who works with the Tri-County Victim Witness Program, covering Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties. "I have the opportunity, the luck to be able to pick up the phone and call the prosecuting attorney, to knock on the judge's door and call other support programs. Because we are rural and small, we know everybody. I hear from attorneys that come from metro, they say, 'You just talk to each other?' I can pick up the phone and call anyone and they know who I am and I know who they are."

"We are all expected to speak up for victims," she said.

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