Pushing Back Against Domestic Violence

Red Lodge-based Domestic and Sexual Violence Services touches lives statewide

Montana boasts endless vistas and inexhaustible beauty. But the state’s miles of dirt roads and vast open spaces harbor some dark secrets. When domestic violence strikes in rural Montana, the isolation plays on its victims through insidious ways.

"A lot of times these women have no access to a vehicle, they often don’t have a driver’s license and maybe cell phones don’t work where they live,” says Kelly Heaton, director at Red Lodge’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. “When their next neighbor is 50 miles away, it’s hard to reach out. That’s one of the techniques of abuse – isolation.”

Subjected to constant abuse – physical or verbal – with no other outlet, the victim begins to see that behavior as normal, Heaton says. Or, they think they’re going crazy.

“And even if you want to seek help, it’s that fear of somebody finding out,” she explains.

The problem of domestic violence in rural areas is often compounded by lack of resources and law enforcement agencies stressed by high turnover. The inherent small-town threat to confidentiality also poses a huge problem. Heaton stresses that a victim’s anonymity can be compromised just by attending a support group.

“Everyone knows where the office is and what everyone’s car looks like,” she admits.

Though Red Lodge itself is not so remote, some of those who have sought assistance through its Domestic and Sexual Violence Services (DSVS) have struggled against such barriers.

In the 14 years of its existence, Red Lodge’s DSVS has served more than 1,300 clients.

What sets the program apart is the breadth of services offered by an organization based in a community of only 2,100 people. From finding refuge for victims to training teachers to promote its anti-violence curriculum, DSVS has touched lives across the state.

“Our ultimate goal is to encourage social change and to end violence,” Heaton says.

But why Red Lodge? Heaton traces their success to a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant from the Department of Justice. Officially titled the Rural Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence and Stalking Assistance Program, the grant is more commonly referred to as “Rural VAWA.”

“The thing that has allowed us to be a dynamic organization is that grant,” Heaton says. “If you have the expertise or can find the expertise to get the funding, there’s a lot you can do with it.”

Though any small community can apply, two individuals were instrumental in landing the grant for Red Lodge.

Nearly 15 years ago, Mitzi Vorachek returned to Montana to retire. Instead, the former vice president of community education and hotline at the Houston Area Women’s Center (where she had more than a decade of experience) was struck by the need she discovered in the area around her new hometown of Red Lodge. Instead of sitting back, she set up shop in her home and car and relied on her home phone as a 24-hour hotline for victims of domestic violence. The former long-time director of DSVS clearly remembers one of the first clients who sought her assistance. The woman, who had driven across the state with her three children, came from such a small town that even moving to Red Lodge proved too daunting. She went back to the batterer, Vorachek remembers.

“The isolation is incredible, the distances are unbelievable,” she says.

The first funding for DSVS came from the town’s Rotary Club and a local church.

“I didn’t ask for it,” Vorachek says. “People started giving me money serendipitously.”

Then Vorachek met Allison Smith-Estelle, who had just finished her doctorate on public health in third world countries. Working together, they applied for and were awarded the grant.

By 2004, Red Lodge’s DSVS held its first training. Vorachek figured they’d attract three or four friends.

“Fourteen people showed up,” she says. “And several of those are still volunteers.”

The mission of the DSVS is to serve individuals, families and communities impacted by physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Through prevention and training, the organization also strives to promote healthy, equitable, violence-free relationships.

Besides prevention, DSVS offers a 24-hour hotline and services for anyone living in violent situations. Staff members are not only prepared to help individuals and families escape high-risk settings but they offer support for those unable or unwilling to leave. DSVS does not have a shelter per se, Vorachek says, but can offer places of refuge.

“We measure success by how safe people can be, no matter what the circumstances,” she said. “We want to stop the violence before it starts.”

Today, more than 40 trained individuals cover the hotline, counsel survivors and take on fund-raising and education projects. Vorachek and Heaton credit the strength of the organization for its ability to draw devoted volunteers. Many are survivors themselves or have known a survivor. Others are idealists aspiring to a more peaceful society.

“It’s a feel-good thing,” Heaton says. “When you’re doing this kind of work it’s extremely hard but extremely gratifying.”

As Heaton explains it, success in domestic violence situations comes in different forms.

“The typical response is that someone living with domestic violence should get out,” she said. “But that’s not always possible.”

There may be long periods when there is no violence, she points out, not to mention the presence of children. The age of the victim can also complicate the picture. When the alternative is poverty, the choice is not so black and white nor so easily made, she says.

Today, DSVS runs on donations, grants and funding from foundations, private individuals as well as state and federal agencies. Besides Carbon County, DSVS offers services in Yellowstone and Stillwater Counties. The curriculum they developed for schools, however, has been adopted in communities from Corvallis to Scobey and more than a dozen places in between.

“The overall response has been huge,” Heaton says.

Heaton, who has worked for a number of non-profits in the past, has been especially impressed with DSVS’ structure.

“It’s the most thought-out and planned organization I’ve ever worked for,” she says.  

Ten years of prevention education in schools provided the springboard for what has evolved into Power up, Speak Out!, a prevention program aimed at 7th-9th graders growing up in rural Montana.

“It teaches kids about healthy relationships and conversely what unhealthy relationships look like,” Heaton says. “It talks about consent, boundaries and bullying.”

Over time, DSVS has learned that training the teachers to provide lessons in their own classrooms yields the most lasting results. That way, they can reinforce the lessons throughout the school year and continue to build trust with their students, Heaton points out.

Likewise, the organization provides training for professionals – from law enforcement to physicians to clergy – who come in contact with domestic violence.

“I think that’s one of the most impressive things about DSVS, that we are really trying to address the whole cycle,” Heaton says.

The guiding rule of DSVS is not to tell anyone what to do but to let them know help is available at any time.

“No matter what happens, how many times they have gone back, we are here to help,” Heaton says. “We understand all the barriers to a woman or a man not leaving so we never want anyone to feel guilty or that they can’t ask for help.”

About Domestic and Sexual Violence Services

Over half of the clients assisted through a grant from the Office on Violence Against Women entered the workforce for the first time or increased their hours from part time to full time.

One third of the clients were able to attend college to complete degrees or certificates.

DSVS provided services to more than 1,300 clients since 1999.

DSVS is run by 5 full-time, 2 part-time staff and 40 volunteers.

In 2012, DSVS offered 124 nights of emergency shelter for clients and their children. During that same year, the organization assisted with filing 23 orders of protection.

DSVS has trained more than 50 teachers/counselors in 35 schools through its Power Up, Speak Out! program.

Volunteers provided 6,377 hours of service in 2012.


DSVS can be reached at 406-446-2296 or via www.dsvsmontana.org and www.powerupspeakout.org. The 24-hour helpline is 406-425-2222.

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