In rural Pennsylvania, battered women struggle to stay hidden

    Domestic violence happens everywhere – college campuses, big cities and suburban townships. But rural victims of partner abuse face a unique set of barriers. Rural areas often lack the public transportation, law enforcement, and shelter and housing resources to help them leave abusive relationships behind.

    There is also the isolation of rural life, where the closest neighbor may be miles away. But that kind of privacy may conceal danger. One woman, “C” lives in rural Pennsylvania. She spent years coping with her husband’s extreme jealousy, stranglehold on personal interactions, and constant emotional abuse. C, a mother of four, tried to break away.

    “I left him several times – and every time I usually ended up going back, he would threaten my family – anything he could think of. And it always worked,” she said.

    Domestic violence is about power and control. On average, a victim tries to leave her partner seven times. But it is when a victim attempts to separate from an abuser that she is most at risk.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    It was during one of those attempts that C was ambushed by her estranged husband. She was in hiding, living in an apartment she had found with the help of a shelter. It took her husband a single day of walking the roads, one by one, to spot her car and where she was staying. With a gun in his waistband and his hand clamped around her wrist, he drove her to their home in a borough of a few hundred residents in Clearfield County. On the way, C’s husband told her his plan.

    “He outlined what he was going to do to my oldest son — he said he would cut him into unrecognizable pieces. He was going to shoot everyone in my family, and he was going to burn all of their houses,” she said.

    Slow response time

    C said she knew law enforcement might not be able to stop him. Response time can be excruciatingly slow in rural communities. State police are tasked with patrolling more than half of Pennsylvania’s 2,565 municipalities – most of them in rural areas. With so many miles to cover, it can take emergency services 30 to 45 minutes to reach the scene of a crime.

    “There was no houses around us, and the houses that were in a three-mile range were either his family members, or his family members’ friends,” she recalled.

    When they arrived at their house, C’s husband raped her and made her beg him to spare her life. Then he let her go.

    “The night the assault occurred, that’s why he took me there. There’s no one. If you take off running you’ve got farm fields.”

    Nowhere to go

    In many rural communities, there is no public transportation. If the abuser holds the keys to the family car, walking out the door is not an option. If a victim does escape to a shelter – it is an open question as to where she and her children will go next.

    According to Lou Ann Williams, “there is no housing in Indiana County,” between Altoona and Pittsburgh.Williams is the executive director of the Alice Paul House, the only women’s shelter in a county where new-found prosperity from natural gas drilling has contributed to a housing shortage.

    “We do have a number of individuals here related to the Marcellus Shale drilling. So if individuals do come for shelter – it’s difficult to find a place to go – as demand for housing has increased, so has pricing,” said Williams.

    The Alice Paul House offers residence to victims for 30 days. The nondescript building is located at an undisclosed address and has a communal kitchen, a living room and four bedrooms. There are no exterior windows; skylights let in the sun, and children can play in a fully enclosed playground. It affords victims a measure of safety as they try and figure out their next step.

    Williams said this kind of privacy is not usually an option for individuals in rural areas who seek assistance from state and local agencies.

    “In the city, if you go to get service, you’re probably going to go into a building where you probably don’t know anybody and there’s some safety in anonymity,” Williams says. “In a rural area, you could walk in and see someone who used to baby-sit for you; you could walk in and see your neighbor. So you’re not keeping a secret. You’re putting it out there.”

    The paradox of rural privacy

    Rural communities embody a strange contradiction — the visibility that comes with living in small towns and the privacy of isolation.

    University of California at Davis Law Professor Lisa Pruitt studies rural culture and calls it the “paradox of rural privacy.”

    “Do you have more of it, or do you have less of it? You have less informational privacy – so it’s harder to keep things private, like the fact that you called the police,” she says. “But you may have more physical privacy in terms of people being aware of what goes on in your home, or on your ranch, or in your barn, simply because space shields people from prying eyes.”

    In Indiana County, if someone seeks a petition for protection from abuse, there is a strong likelihood Judge Carol Hannah will hear the case. Hannah said for an order to be effective, it has to address a victim’s needs on a number of fronts.

    “So it has to secure their housing, their transportation, child custody, financial support, securing weapons,” said Hannah.

    A prevalence of firearms

    The ability of a judge to remove firearms and ammunition could be critical. A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that 18 percent of homicides in rural areas involved an intimate partner, compared with 6 percent in large cities.

    Guns are common in rural areas, and Hannah said her jurisdiction is no exception.

    “In our county, I’d say more than half of the cases, the batterer owns or possesses firearms, and in a substantial portion of those cases there’s either been a threat to use that firearm, or the firearm has been attempted to have been used,” said Hannah. “If the firearm is used successfully, you won’t be filing a petition for protection from abuse.”

    A 2008 paper on rural domestic violence by Pruitt cites studies that indicate batterers in rural settings were more likely to inflict severe injuries than those in urban areas. There is also some evidence of higher rates of sexual assault and death threats in rural areas.

    But statistics are hard to come by; many state agencies and small town police departments do not keep figures on domestic violence.

    C’s family convinced her to go to the police with her story. Eventually her husband was convicted of a felony and two misdemeanors. He spent six months in prison and is currently out on parole. Now, says C, she has more good days than bad.

    But she still looks over her shoulder, and said she does not know how to divorce her husband without cluing him in to where she lives and works.

    ‘If we’re gone, where will they go?’

    Williams noted that in 2011, the Alice Paul House helped 700 victims of domestic violence in Indiana County, including C.

    “My real concern is as funding dwindles, who’s going to do this? If we’re gone, where will they go?” said Williams.

    This year’s Pennsylvania state budget included a 20 percent cut to the Department of Public Welfare, and the removal of General Assistance funds which provided $205 a month to victims of domestic violence, among others. A lawsuit in Commonwealth Court seeks to restore the benefit.

    The 2012/13 budget for the Alice Paul House is $613,597 — which Williams called bare bones and dependent on dedicated volunteers. She said her wish is that domestic violence was recognized as a real problem, “and as a real problem, someone needs to throw some real money at it.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal