Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Issues for Rural Communities

10/01/1996

The coordinated responses in Carlton and Northern St. Louis Counties raise a number of issues for rural communities to consider. The experiences of these two rural Minnesota communities in their efforts to create a coordinated community response to domestic violence parallel findings in other inquiries into rural service issues (e.g., mental health, homelessness). Rural communities have many strengths that help the coordination process; at the same time they face some fundamental barriers in terms of resource levels and access issues. The strengths are evident in the two communities we visited for this study. People know each other, people talk to each other, and because of their common experiences, if they decide to work on a problem, they can often be mobilized more easily and more effectively than their more isolated urban counterparts. Whenever one hears about successful rural efforts to address a particular problem, what comes to the fore is the cooperation among individuals and their ability to use all of their agency's available resources to make a difference. In addition, people are usually there for the long haul, so the same actors can be counted on to play their part over the years that it usually takes to make major changes in a complex system of services.

However, the biggest drawbacks in rural areas are the absolute lack of resources, and the distances and consequent access issues involved. There are no special units, and may not be any critical services such as chemical dependency, mental health, or batterers' treatment within feasible driving distance. Rarely are there special set-aside pots of money. Because there are few services, and therefore few caseload records to document level of need, many rural communities can deny the existence of serious problems for many years. Coordination, or even convening a meeting, can be difficult because of distances and the need to have representation from people in many different very small communities.

The two rural Minnesota communities we visited exhibited the strengths just described, and dealt with the difficulties by starting small and persisting. Rural Women Advocates on the Range has been working for 18 years, and is the hub of all activities related to domestic violence in the area. The Carlton County community coordinating effort is much younger (only about five years at this point). It has accomplished some significant things, but also clearly has further to go because it has not been working at system change for as long. In both communities, virtually all elements of the justice system are parties to the coordination effort. On the Range many participants come from a variety of other agencies and services as well, and efforts are underway to include community opinion leaders (e.g., clergy, business leaders, and educators) who can help change public opinion to create a climate that refuses to support violent behavior.