In the Minnesota countryside, sheer isolation can make domestic violence both dangerous for victims and complicated for police. The nearest neighbors may be miles away. Cell phone reception is often poor. Transportation options, beyond driving, can be limited or nonexistent.
It’s hard to compare the rates of domestic violence in rural and urban communities, in part because the crimes so often go unreported. Also, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension doesn’t separate domestic assaults from the larger pool of assault statistics in its annual Uniform Crime Reports. The reports do include a category called “Family/Children,” which can include domestic violence. In 2010, the rate for rural family crime was roughly half the urban rate.
But there are certainly factors particular to rural areas that contribute to violent behavior and shape the way it’s addressed.
“Rural areas have higher rates of poverty in general,” said Joseph F. Donnermeyer, professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University. “Unemployment can create issues that show up on a crime blotter.” He said there may be more traditional gender roles at play as well. “Men lose their patriarchal job and guess what happens, domestic violence against women goes up.”
Stacy Vinberg, an assistant county attorney in Yellow Medicine County in western Minnesota, with a population of just over 10,000, spells out an all-too-typical rural scenario. “A lot of times, women will be on the farm and that is their sole source of income,” she said. “They may not have had any training otherwise, so they are less empowered to make that phone call to get out of that situation. They have no idea how they are going to cope, how they are going to live. They think if they are not using the income of their husband, they have no other means. To a certain extent that can be true. You are not going to find a housewife of 20 years in a rural area moving to the city and becoming a corporate executive or anything.”
Even if the wife in Vinberg’s story calls the police and charges are filed against the husband, she’s then got to grapple with community perceptions, the stigma. “You don’t have the anonymity out here that you do in the urban center,” Vinberg said. “Let’s say there is a jury trial and the jury is made up of peers. In a small community, that may be people who have heard of Joe Smith. He sits on the elevator board and goes to 4H. They look at him and say, ‘He’s successful and she’s never reported this before, so she just wants money and he’s not guilty.’”
Domestic violence calls can be some of the most volatile for police, yet in rural areas, deputies and officers often travel long distances alone and backup can be far away. It might take 30 minutes for the first officer to arrive and another 30 for backup to get to the scene. Response times have become a growing issue due to recent public safety budget cuts.
“Not to be morbid,” said Vinberg, “but if somebody wanted to do an officer harm, there would be nobody there to witness it.”
On the other hand, there are upsides to rural familiarity. Police may know the people involved in a domestic call, which can diffuse a situation and let an officer know what to expect at the end of the long, wooded driveway.
It helps when advocating for victims as well, said Denise Loy, who works with the Tri-County Victim Witness Program, covering Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties. “I have the opportunity, the luck to be able to pick up the phone and call the prosecuting attorney, to knock on the judge’s door and call other support programs. Because we are rural and small, we know everybody. I hear from attorneys that come from metro, they say, ‘You just talk to each other?’ I can pick up the phone and call anyone and they know who I am and I know who they are.”
“We are all expected to speak up for victims,” she said.