Coalition against domestic, sexual violence reports to community

Saundra Amsden is the recipient of the 2017 Courage Award from the Ravalli County Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE) has been providing aid and shelter to survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Ravalli County for 30 years. Twenty years ago, SAFE expanded its efforts and joined with other organizations and agencies to form the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Every year they give a Report to the Community on the state of affairs.

According to SAFE’s Community Program Director Jamie Ogden, after 20 years of work, the numbers show that the coalition is not putting an end to domestic and sexual violence in Ravalli County, but that it is making a big difference in how those cases are handled.

Last year, the reported number of partner and family member assault cases in the county was 145 and, of those cases, 97% resulted in an arrest. The Justice Court system handled 103 misdemeanor cases and of the 70 that reached disposition, 32 resulted in a guilty conviction. In 2016, SAFE served 339 adults and 86 children. Seventy-seven percent of those sought services because of domestic violence. Sixty-one adults and 50 children lived in SAFE’s emergency shelter with an average stay of 24 days. Twelve adults and 21 kids lived in SAFE’s Transitional Housing with an average stay of 18 months.

Ogden said that the number of people being served has not fluctuated much over the years. But the numbers also indicate that the work of the coalition is making a difference in how those people are served. She said they worked with the legislature to make laws allowing law enforcement officers to issue a no-contact order at the scene of a crime and then have a judge confirm it. She said the number of reported violations is creeping upward and the number of arrests is creeping upward as well.

“The story of the numbers may be that we are not ending domestic violence, but we are figuring out how pervasive the problem can be and all the intersections of the various issues involved in domestic violence,” said Ogden. “We are learning that you can’t talk about homelessness without talking about domestic violence, and we can’t talk about domestic violence without talking about schools and early childhood education, and we can’t talk about children without talking about trauma, there is so much connection between these issues.”

Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said that he was proud to be a part of the Coalition. He said the Coalition has made consistent progress “one step at a time” over the past 20 years in addressing these issues.

“We live in a different world now in terms of domestic and sexual violence in Ravalli County, thanks to the work of this coalition,” said Holton. He said they took another big step last year with the implementation of the state’s first Lethality Assessment Project (LAP). The project is a collaboration between SAFE, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office, and the Hamilton and Darby Police Departments initiated by the Coalition’s Legal Issues Committee. The protocol is based on the work of Dr. Jaqueline Campbell, a pioneer in domestic violence research. As part of the protocol, survivors are connected immediately, from the scene, with an advocate at SAFE.

Holton called the project “extremely successful.” According to the Community Report, of the 11 screening questions, the most frequent lethality indicators in Ravalli County were: access to a weapon (76%), extreme jealousy and control (76%), separation (67%), and strangulation (62%).  He said they have conducted over 1,000 danger assessments and close to half of those who screened as high lethality sought follow-up services with SAFE.

Keynote speaker at the event this year was Linda Olsen from the Washington (state) Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She spoke about her organization’s efforts to address domestic violence by focusing on the issue of housing. She is Housing Program Director in a “Housing First” pilot project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Research shows that more than a third of domestic violence survivors report becoming homeless immediately after separating from their partners. Poverty compounds the housing issue. In a study of residents in domestic violence shelters across the country, 84% reported that they needed help finding affordable housing. According to a 2014 report based on a community survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau on homelessness in Montana, nearly 60% of Montana’s female heads of household who have children live in poverty. Nearly 70% of Ravalli County’s female heads of household who have children live in poverty. In 2006, according to the same report, nearly 40% of surveyed homeless families with children in Montana were employed part-time or full-time.

Olsen said that nearly half the women who survive domestic violence will say afterward, “I just want to go home.” The reason is that home is generally a place of sanctuary and peace, a place of healing, and having a safe and secure home environment is a key element in the healing process. The “housing first” approach they are piloting is based on a “flexible financial assistance” program as well. They help survivors make home security improvements, and can help pay for things like school pictures, and activity fees to promote the return of “normalcy” to the lives of the survivors and their children.

According to Olsen, lack of services, lack of access to services, and lack of coordination between agencies providing services represent some of the biggest hurdles in dealing effectively with domestic violence. She had high words of praise for the Ravalli County Coalition and what has been accomplished here.

The Coalition is not just a group of agencies and organizations, however, it is a community of dedicated individuals helping other individuals in the community who need the help.

This year’s Courage Award went to Saundra Amsden. Amsden doesn’t see herself so much as a survivor, but she knows one when she sees one, and that’s all it took to get her motivated to do something about it.

“Growing up I always had a nice home and good clothes,” said Amsden, upon accepting the award. “But at that time I had no idea how good I had it.” She said even as a grown-up with kids of her own, she always knew that if she had trouble she could go to her parents for help and she did when she needed to.

Then, just before turning 28 years old, she joined the Navy and ended up travelling all over the country and overseas. That experience was an eye opener for her. She saw the awful conditions that many kids in the world grow up in. On her third duty station, in San Diego, she was the only female legal officer in the squadron. Anytime there was an issue involving a woman it became her issue, she said. She served on the Sexual Assault Response Team.

In that job, she said, she was exposed to people who had absolutely horrendous childhoods that she could not even imagine, and to see them trying to turn their lives around in the Navy was inspiring to her.

Upon retiring from the Navy in 2009, Amsden returned to the Bitterroot Valley and took up volunteering in a major way. She has worked at Haven House, with the Soroptimists, PFLAG, and SAFE.

“It’s not all altruistic,” said Amsden, about her volunteering. “I get a lot out of it for myself. There’s a reward for helping others that you just don’t get from a job, or from mowing your lawn.” She said the most important times are when some kid comes back just to say hello and wants to give you a hug and may even say, “You’re cool.”

Amsden recalled speaking up for LGBT rights at a local school board meeting and how, afterward, three people “quickly and quietly” came up and said, “thank you” and walked away.

“They knew it needed done but they were afraid to stand up for themselves because they are not in a safe place to do so,” said Amsden. “So I encourage you to look around the community and see what you can do to help out. It’s really worth it.”