February 13, 2008

Study explores issues facing rural victim advocates

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Conditions in rural settings present unique challenges to professional advocates who work with people trapped in violent relationships. Yet, rural life in some ways offers unexpected supports.

Researchers from Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Sociology, along with counterparts in the University's Center for Rural Violence and Justice Studies have spent the last 18 months looking at various aspects of domestic violence in rural areas with the help of a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

They will discuss their findings in a symposium that will take place in the spring, on March 23, but sociologists Jennifer L. Dunn and Michelle Hughes Miller with graduate students Shelly A. McGrath and Melencia M. Johnson already have presented papers on their work at annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the American Society of Criminology.

Dunn and Miller both have longstanding research interests in violence against women. The federal grant allowed them to investigate aspects not generally studied.

"There's a vast literature on victims, but we don't know that much about advocates, and rural crime and victimization have been ignored," said Miller, who also heads University Women's Professional Advancement.

"Knowing more about what makes it hard for rural advocates to do their jobs might lead us toward some solutions or at least identify areas of needs — and strengths, too, because it's not only about needs and challenges. It's also about how creative these rural advocates are, and how persistent and how patient and how selfless and how hard they work."

The researchers focused on 16 counties in the part of deep Southern Illinois that lies within the Delta Region, one of America's poorest areas. Almost 18 percent of Delta Region residents live in poverty; nationally, 12.4 percent of Americans qualify as poor. The team interviewed victim advocates by telephone and also conducted a focus group with advocates who worked in shelters and agencies.

"We wanted to describe their experiences and how they dealt with victims in an area that is so poor, so rural and with few places to go for help," Miller said.

Advocates told the researchers that high unemployment rates, the prevalence of poverty, lack of housing, jobs and public transportation, inadequate police protection, certain cultural attitudes and the fact that everybody knows everybody else's business made their jobs harder.

The transportation problem proved by far the most troublesome.

"It complicated just about every other aspect," McGrath said.

"People can't just take a bus to get to the advocacy center, and even after they get there, there's a problem with getting to court, getting to work if they had a job, getting to the doctor."

While transportation emerged as what Dunn called "a huge issue," it was one advocates felt they could work with.

"They can't find everyone jobs or housing or get everyone educated or trained, but they can find them rides that get them where they need to go," she said.

"Sometimes they're even taking the children of victims to school so the victims can get to their jobs or go to the doctor. They spend a lot of time driving people around and paying for it themselves."

Rural attitudes also complicate the advocate's job, the researchers said, as does the lack of privacy common in small towns.

"Police and judges are not always sympathetic or helpful and neither are people in the community," Miller noted.

"There's a strong sense that people should take care of their own — that problems are private, which means you can't call the police for help, and meanwhile, your pastor is telling you that you must stay with your husband. And even if you make it into the criminal justice system, maybe the abuser is the son of the judge's best friend."

But the very connections that sometimes hinder can also help.

"In an urban area, advocates may send victims to an agency, but in rural areas, advocates have to find solutions more directly," Dunn said.

"They work very hard on developing good relationships with judges, prosecutors, business owners and others in the community. They might draw on the fact that they knew somebody from grade school to solve a problem, or they would call someone they knew in the housing authority and say, 'Can you put this person in one of your apartments?'

"You get the sense that the advocates are subject to more pressure than they would be in a larger community where they weren't as well known, but that can go the other way, too. They can exert their own pressure."

Rural connections also make it harder for advocates to distance themselves from their clients.

"They know so much about what's going on, how much help their clients need," Dunn said.

"I think that all advocates go above and beyond their job duties, but I think in rural areas, this is more striking."

Added Johnson, "Most of them feel going above and beyond is just part of the job description. The fact that they are helping the victims is what matters."