Stressed rural domestic violence shelters are turning people away

Stressed rural domestic violence shelters are turning people away
(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Debbie Mayo, director of New Horizons Crisis Center, sits in one of the bedrooms at its shelter in Richfield. Mayo said her central Utah facility is able to occasionally take in people from other overcrowded rural shelters, but she also struggles to serve those in need in her service area — five counties and over 13,500 square miles.

The following story was supported by funding from the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

On a typical afternoon in 2021, Kait Sorensen answered the phone at a rural Utah domestic violence shelter — and had a conversation that will haunt her for years to come.

The anxious caller said she saw a flyer for Canyon Creek Services in Cedar City and was nervous about her potentially abusive partner. “He’s never hit me,” Sorensen remembers her saying, but she added that he had threatened to hurt her.

Sorensen ticked through a list with her — a lethality assessment protocol — designed to measure the likelihood that a domestic violence situation could become deadly. The list quickly filled with affirmative answers as Sorensen asked, “Have they ever threatened to kill you or your children?” and “Do you believe they will try to kill you?”

At the end, Sorensen believed the woman and her child needed to leave — fast. But the few dozen beds in the shelter were full and their hotel budget was tapped out. Sorensen pleaded with the woman to just wait one hour while she made some calls to find her a place to stay.

Defeated, the woman replied that calling the shelter’s number was already the hardest thing she’d ever done. “I just think maybe this is my sign that I just need to stick it out,” Sorensen remembers her saying. “… It’s better for me to just take the risk and hope for the best because he will kill me if I leave.”

She hung up, and Sorensen never heard from her again.

“Agencies like ours who are throwing everything we have to do the most basic thing … we’re still trying to figure out how to shelter people,” Sorenson said, “and everyone thinks that’s already been figured out.”

In rural Utah, domestic violence service providers are in a crisis caused by a lack of funding and resources but an ever-increasing number of victims seeking help.

One sign of the need: Rural Utah counties file a slightly greater number of domestic violence-related charges per capita than more populous counties, according to an analysis by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project.

While 10 percent of Utahns live in rural areas, almost 17 percent of domestic violence-related charges originate in rural counties.

Tiny Grand County in rural eastern Utah topped the per-capita list for domestic violence cases filed in district court — while Salt Lake County, with the largest population in the state, ranked fourth highest.

Rural Carbon, Duchesne and San Juan counties were second, third and fifth on that list. The counties, also in eastern Utah, rank 15th, 16th and 17th by population, respectively.

The journalism nonprofit filed numerous court data requests and examined almost a quarter million criminal charges in state district and justice courts — about 106,000 cases over the past decade. [Explore the data on GitHub.]

A recent change designed to help domestic violence victims has led to even more demand for services.

Last summer, the state mandated that police officers ask victims the questions in the lethality assessment protocol. That, in turn, has led to increased demand for assistance, advocates said, and an uptick in reported cases of domestic violence.

The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition said it saw a 93 percent increase in referrals for services since the protocol became mandatory in May 2023. The Wasatch Front saw 72 percent more lethality screens on average, while the rest of Utah saw 32 percent more.

*The data for 2023 reflect the first 11 months, when 5,467 charges were filed in district courts and 6,160 in justice courts. Source: Utah State Courts, K. Sophie Will| The Utah Investigative Journalism Project| Graphic by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, whose cousin was killed by the cousin’s ex-husband in 2022, led the effort to mandate the screenings. She said the Legislature will need to shore up support.

“I don’t want to say we’re being crushed by the success of this program,” Henderson said in a recent interview. “But it’s clear we need more resources.”

In a follow-up statement, she noted Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget seeks $2 million in additional funds for domestic violence programs, including resources for rural areas. She said her office is working with lawmakers to make sure the boost gets funded.

‘Nowhere for anybody to go’

One of the biggest hurdles to getting out of a domestic violence situation in rural areas is just having a place to go — for a temporary shelter stay, or for an alleged victim and an accused abuser to move apart.

Sorensen, now the executive director at Canyon Creek Services, said she has to refer about 35 people per month to other shelters and services when her beds are full. Canyon Creek Services spends about $50,000 a year on hotels, but there are people her organization cannot take in or provide housing, she said.

She’s not the only one. Abi Taylor is the executive director of Seekhaven in the housing-crunched tourist town of Moab, and her shelter has space for, at most, 10 people at a time.

Last year, she provided rooms for 90 people and provided 2,419 shelter nights. She must constantly grapple with whether she must ask someone to leave her shelter once more “acute” situations come in, she said, weighing who they can relocate as soon as possible and how long it is fair to keep people in hotel rooms — especially if they’re returning clients.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Seekhaven deputy director, Vanessa Eylilly, and Seekhaven executive director, Abi Taylor, in Moab, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024

“It is a difficult situation to juggle, and we often are placed in sticky situations,” she said. “We absolutely cannot afford this long term.”

Her shelter serves most of the eastern half of the state, with some of its coverage area so rural that the state classifies it as the frontier.

Debbie Mayo, executive director of New Horizons Crisis Center in Richfield, said her central Utah facility is able to occasionally take in people from other rural shelters. But she also struggles due to the sheer size of her own service area — five counties and over 13,500 square miles.

That means it could be a few hours drive for a victim to get to the shelter, if they even have a way to get there. So, Mayo spends a couple thousand dollars a month from an already tight budget for hotels for victims that are too far away.

“We do quite a bit of hotels just because it’s stupid for someone to drive an hour and a half to work,” she said, “or to take their kids to school and then come back to the shelter.”

For longer-term housing, the problem can be not just the price, but also the availability.

“The housing crisis and child care crisis here in our communities is a big barrier to people relocating and finding stability,” said Taylor, in Moab.

