Oct. 20 2014 01:34 PM

The original article (printed below) appeared in the July 2014 issue of Hoard's Dairyman. Reader responses were printed in subsequent issues and are shared below.

When life turned ugly

Domestic violence is an all too common occurrence in rural America.

by Andrea Stoltzfus
The author and her family own and operate a 570-cow Holstein and Jersey dairy near Berlin, Pa.

shattered familyFrom the road, the farm looks well kept, the fields prosperous. The animals are content, the garden is flourishing. But behind the closed doors, away from the curious onlookers, the helpful neighbors, a different scene unfolds - that of domestic violence among rural farm women.

What follows is a real-life conversation with a dairy farm wife who was a victim of domestic violence. As we move through the article, we will discuss the multiple layers of the issue and how women can find help.

"I ended up with this man because I wanted my dreams to come true of being married to a farmer, enjoying the farm and quality of life I had growing up on a dairy farm. I was after the same relationship my parents had. In my mind, it was all going to be so blissful. We would do chores together and share life together, enjoy being together and live happily ever after. I could not have been more wrong.  I have learned that chasing dreams can be very costly, and I don't necessarily mean money."

Behind closed doors
Domestic abuse in rural areas is just as likely to happen as in other communities, but women living in remote areas face other barriers to reporting the abuse or escaping the situation. The isolation of farms or ranches from towns can make it hard for emergency services to respond in a timely manner. Phone service may be spotty or even obsolete. "Going to town" could mean hours, not minutes, of travel time.

According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence website, the rural culture plays a role in making abuse reporting difficult.

"A ‘rural culture' often includes everyone working together and knowing what is going on in each other's lives. It is likely that law enforcement, judges, social service and health care workers, faith leaders, and others know both the victim and the abuser. As a result, it may be more uncomfortable to share what is happening behind closed doors. Victims may feel that people won't take their situation seriously. In addition, there may be strong ties among extended families that mean breaking up the family is frowned upon."

"The people I got most of my help from were strangers. Neighbors, friends, family acted like I had the plague. How could this happen in our family, in our neighborhood, in our safe small town?"

Additionally, women may be partners in the farm, not only in the marriage, but in the daily workload and the financial end of the business. The farm or ranch may be the only source of family income, and the victim may be reluctant to leave as she has no other economic resources available.

Rural women have strong emotional ties to the land and livestock. Leaving could mean neglect or harm for the animals she cares for. Living on farms means more access to things that could be used as weapons - axes, chains, pitchforks, guns - working with farm equipment can be a ready excuse for injuries.

"I even ended up driving myself to the ER the morning of my daughter's 8th birthday getting five staples placed in my scalp where I got hit with a pipe for some stupid reason, then returned home to finish milking cows. There were several events like this. I had a bruise all down my arm, and I told people at work that the milk tank cover fell on my arm, and that's why it was all black." 

Domestic abuse isn't always about physical abuse - it can also mean sexual abuse, emotional abuse or financial abuse. According to the Nebraska Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Coalition, it is important to know there is not "one way" an individual is abusive. When one abuse tactic no longer provides the abuser the results he/she wants, they will change to another to get the desired results.

"The milk price had nothing to do with it - he hit before we had our own herd. The crops, the weather, nothing had a thing to do with it. My husband loved the control, the power he had over me.

"It started basically the day after I married him. At that point, I became property. I remember the chute to the gutter cleaner breaking into many pieces and me not being able to shut the gutter cleaner off fast enough.

The memory of being screamed at, called vulgar names, made to feel totally worthless and brought down to tears for the first time are etched in my mind. It seemed like whenever stressful events such as this happened, he would transfer his anger at the situation to me. I would frequently get pushed and kicked.

He gradually progressed from just name calling, screaming and physical abuse to making threats of killing me, pointing his finger at my forehead and saying ‘bang.'" 

Options seem few
Why don't victims leave the situation?

The reasons are many - including the inability to actually leave the farm - as they may not have access to a vehicle or public transportation. A shelter or services could be miles away, with no advocates or access to legal aid. Even if a victim decides to pursue legal assistance, it may not be as easy as it seems.

