By Moira Blazi
Home needs to be a safe place. Besides shelter for our bodies, it needs to provide a haven for our souls. Domestic abuse is such a tragedy because it robs its victims of that haven. It is such a thorny problem because it involves so many deep and powerful emotions, memories and wounds.
Here in Lincoln County, the rate of domestic abuse is very high. The majority of local cases involve substance abuse, but less than half include mental health issues. Statewide, the number of victims killed in intimate partner homicides has increased by 139% from 2016-2018 as compared to the two years prior, and, according to the Montana violence fatality review commission, a full third of all imitate partner homicides committed in the state since 2000 happened right here in Libby.
Nationwide, it is estimated that 3.3 million children witness violence against their mother or a female caretaker, yet last year in Montana for the first time, the cases involving children were not the majority. This reflects a changing face of domestic violence which is being experienced more and more by an older population.
Here in Lincoln County, we are fortunate enough to have many fine folks ready and willing to help victims.
Like Sexual assault, very few instances of domestic violence are reported to the police. Thankfully there is a staffed crisis line number and a solid network of trained advocates and safe shelters able to help.
Founded in 2003, Lincoln county Crisis Solutions has been helping victims and survivors of this insidious violence for over 15 years now. Director Barb Guthneck recalled the beginnings of the group, “We took over the group back in 2003,” she said. “It was then known as the Lincoln County woman’s helpline, and at that time it was being run by Connie Love.” The helpline was forced to close, and Barb Guthneck, Cookie Haidle , former state representative, Rita Windom, former victim witness advocate, Carol Ramos, and others took on the task of starting the group again from scratch.
We started out with nothing, all the resources, books, videos, and the equity then in the shelter were given to a Flathead county crisis line. The first year, Cookie and I and others had to support the shelter and the crisis line out of our own pockets,” Guthneck told The Montanian. “And to get that first operating money grant, we had to promise the state board of crime control that we would not have any board members or volunteers from the old organization involved. This was quite difficult, as you can imagine, because we were not able to access any of the existing local expertise in the form of folks who had been through the advocacy training program.”
Guthneck and Haidle had to begin a new training program from scratch. They started with a big old house on Utah avenue that, Guthneck said they used for a year, but eventually had to let go because of high heating costs. They then moved into the youth court basement, but soon toxic black mold was discovered there, and they had to leave again with practically no notice. Now, the organization operates two shelters, one in Libby and one in Eureka.
Since restarting, Crisis Solutions has helped hundreds of women and men escape abusive homes and relocate. They answer 1,000 to 1,200 calls per year averaging about three per day, through the Lincoln County Crisis Helpline. “If there is a death, or near death and it is reported in the media, our call numbers go way up, up to 20 a day, that’s when we have people sleeping on couches,” she said.
“Nationwide the average population using crisis services is 25-35 years old, but our average here in Lincoln County is 48,” Guthneck explained. “The older population here includes a lot of disabled seniors and older married folks who have put up with abuse forever. Often older women will allow people into their homes who say they will take care of them,” she added. “We are also the only program in western Montana that has multiple shelters, and the only one who offers safe shelter space to men.”, Guthneck continued. although less frequent, domestic violence against men does happen, and “sometimes because of mental health issues, men find themselves with sole responsibility for their kids and need some help. “we help them hold onto their kids “Guthneck explained.
Adding to these services, is another, relatively new group called Lincoln County Domestic Support group, begun by Lynette Haines in 2016, with co-founder Angel ford. The group supports a Facebook page where survivors can share stories and support. “we have helped relocate 12 people” Haines told the Montanian, and we are now offering weekly support groups through Mountain rose counseling on Mondays at 6pm. Although not yet an incorporated nonprofit, the group has in place an eleven-member board of directors and a three-member advisory group.
Lincoln County Domestic Support group will be holding a “Martyrs march” in support of domestic violence victims on October 5 from 7 to 9 pm downtown beginning at the Libby police station.
When these crimes are reported to law enforcement, the County Victim Witness Advocate, Jessica Vanderhoef is there to help survivors of domestic violence navigate the legal system. She is notified when someone is charged with a violent crime, many of which include domestic violence. “I accompany victims to interviews court appearances, and attorney appointments, keep them informed of upcoming dates, and help them get orders of protection.” As part of the Lincoln County Attorney’s office, Vanderhoef meets one on one with victims, and helps them apply for monetary compensation from the state and grants from the Victims of Crimes act (VOCA). She works closely with Lincoln County attorney Marcia Boris.
When deciding whether to take a case to trial, Boris says she “…looks at a number of things, like the victims wishes, and the criminal history of the defendant. Boris says that although about 95% of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, “ most people don’t like to plea to domestic abuse because they lose gun rights “But being tough on domestic and sexual assault doesn’t mean every case has to go to trial, if we went to trial on every case the system would grind to a halt” Boris told The Montanian.,” but, when it is appropriate, I’ve never had any problem taking these (domestic abuse) cases to trial. What’s really important to us is helping victims, and we use whatever services are available, but we will not refer victims to any entity if we do not feel comfortable with their training, certification and resources.”. both Vanderhoef and Boris work closely with Lincoln county crisis solutions, “I know they are reliable” , added Boris.
Barb Guthneck and Cookie Haidle have been at this for a long time and, though extremely emotionally exhausting, are glad to continue. “Nobody was there for me, so I promised myself that I would be there for them, she recalled, I slept in a tent and in my car, but I didn’t have kids, you have to get help if you have kids.” Guthneck told the Montanian,” It is so important for women in abusive situations to get a skill, get some education, learn to take care of themselves, especially if they have kids”
The crisis hotline number is 406-293-3223 and Lincoln county crisis solutions can be reached at 291-0522 or find them on Facebook, Lincoln county domestic support group maintains a member’s only Facebook page.
County Victim Witness Advocate, Jessica Vanderhoef.
Photo by Moira Blazi of The Montanian