Hays, Kan. — For women in abusive relationships, taking that first step to leave is often distressing enough.
Now imagine facing that decision in a sparsely populated part of western Kansas where you’re miles from the nearest neighbor and hours from the nearest help.
Jennifer Hecker, director of Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, said nearly three of every four women who come to the shelter in Hays have to drive more than an hour to get to there.
“We live in a resource desert,” Hecker said. “Do we have enough shelter? The short answer is ‘no.’”
Options is the only organization that provides around-the-clock care for people experiencing domestic and sexual violence in 18 counties that span from north-central Kansas to the Colorado border.
And during the pandemic, Hecker said, the need for Options’ services escalated. In 2020, the number of help requests rose roughly 60% over the previous year. Calls to its helpline jumped 40%.
Incidents of domestic violence have risen around the globe since the arrival of COVID-19, fueled by increased isolation and stress. In 2020, one Kansan lost their lives to domestic violence every 10 days.
Women caught in that kind of terror at home in western Kansas and other rural parts of the state face extra barriers when it comes to seeking help. For starters, there’s often no rescue nearby.
“Emotional isolation is really a consequence of the geographic and physical isolation,” Ziwei Qi, a criminal justice professor at Fort Hays State University, said. “There’s nobody to tell, nowhere to go.”
Qi co-founded the university’s Center for Empowering Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Hays two years ago to study the dynamics of violence against women in rural areas and the solutions that might help.
The idea behind the center is to connect researchers, service providers — including Options — and businesses to explore ways to break the cycle of gender-based violence. That can include domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and sex trafficking.
“There’s no one entity that can solve the problems,” Qi said. “We have to have a coordinated community effort.”
Her team is currently studying how a social entrepreneurship program that offers victims a place where they can get job training and employment while living in a supportive residential community could empower women in rural Kansas to overcome the socioeconomic barriers that often keep them trapped in bad situations.
Hecker with Options said those economic and logistical hurdles often pile up to make the thought of leaving home that much more daunting for rural victims. For example, she said most of the women her team serves don’t have their own vehicle — another tactic that perpetrators use to control them.
“What they’re faced with is simply a lack of options,” Hecker said. “Oftentimes, victims feel like their choice is: Better the devil I know than the devil I don’t.”
Everyone knows everyone
The isolation and lack of access to help in remote areas is often compounded by the cultural dynamics of small-town life, which tend to sweep this type of violence under the rug.
“They go to church together, they work together. … It’s hard to believe that someone they know could be perpetuating that kind of violence,” Hecker said. “So often victims are not believed, and the violence continues.”
Hecker said the counties in her region with the lowest number of survivors reaching out for help are the counties that have a high rate of domestic violence incidents but a low number of domestic violence arrests.
“When (survivors) reach out to the system and the system fails, they lose faith in the entire system,” Hecker said. “They stop reaching out for help, and we see that happen a lot.”
April Terry, who teaches in the Fort Hays State criminal justice program, said she saw that look-away dynamic growing up in west-central Kansas. She now sees it in her research on the causes and perceptions of rural gender-based violence.
“You get the mentality of, ‘Well, I know that person, I don’t really want to have to call the cops on them,’” Terry said, “The community doesn’t want to see certain people get in trouble for things.”
Yet research on gender-based violence in rural areas is thin. She said most studies from big cities show that the more close-knit a community, the more willing its residents will be to prevent and report crime.
“That’s really not true in small towns,” she said. “It’s a lot of ‘mind your own business’ kind of mentality.”
That sensibility may make it less likely for a police officer to arrest a family friend or more likely for a neighbor to stay quiet about the violence they witness.
And she said the close-knit communities that small towns take pride in often leave people who don’t have the right family reputation on the outside looking in.
On top of that, she said rural areas have an increased prevalence of traditional gender norms and a lack of anonymity. That all makes it less likely that a survivor will feel safe reporting violence.
“The stigma piece,” Terry said, “is just a big, big barrier for girls and women in rural places.”
Hecker said the pandemic exacerbated this situation in rural communities for a number of reasons.
As people lost their jobs or had to stay home, fuses got shorter. A couple that might previously have had eight or 10 hours apart each day while they’re at work suddenly spent more time cooped up together. She said that often eliminated the “cooling-off period” and accelerated the cycle of violence.
She’s seen the intensity of violence against women escalate during the pandemic as well. Some perpetrators have even used the virus as an additional form of manipulation, either threatening to expose victims to COVID as a punishment or using the fear of contracting COVID outside as a way to keep victims from leaving the home.
She said that when lockdowns and furloughs isolated some victims at home with their abusers, that also made it more difficult for women to reach out for help with a phone call for fear of being heard.
In response, Options opened a 24-hour text helpline (text the word “hope” to 847411) and launched a smartphone app called My Mobile Options that lets victims text chat with an advocate.
What else might help western Kansas victims of gender-based violence in the long term?
Hecker said rural areas need prevention strategies focused on addressing the root causes of this violence — like rape culture and perpetrator behaviors — rather than risk management strategies that put the burden on potential victims to find ways of avoiding dangerous situations.
And she said the criminal justice system needs to better hold perpetrators — and the structures that often enable them in small towns — accountable.
Qi, the Fort Hays State professor, said rural areas also need more trauma-informed training for law enforcement, more female police officers and more funding for service providers to bring in advocates who speak multiple languages and can travel to reach victims in remote areas.
“What about those who may never talk about their experience of abuse?,” Qi said. For instance, members of LGBTQ and immigrant communities may feel even less willing to call authorities for help.
She said there should be more outreach to ensure victims are aware of the options available to help them too. For example, many victims don’t know that they can seek shelter without it being reported to law enforcement.
For women who have experienced violence, Hecker wants to make sure they understand that her team and other advocates across the state are there for them. Help is available in rural Kansas, even if it’s not as close by as it is in larger cities.
“We all deserve to live a life … without fear that we will be hurt,” Hecker said. “We all deserve happiness and safety.”
If you or someone you know is looking to talk with an advocate about gender-based violence, here are some resources that can help:
Northwest and north-central Kansas
Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Hays, with an additional satellite office in Colby
My Mobile Options app on Apple and Android
Text “hope” to 847411 to chat with an advocate 24/7
Family Crisis Services in Garden City
Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of High Plains Public Radio, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and KMUW focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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