Alexis’ boyfriend traded her body as payment for his drug habit. He hit her, threw things at her, bit her and berated her. He threatened to kill himself in front of her. He said he needed her. He played on her insecurities and always came back with an apology.
Rather than pay for his drugs, Alexis’ partner arranged for his drug dealer to be alone with her in her home one night, at which time he coerced her into sex (Alexis is not her real name). She had no idea of this arrangement until afterward.
“My partner arranged for his drug supplier – he was enamored with crank (low purity meth) – to have sex with me in lieu of payment. Neither informed me of this until the next day,” she said. “He told me that he thought I would like it and was offended that I didn’t.”
She did not go to the police; the thought didn’t cross her mind as the best response at that time.
“These days, that is rape, and rightfully so. Then it was still described as a bad date and my fault for not being smarter,” said the 55-year-old, who works for a career-assistance organization in Westmoreland County. She said she is no longer embarrassed by her experiences – just sad.
One time after her boyfriend physically abused her, she said, he took a knife to stab himself, knowing she would stop him.
“Nowadays, I would have just walked out,” she said. “Then, I did exactly what he knew I would, because in the end, he had convinced me that he was my one true love.”
In Berks County in the 1980s, she never went to the police and never sought help from social services, she said during an interview from her Scottdale home. It took six years to completely disentangle herself from her abuser.
“I never called the police, because you just didn’t if you already knew the offender. Instead,” she said, “you made excuses. I made excuses. My partner made excuses.”
She said she never knew domestic violence shelters were an option.
Alexis’ story isn’t unique – at least not in rural communities such as those in Washington, Fayette and Greene Counties, where lack of shelters and services, uncooperative and untrained law enforcement and community ties can exacerbate the hurdles already faced by domestic violence survivors.
While rural communities generally see a lower occurrence of violence, women in rural communities are just as likely to be victims of domestic violence as women in urban areas, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
And while women’s shelters everywhere are facing funding cuts, those in rural areas experience unique challenges just by virtue of being rural.
“A huge problem is trying to get the word out,” said Denise Scotland, who oversees the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Harrisburg. “There are just not easy places to advertise services.”
Even when shelters do find ways to get the word out, people often distrust the shelter.
“They say, ‘Who are these women, trying to make other women leave their relationships,’” she said during a telephone interview from her office. “It’s just hard to make ourselves known.”
Adding to the difficulty is the need for the shelter to be a secure location – that is, for safety purposes, it is not a place that can be advertised in the local newspaper or on paper mailers. Because of this, some women may not even know that such resources are available.
“I never knew that domestic shelters existed until I moved to New Jersey in the late ’80s,” she said. “Homeless shelters and food kitchens existed since the early ’70s, but no domestic shelters that I knew of.”
Scotland said the rural location increases the danger.
“In urban centers, they might be just down the street from police. There’s such a police presence that, if there is an issue, they get a quick response,” she said. “In rural areas, the police response can be two hours away. There are smaller forces, or the area might only have coverage from state police.”
Transportation also becomes an issue – in that it is not accessible or the abuser makes it unattainable.
“There is little access to public transportation,” Scotland said, “or there may not be an extra vehicle.”
Lauren Lacey, manager of the Fayette County Domestic Violence Shelter, said abusers may withhold transportation from the victim – not allowing them to use the car or have access to money for gas or public transportation.
“It’s difficult for women to get here,” Lacey said during a telephone interview. “They have to put themselves in a difficult situation – I’ve known women who have had their abusers dropping them off.”
But, she said, a victim being dropped off by an abuser is not a good idea. Not only is it unsafe for the victim – the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when she or he is trying to leave – but for the shelter as well.
“It’s just really unsafe for us, too, because we’re supposed to be a confidential location,” she said. “We have to make sure they weren’t followed, and it’s a whole big safety procedure.”
Fayette County has the Fayette Area Coordinated Transportation system, but even then, Lacey said, it isn’t always enough.
“We have the FACT bus, but it’s not the most reliable,” she said. “If they’re out in, say, Greene County, there’s not a shelter there, and there’s no bus that goes from Greene County to here. We can’t pick them up for safety reasons.”
Some rural shelters do offer phone counseling, Lacey said – Verizon Wireless has a program that offers phones to women who are in abusive situations – but even that poses problems.
“Signals are sporadic – there’s little to no cell service, so they can’t even make a phone call,” she said. “Maybe they don’t have a landline, or the abuser takes it or monitors it. It restricts access when there’s no transportation or phone service.”
If women can get to a shelter, their safe haven may be short-lived.
Some shelters have limits on how long a woman can stay, and such limits vary by shelter.
The Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania has emergency shelters in Washington and Fayette counties. The Washington shelter has a 15-bed capacity, and the Fayette shelter has 13 beds. They are large, old homes in an attempt to feel “homey.” Women can come and go as they please, and there are no specific meal times.
But stay times are limited to 30 days in a six-month period, though women may submit a request for an extension.
Scotland said shelter stays also depend on other housing resources within a social service program or the community and whether there is another family in more immediate danger that also needs shelter.
“Forty-five days is most realistic,” she said, “though some can extend up to 60 days and a few even longer if there is no other family that needs the room.”
A woman with children brings a separate set of difficulties.
Shelters often have restrictions on how old a male child can be and still come to the shelter with his mother. Scotland said that while several programs used to deny shelter to any male older than 16, programs that fall under her organization are not permitted to exclude a family due to a male child.
Some shelters, she said, will not allow males unaccompanied in shelter common areas.
“Some programs will opt to put a family in a hotel if they have an older child, but this should be a last resort and all other services must be provided,” she said.
And, while law enforcement is supposed to be the go-to service for men and women facing abusive partners, shelter managers and administrators say this is not always the case.
Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the issues faced by domestic violence victims, survivors and social workers in rural Western Pennsylvania. It also appears in Washington’s Observer-Reporter. Part 2: Working with law enforcement. Part 3: Money problems.