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Opinion: Rural areas struggle to fund 24/7 victim services

  

Recently, my executive director, Linda Mattson, and I were invited to speak to a local community organization that included attorneys, newspaper reporters, and hospital workers. They were all familiar with North Star Advocacy Center’s services because we speak to the group almost every year. This year, we discussed the decrease in the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding and the potential to receive a smaller grant. Advocates are used to being creative, but when we risk a potential funding cut for 24/7 life-saving services, it takes much more than creativity. 

This group consistently asked, “What do you need? How can we help?” 

Over the years — and having grown up in a rural area myself — I’ve learned the compassion that comes from small towns. North Star Advocacy Center covers five counties, the city of Maryville (population roughly 12,000) being the most populated city among those counties. We have collaborated with civic organizations that have paid for a client’s reading glasses and others that adopt clients at Christmas to make sure they have gifts to open. Workers from the local hospital helped a victim of domestic violence fix her garage door on their personal time and did it so the person felt support and safety from her community. Recently, the grocery store in Albany (the second largest city in this area with a population of 1,675) helped by delivering groceries to a person we were assisting. We placed the order, and they had it gathered and scheduled for delivery before they even had our payment information. 

My coworkers and I have had clients who needed resources the rural areas often struggle to provide. For example, we had to have those groceries delivered in Albany because that client did not have a working vehicle. Although the town is small, this person was elderly, and the temperature was in the mid-90s that week; the humidity even worse. Walking was not safe or practical for her. There is no public transportation in any of the towns we serve except Maryville. It has an OATS bus, but it has limited hours that don’t always align with the times people have to be at work. Lack of transportation to get to the store, medical appointments, and/or work is a huge barrier in rural areas.  

Mental health resources are limited in rural areas as well. North Star offers short-term counseling for victims of domestic and sexual violence, but often this issue is deeper than the current circumstance that brought them to our doors. Abuse can occur not only in current relationships but can also exist from past relationships. An unfortunate outcome of lifelong abuse leads to mental health issues that often go untreated because of a lack of resources. If a client is seeking counseling from one of our surrounding towns, they may have more than an hour drive, one way, to make it to their appointment. If a client needs long-term therapy with someone who practices certain specialties, they must drive to a much larger city. 

Being able to afford counseling is another barrier for victims. Maybe they can afford it, but they don’t have the transportation to get to the nearest town that offers it. Or maybe they don’t have enough money to fill their vehicle’s gas tank. It could be they don’t have enough money for the co-pay, or maybe they don’t have insurance that will cover a few sessions. I’ve worked with victims who wanted to receive counseling, but they didn’t want their insurance billed because then their abuser would see it. 

Like many other shelters in rural areas, ours has limited housing availability and even more limited affordable housing. Domestic violence isn’t a crime that affects only people with little to no income. This crime is about power and control. Advocates work with many victims who were not allowed to have a job, or their abuser would make it very hard to keep a job. We’ve worked with people who weren’t allowed to see or touch the finances. Often when they flee, they are starting over with very little to nothing. Saving money takes time, and unexpected life events like sickness and car trouble are inevitable. One typically can’t afford the first month’s rent and deposit when they’ve only established a part-time job at one of the five restaurants in town. Often, safe housing is hard to find in a rural area. To help with this, we provide transitional housing to help keep them safe.

Creativity is figuring out how to meet the needs of the victims we serve when resources aren’t as accessible. Our organization isn’t in an area where long-term, specialized counseling is available, but we can provide gift cards for gas to travel to the city that does provide this specialized service. We can sometimes pay the first month’s rent and deposit so a victim can save the first paycheck. 

I look at our community and am so grateful and amazed at how they take care of each other, and particularly, take care of those in need. There are a lot of struggles, but there’s a lot of kindness, too. To answer the question, “What do you need?” I’d say this: We need stable state and federal funding in rural areas to be able to provide 24/7 for victims of domestic and sexual violence who may not have the means to access safety and support without it. Something as simple as providing a gift card to someone who can’t afford gas this month is so simple, yet cannot be provided while funds are being cut. While urban areas of the state might have higher numbers of victims served, rural survivors also need and deserve safety and support in their local communities.