"I know it seems like this is a black and white issue, but it's really not. There were lots of things to think about - I knew I could not run this farm without him here, and most of all I never wanted at any point to see the farm fail. Many thoughts raced through my mind:

Do I call the police? No. If he gets arrested, when he gets out, it will only be worse.

Do I tell people? No. That only means embarrassment and people knowing that I am not as strong as I seem to be.

When I threatened to divorce him and tell him he would have to sell out to get my name off loans, he would threaten to kill me and kill my family."

Most victims' services groups recommend having an "escape plan" in place, which includes the actions to get to a safe place and the items to take with them. Making a primary care provider aware of the home situation can be part of the plan.

"I must also add that, through it all, when I had doctor appointments, the doctor and I always discussed the issues, but I always told the doctor that I felt safe and always had an escape plan. The doctor recommended I go see a psychiatrist, which helped me through a lot of it and gave me the inner strength to actually leave.

I realized that, when it got to the point of me saying that the day he died would be the happiest day in my life, this was no place to be mentally or physically. I also went to the county resources for domestic abuse, but all it seemed they wanted to do was rush me in front of a judge to get a restraining order, which was not the route I wanted to take. I was also told that I should go to the police from the threats of death he would constantly make, but once again I knew I could not run the farm, and I knew the consequences would be far worse."

Phone hotlines, internet sites and local community members can be a lifeline to an abuse victim. However, limited phone coverage, the threat of the abuser finding the sites viewed or neighbors who "don't want to get involved" can all be barriers to finding help.

"Even though resources are out there, it's not as simple as just utilizing them, as every situation is different, the fears are different and at different intensities, the degree of abuse is different, the inner strength of the victim is different, the family support is different, the family dynamics are different, so sometimes it's just not that simple as seeking out resources."

Where to turn

For those with access and looking for help, the below resources can be a start. If using any of these resources, remember to go to a safe computer and clear your browsing history.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline
www.thehotline.org; 1-800-799-7233

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Sexual Assault/RAINN Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

HelpGuide - helpguide.org

State Coalition List

For legal resources, visit www.womenslaw.org

Opinions, Brickbats and Bouquets (Letters to the editor)

Be there to listen
I was so pleased to see the article in Hoard's Dairyman by Andrea Stoltzfus (July 2014 issue, page 470) addressing the issue of domestic violence and rural life. While the article was informative, it left the reader with many unanswered questions about what to do if faced with this situation.

Domestic violence is found in all walks of life, all races, religions, education levels, socioeconomic groups, professions and sexes. Teen dating violence which is a precursor to domestic violence is also on the rise. Until individuals recognize the warning signs, and family members and neighbors are not afraid to speak up, domestic violence will continue to be a "dirty secret" that happens behind closed doors and is a family's "private" business.

Domestic violence is a progressive event. No one wants to choose an abusive person as a life partner, but they may find that the abuse gets worse as the years progress. What initially was verbal abuse will eventually make the leap to physical abuse. The time in which that happens is different for every situation, but once it happens there is no turning back without counseling and intervention.

Initially, there is a cycle of abuse starting with an event that turns abusive, followed by profuse apologies and promises that it will not happen again (called the honeymoon phase) only to feel the tension as another abusive event arises.

So, what do you do if a loved one is in an abusive situation? Listen to them without judgment. It is very easy to tell them to leave, but no one but that person knows all of the facts. They may be frightened of what will happen to their children, and threats of injury and harm may have been made. No one is a better judge of the lethality of the situation than the person living in it daily.

Be supportive and patient. It takes a person, on average, seven times to leave an abusive relationship. Each time they leave they get a bit stronger, and they will eventually be able to make that break, but it has to be in their own time. Offer to help them in any way that you can.

Understand that a victim of domestic violence is humiliated and embarrassed and is not likely to share this information with anyone. Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes.

Let her know that you will listen, and help her establish a safety plan. Offer to hold emergency items for her such as a suitcase with clothing, extra money and keys to the car, documents and emergency phone numbers. Sometimes a code can be established so that, if she says a phrase or word to you, you know to call the police.

