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The isolation of rural life adds another challenge to dealing with domestic violence

Police continue their investigation at a home where eight family members were found dead in Enoch, Utah, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. Officials said Michael Haight, 42, took his own life after killing his wife, mother-in-law and the couple's five children.
Sam Metz
Police continue their investigation at a home where eight family members were found dead in Enoch, Utah, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. Officials said Michael Haight, 42, took his own life after killing his wife, mother-in-law and the couple's five children.

Police are still investigating the murder-suicide that happened in the small southern Utah town of Enoch. They believe a man killed his wife, five children and mother-in-law before taking his own life.

The five children attended Iron County School District schools, where officials are providing counselors and licensed social workers and encouraging teachers to pay close attention to students who may be struggling.

Family mass killings like this are an all-too-common tragedy across the country. They've happened nearly every three and half weeks for the last two years, on average. That’s according to a database compiled by USA Today, The Associated Press and Northeastern University. The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition has said homicides in rural communities are three times as likely to involve an intimate partner than in large cities.

Utah’s Friends Against Family Violence, works with victims in Uinta, Duchesne and Daggett counties. The nonprofit’s executive director, Adam Gaus, said victims of domestic violence in rural communities face unique challenges because agencies that offer help to them are geographically spread out.

“Not only are [victims] isolated by their abuser but also isolated by distance from services,” Gaus said. “And we typically have less robust services than in other places.”

He added that rural areas can be home to people who are new to the area, brought in by oilfield jobs. People may be without friends or family in an unfamiliar community.

“If domestic violence occurs, you don't have that support system,” he said.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing violence by an intimate partner, call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line at 1-800-897-LINK(5465) or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 1-888-421-1100.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: Is domestic violence exacerbated in rural and isolated communities? 

Adam Gaus: I think that [victims] become more reliant on the abuser. If they don't have another support system, if they're in this community, and they just moved here because of a job, and they don't have friends or family now, they're completely reliant, maybe financially and emotionally, on that individual because they have no one else to reach out to. So it can be isolating in a number of ways.

CH: How does domestic violence affect a rural community differently, not just the victim?

AG: I think in rural communities, it's so tight knit. People know each other [so] sometimes it's hard to reach out because news travels so fast, and you feel like you don't want people to know. There's still a lot of stigma around domestic violence, and so people don't get help maybe whenever they should. And when these things happen in such a small community, it can really hit home because you really know your neighbors, you know the people that it's affecting. Our thoughts go out to the people in Enoch and the tragedy that happened there because we know that they're hurting right now. … It's really hard to have something happen so close to home and feel like, “What could we have done to prevent that?”

CH: Do smaller communities have a different kind of responsibility when it comes to domestic violence because of their tight knit nature?

AG: This goes beyond just in rural communities, [but] I do think that we're in a unique position because we're so interconnected in a smaller community. We did a campaign recently that was called My Voice Has Power and it was all about bystander intervention. And it's not calling someone out in front of your entire family, but it's when you recognize something that is wrong, pulling that person aside and saying, “Hey, I noticed you said this to my sister-in-law or to my sister or my brother.” Holding other people accountable and recognizing when something's wrong and saying something to them. So I do think because we're such a tight knit, small community, we're in a unique position where we can kind of change the ending to some of these stories by saying something when we see something that's not right in a relationship.

CH: The internet is a big resource and access can be spotty in rural areas. How does that play into domestic violence? 

AG: So many things are online – forms to get services, even if it's not just domestic violence services, but other things that you could do … [such as get] food stamps or whatever it is to get your financial independence, you need the internet. During COVID-19, it kind of exacerbated some of those problems because court cases went virtual, things like that. So it creates a whole new kind of wrinkle to that problem where people need reliable internet to access court cases or telehealth and things like that. And not everyone has access to that reliable internet.

CH:Are libraries enough of a resource to fill that gap?

AG: Libraries can be for certain things like filling out forms. But if we're talking about [attending] a virtual court case, you don't want to be in a public library while you're in the middle of a protective order hearing or something like that. We actually have clients come to our advocates’ office to do those cases. But not everyone accesses those resources or knows that they exist. So we've had cases even where [a victim was] on the other side of a wall from their abuser doing a virtual court case because that was the only place they knew that they had reliable internet. That can create a lot of danger and can retraumatize victims.

CH: What are you doing to deal with this problem? 

AG: We recently wrote for a grant that hopefully we're going to hear about this month to put in some virtual spaces. They're a physical room, and someone can come and use the spaces completely free, confidential. It will be reliable, fast internet. And we're putting the spaces in Vernal and Roosevelt, and then in Fort Duchesne on the Uintah and Ouray reservation.

CH: Many state funding formulas and grants are based on population. What baseline services do you think a community should have regardless of how many people live there? 

AG: This becomes a tricky thing we're actually dealing with right now with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. And they've done a good job of making sure that there are 24/7 shelters and crisis line services in communities throughout the state. I think beyond that, you need to have some community-based advocates with each program. We can prevent some crises if we are able to provide those advocacy services before it gets to that point where they need to get into shelter. That's one way that we need to fund programs across the state a little bit better as a baseline.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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