The cost of living and housing, said Moab Police Chief Lex Bell said, “is probably responsible for our high rate of recidivism, because there’s nowhere for anybody to go once they get out [of jail].”

‘Everybody’s going to know about it’

While all service providers are feeling the strain of more people to support with less funding, advocates say there are other particular stresses on Utah’s rural communities, in addition to the housing crunch.

People in small towns might be more hesitant to reach out for help in a domestic violence situation, advocates say, because everyone knows everyone else. “There’s the humiliation of ‘everybody’s going to know about it,’” said Mayo.

For rural providers, the opportunity to build their resources is further stymied by the fact that some grant givers and foundations only cover specific areas, like the Wasatch Front.

“Needing to constantly search for new funding avenues to not only maintain our programs but to grow programs and to be able to meet the need that we see in the community is always the challenge that we’re facing,” said Ashlee Taylor, executive director of Utah County-based The Refuge.

Canyon Creek Services has seen a 75 percent increase in hotline calls since January 2023. At the peak of those calls, Sorensen said, the organization lost three advocate positions because of lack of funding, particularly from a cut to federal Victims of Crime Act grants.

Plus, rural areas are often the poorest. The census and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in Utah in 2021, the eastern parts of the state were the poorest, with San Juan County having a full quarter of its population living in poverty.

“There isn’t a higher prevalence of domestic violence in individuals that are of low economic status,” Taylor said. “It’s just more obvious because they need more services.”

In tourist-dependent or gas and oil-producing areas, which can overlap in the eastern part of the state, there’s been an increase in population and an economic boom, but “we’re not seeing an equal investment in the social services side,” said Adam Gaus, the executive director of Friends Against Family Violence, which covers northern Utah.

Isolation also creates challenges because of the lack of public transportation and the long distances between towns.

Gaus said having a victim’s advocate at a scene is important, but sometimes an advocate can be an hour or two away.

“Unlike in urban areas where you have a pressure valve … and there’s typically other ways that you can have your needs met, unfortunately, in geographically isolated communities, there’s just not that,” Hernandez said. “So, you use the one thing that you have, which is calling the cops and pressing charges.”

‘See, nothing happened to me’

Chad Dotson, the Iron County attorney since 2019, said domestic violence cases consistently make up about a quarter of his workload, although he saw an increase in the number and severity of cases during the pandemic.

Though urban areas might have a higher total number of cases, he thinks rural areas have more per capita because law enforcement has more time to investigate each case and send them to a prosecutor.

In urban areas, “they have such a high volume that they’re going to decline a lot of domestic violence cases,” he said.

Dotson also echoes the view that fearful and reluctant witnesses are the biggest challenge to convicting abusers.

His office has had success prosecuting cases without a cooperative victim by using 911 calls, testimony from medical providers, photographs of the scene and other evidence. However, prosecutors also depend on trauma-informed experts or witnesses who can explain why a victim would not testify, because a jury may not always understand.

*Data is from December 2013 through November 2023. Source; Utah State Courts, K. Sophie Will| The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. Graphic by Christopher Cherrington| The Salt Lake Tribune.

“We’re always looking for new and creative ways to hold perpetrators accountable,” Dotson said.

Some rural victims also may be hesitant to press charges due to the potential for an abuser to lose access to guns, he added.

”People in rural areas are very avid hunters, and that is a big thing. Losing their gun rights is a huge thing. So for a lot of victims, the thought of that happening to their partner or ex-partner … the fear of that is that they’ll just freak out,” Mayo said.

In the first nine months of 2023, 121 reported domestic violence incidents with a spouse or partner involved a gun, according to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification.

Sometimes, prosecutors don’t have the evidence to overcome a victim’s lack of cooperation — and that’s “one of the main reasons that plea negotiations take place in a domestic violence case,” Dotson said. “… The reality is sometimes you do have to reduce the charge if we can’t prove it.”

Sometimes, Dotson said, cases are dismissed and then refiled to better fit the evidence or to be pursued in another jurisdiction. “In our jurisdiction, I would say it would be a very small percentage or it would be very rare that we would just outright dismiss a case,” he said.

About 60 percent of district court cases and 69 percent of justice court cases statewide had at least one charge dismissed, with or without prejudice, the data showed. Class B Misdemeanors in both courts are the most frequently dismissed charges.

In cases where charges are dropped, advocates warn, the dismissal can lead to abusers feeling empowered.

*Data is from December 2013 through November 2023. Source; Utah State Courts, K. Sophie Will| The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. Graphic by Christopher Cherrington| The Salt Lake Tribune.

Sorensen, of Canyon Creek Services, said that because most domestic violence charges are misdemeanors and jail time is not always guaranteed, some victims see charges as aggravating their situation instead of solving it.

“I think that the way that we charge domestic violence in the state of Utah is a really big barrier for us to see more cases move through,” she said. “When we do have one that’s dismissed, I would say that’s one of the most frequent times that we see a survivor return to a perpetrator, and then we get another protocol call within a few months or they completely fall off the face of the earth and we never talk to them again.”

“Abusers need to be held accountable, and when they’re not held accountable, that’s part of their power and control that they can go home and be like, ‘See, nothing happened to me,’” Mayo said.

As cases increase, and subsequently need for services increases, rural providers are nearing a breaking point, they say. Already a high-turnover profession because of its traumatic nature, adding the powerlessness of not being able to help all those who need it takes its toll.

“Most of us will never be the same,” Sorensen said. “And most of us won’t stay in this field long enough to see the changes that we’re advocating for, even if they come in 10 years, because it just churns people into oblivion.”

Finding help • Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, can call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the statewide sexual assault line run by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault at (801) 736-4356 and in Spanish: Línea de Apoyo de Violencia Sexual las 24 Horas de Utah: (801) 924-0860.

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