Seek a domestic violence specialist in your county to assist with safety planning and counseling for the victim and children in the family. Services are free of charge and are 100 percent confidential. They can also help with any legal concerns and assist with filing protective orders, if so desired.

The National Coalition against Domestic Violence is a great resource and can assist anytime, day or night, by connecting you with a local resource. Their hotline number is 800-799-7233. Take a stand against domestic violence in your community, learn more about the problem, support the survivors and help raise awareness. You can make a difference in the lives of people in your community. Be the voice of the victims who are too afraid to speak up.
-Nancy Vance, Wisconsin

No woman should feel trapped
I would like to applaud Hoard's Dairyman for shining a light on an important and sometimes overlooked problem in rural America.

The article in your July 2014 issue, "When Life Turned Ugly," on page 470 written by Andrea Stoltzfus focused on the unique challenges that rural victims of domestic violence face in overcoming their abusers. They are often geographically isolated and unaware of the resources available to them, or they lack the ability to reach a crisis center due to a lack of public transportation. There also may not be a local shelter to help them, or they may not have the financial means to set out on their own. These obstacles can make it particularly difficult for women in rural areas, like the dairy farm wives you cite in your article, to escape abusive relationships.

From my days as a prosecutor in Vermont, I still vividly remember seeing the aftermath of this type of violence firsthand. I will never forget arriving on the scenes of domestic violence crimes. These experiences have spurred me in my roles as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to work to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. Most recently I was proud to sponsor the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which the President signed into law in March 2013. Since VAWA was first enacted in 1994, it has helped to lower the annual incidence of domestic violence by more than half, it has raised awareness, and it has increased reporting of these crimes. VAWA has also improved the criminal justice system's ability to keep victims safe and hold perpetrators accountable. But there is still more that we can and should do.

One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. That rate is even higher in rural areas. That is why I have worked to ensure that the domestic violence programs are adequately funded. In particular, I have pushed for increased funding for the Rural Domestic Violence Program. This program was established by the first VAWA to address the unique challenges faced by victims of domestic violence and dating violence in rural jurisdictions. This program supports the safety of rural victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking, by funding projects uniquely designed to address and prevent rural crimes. It encourages cooperation among law enforcement and victim service providers, among others, to investigate criminal incidents and to offer treatment, education and prevention strategies.

As a husband, father, and grandfather, and as a former prosecutor, I know we can and must do everything we can to combat domestic violence. I hope that the Hoard's Dairyman article will help raise awareness. No woman should feel trapped in an abusive relationship, and we must all work to ensure they are not.

I gave a modified version of this letter as a floor statement in the Senate on July 31, 2014, and also had the text of the entire article formally included in the Congressional Record beginning on page S5291.
Patrick Leahy, United States Senator, D-Vt.

Not an isolated story
I have picked up Hoard's Dairyman thousands of times in the past, but never has an article hit me as hard as this one, "When life turned ugly," on page 470 of your July issue.
I could have written those stories myself, every one of them, and hundreds more. It shook me to my core, I thought all these years that I was the only one. Every comment was spot on. Farm women don't leave. They can't leave. They have a farm and animals to care for. And the farmers that abuse them know this all too well. No one but another farm wife would understand.

I never left. I never could. Mine was not physical abuse but emotional, financial and verbal abuse. And yes, it started the very day I married him, and the memories are etched in my mind, they will be there forever. The animals are now gone, I thought things might get better without that stress. And it has somewhat. However, he still has to be in control at all times. The emotional and verbal abuse remains. When we still had the cows, I had to find a job off the farm to get away from him, if only for the daytime hours.

Why was this conversation limited to one page? I hope you have follow-ups or something.
The stories are just so close to what I have been living. (I am crying as I type this.) Thank you for letting all of us women know we are not the only ones.

Please don't print my name. I can't give it. The aftermath would be too much.
State and name withheld

Books are a resource
Thank you for writing your excellent article, "When life turned ugly." (July 2014 issue, page 470.)

I have left an abusive situation and could relate to what you wrote. I might add that one helpful thing (to me) was to read articles (like yours) and books that talked about abuse and validated my experiences. The most helpful book for me was, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft. The many reviewers for the book on Amazon wrote helpful comments as well.
State and name withheld

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