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How one group made Ravalli County safer for abused women


And they said it couldn’t be done.

Thirteen years ago, a group of women held a press conference in Hamilton where they announced their intention to open a safe house for abused women and their children.

The ladies, members of the business women’s club Soroptomists, were listened to courteously, but not taken too seriously by Ravalli County’s sheriff, Jay Printz. Though he said at the time that he sympathized with what they were trying to do, he also added, in clear terms, that they didn’t know what they were getting into. He talked about domestic abuse as he had witnessed it as a deputy: hysterical 3 a.m. calls to 911; drunken, violent husbands and their drunken, violent wives; neglected children.

The women’s plan to open their own homes to abused women until a more permanent safe house could be found was foolish, he told them. They were middle-class women who probably owned nice homes furnished with nice things. They really didn’t want intoxicated, beaten, hysterical women dropped off at their homes by the cops in the middle of the night. Why, these domestic abuse victims might later tell their husbands or boyfriends about these nice, well-furnished middle-class homes and they might get burglarized.

The Soroptomists also listened politely, then went on to not only establish a safe haven for domestic violence victims that has become a model in the state, but to make the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office a full partner with them in combating domestic abuse.

Last Friday at a catered lunch, the heirs to that original program, called Supporters of Abuse Free Environment (SAFE), gave their third annual report on domestic violence to the community.

“Community” is the key word for SAFE. SAFE, said executive director Stacey Umhey, belongs to the Bitterroot Valley. The conference room at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, packed with such local luminaries as Hamilton Mayor Laurel Frankenfield, Police Chief Alan Auch, as well as ministers, nurses, attorneys, judges, politicians and social workers, appeared to confirm that.

In the past two years, with the support of the Hamilton City Council, SAFE has purchased land on Fairgrounds Road and built an emergency shelter with transitional housing. SAFE also operates a 24-hour crisis hotline; helps victims get to immediate safety and seek medical care; links victims with religious, financial and legal assistance; provides support groups; and offers services to children who have witnessed or experienced assault. In short, SAFE supporters did what others said couldn’t be done. Just as important as the safe house and transitional housing, is the idea put forth by SAFE that domestic violence is not a hush-hush affair between husband and wife, but is society’s problem, and one that needs a full airing before the public.

“Back in 1987, it wasn’t as easy as it is today for us to stand up and talk about domestic violence,” Umhey told the crowd.

It’s still not that easy. Despite the enormous gains SAFE has made in a community that once considered domestic violence a private matter, the report to the community was, at times, as grim as the topic itself.

Randy Lint, one of seven speakers and an appointed Ravalli County Justice of the Peace who is seeking election this year, choked back tears when he gave his report. There is, he said, a “huge and heartbreaking increase in crimes of sexual assault, especially against children.” Partner assaults are “up quite a bit” this year, with 62 cases filed.

Lint was joined by other speakers, like Dr. Jeff Schroeder, who discussed the psychology of male abusers, and Cindy Brengman, R.N., who talked about ongoing programs designed to train emergency room nurses to collect forensic evidence in rape cases.

But the most powerful report came from Jackie Wright, who was severely beaten by her boyfriend in a case that shocked even veteran cops.

Wright, nervous and understandably reluctant to go into the details of her horrifying ordeal before an audience of about 65 people, told her story in less than her allotted 15 minutes. She didn’t know Larry Adams very well when she moved with him from Missouri to the Bitterroot Valley three years ago. One afternoon she returned to their home after horseback riding to find their house trashed, her two puppies beaten, guns lying around the house and Adams gone.

When he did return home, he picked up a gun and fired a shot at her, missing her head by about 12 inches. He tried again, putting the gun to her chest and threatening to kill her. The gun misfired, so he beat her with a 50-pound coffee table. “The EMTs said I should have died,” she said.

Suffering a major concussion, Wright managed to get to a neighbor’s house and call for help. The next day a SAFE representative visited her in the hospital. “I didn’t know anything about SAFE or its programs,” she said. “All I knew was I was in trouble.”

SAFE guided her through the criminal justice process—first, the restraining order, and then the trial, where Adams was convicted and sent to prison “for a long time.”

Wright is one of nearly 1,000 people who sought help from SAFE last year. Over that same period, SAFE provided shelter for 30 women and 31 children for a total of 831 nights.

SAFE also offers affordable, secure housing for domestic and sexual violence victims for up to two years. Residents in this transitional housing are offered a number of supportive programs to help them gain self-sufficiency, such as vocational assistance, job training and life planning. Local judges, attorneys, law enforcement officers and probation officers also are working with SAFE to produce a legal handbook for victims of domestic and sexual assault. And local nurses and physicians are partnering with SAFE to develop an emergency room policy for domestic violence victims.

In the years since the Soroptomists’ initial press conference, SAFE has become such a solid, successful part of the community that if one didn’t know better one would suspect that, like schools and hospitals, it has always been there.

As Jan Fyant, a human resource manager who spoke about the impact of domestic violence in the workplace, put it to Umhey and the SAFE staff, “Other communities could use you as an example.”


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