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Five advocates, 14,000 miles: The challenges of addressing domestic violence in rural Montana

Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses
Posted at 8:34 PM, Nov 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 18:59:52-05

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series looking at the challenges of helping domestic violence victims in rural Montana. The second part takes a closer look at domestic violence trends in the state and what needs to change.

CONRAD — Domestic violence has been a growing problem in Montana, with an act of domestic violence being reported to law enforcement across the state every 1.5 to 2 hours on average in recent years according to data from the Montana Department of Justice.

The vast areas of Big Sky Country can create additional challenges for organizations that work to help victims, issues Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses knows all too well.

Located in Conrad, the five-employee organization cover a 14,000 square-mile area comprised of six counties.

“My advocates travel about 12,000 miles a year doing this work,” explained Executive Director Connie Huffman. “That everything from going and meeting victims, taking them to court, transporting them, doing public awareness events, meeting with a first responder or member of law enforcement.”

The advocates at Hi-Line’s Help face similar problems common to many rural parts of the state. A domestic violence situation is often isolating for the victim. Couple that with being located miles away from anyone else, where they’re lucky to have cell coverage or internet services, it can be hard to reach help.

The advocates rely a lot on area partnerships with doctor’s offices, law enforcement and other community providers to get the information to those that need it.

One of the individuals Hi-Line’s Help has aided is Autumn Miller.

Autumn Miller and Connie Huffman

“I have been through multiple things of domestic violence throughout my life. Starting with childhood and a couple relationships after that,” explained Miller. “They have been a huge help and now I wouldn’t have had the strength to get out if I didn’t reach out for help.”

Huffman was one of the advocates who helped Miller in the past. With more than three -decades of experience, she says building trust is key to helping someone leave a dangerous situation.

“We believe people until they give us reason not to,” Huffman said. “And a lot of victims have not been believed before. They have tried, they have talked to people and tried to tell maybe family friends that they’re something not right, that there’s something going on and sometimes they get revictimized. So we try really hard to believe them.”

Miller now handles the front desk at Hi-Line’s Help and works as an advocate for victims, hoping her experience can help others.

“It made me want to actually help other people and help them get out of their situations and I kind of know where they’re coming from. And have an idea and sense of how they're feeling, and what they're going through and try to help them get out,” she said.

As of Nov. 3, Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses has answered thousands of calls, served 175 new victims, and assisted another 48 from ongoing cases. Of those individuals, 70 needed shelter or housing of some kind.

Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses

Housing for victims is an increasingly difficult problem to address for High-Lines Help, especially during the pandemic.

Just like the rest of the state, affordable housing prices in their area have skyrocketed. They often depend on motels and hotels, but those aren’t a permanent solution.

Hi-Line’s Help works with shelters across the state, and have helped victims even relocate to other states if that is what the person or family needs.

“The challenge is, like you say, is to get them to a safe place and can they go. That is the other question, is once we get them there then what? What are they leaving behind? What are they willing to leave behind?”

The advocates at Hi-Line’s Help face similar problems common to many rural parts of the state. A domestic violence situation is often isolating for the victim. Couple that with being located miles away from anyone else, where they’re lucky to have cell coverage or internet services, it can be hard to reach help.

Huffman says the pandemic, when everyone was staying at home, amplified the isolation for many individuals.

“During COVID when everything was shut down, we sat. We still had our 800 number and officer number available, but how do we reach these people?” noted Huffman.

Hi-Line’s help always encourages victims to speak with law enforcement, but the reality is many won’t.

Domestic violence situations are complicated, especially when children or pets are involved. The unfortunate truth is in rural Montana it takes time for law enforcement to respond to a remote address.

Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses

“There are so many reasons why a victim doesn’t leave or a victim goes back,” noted Huffman. “And we shouldn’t ever be saying ‘Why do they go back?’ or ‘Why don’t they leave?’ We should be asking why are they being abused and why is nobody being held accountable.”

The advocates rely a lot on area partnerships with doctor’s offices, law enforcement and other community providers to get the information to those that need it.

Leaving a domestic violence situation can be very dangerous. Hi-Line’s Help works with victims to develop a safety plan to ensure the risk of violence when leaving is removed or reduced as much as possible.

Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses, like many domestic violence services, are underfunded for the number of individuals that need their help. The best way to support their mission is to make a donation. In addition to a making direct donation, they have unique candles, melts and air fresheners for sale that they make themselves.

More information about Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses, and ways to support them, can be found on their website.

Hi-Line's Help for Abused Spouses Hotline: 800-219-7336

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233