by Patricia Swan Smith
For the Pathfinder
October 8, 1998
SSTEP Coordinators Kristina Swanson (left) and Jennifer Gibson. SSTEP (Seeley-Swan Talk, Education, Protection) is the local program to aid victims of domestic and sexual violence. For more information about the program call 677-3177.
Twelve convicted felons sit in a semi-circle as the first "victim" on the victim's panel stands before them. The Victim's Panel is conducted every six weeks at the Treasure State Correctional Training Center in Deer Lodge, formerly the Boot Camp in the Swan, to give victims an opportunity to heal through being able to express their feelings to felons who committed similar crimes to other victims.
The victims, mostly females, tell the felons the reason they volunteer to participate in this panel is to encourage those behind bars to change their lives and not create any more victims once they get out.
Last month, the first victim started by asking how many of them have committed some type of domestic violence. All twelve raise a hand, and some bow their heads in shame.
She begins her story about how at first her husband's fits were small, and she continues to tell how they escalated. She said he never cussed in public or around friends, but behind closed doors his mouth was a vicious weapon. Then she tells them that they are going to do a play-role and she picks a felon who told of battering his wife before going to prison.
"We're going to play-role my ex-husband's and my last scene, but you get to be the wife, and I'm gonna be the abuser," she says with a trembling voice.
She crams her finger within an inch of his face and starts screaming "You f.....B...... You make me sick to my stomach you b......" And she plays out her last memory of her husband.
The felon, shocked and not allowed to say anything back to her, breaks into tears. She stops the play- and begins asking questions.
"How does it feel to have to stand there and take that?" she asks as tears run down her face. "You can't do anything to me. You have to stand there and take everything I dish out, not because you're afraid, but if you said anything or touched me you'd be in big trouble here. How does it feel to be helpless? I took that kind of treatment because I was afraid I was going to get hurt and I felt I had no way out."
The felon answers, "It doesn't feel very good ma'am. I am sorry you had to go through it. I'm sorry I put my wife through it."
The Drill Instructor points out to the convicted felon that he was shaking and trying to pull away during the play-role and asked why.
The felon answered, "Sir. It was like a flash-back. That's exactly how I used to talk to my wife, and it wasn't easy to listen to." And he continued to cry.
She thanked him, said he could sit down and she continued to ask question after question. She received pretty much the same answer from each felon who shared his story of being abusive.
Their wives didn't have to do anything; if they wanted to be abusive, they just did it. They all made sure that the battering went on behind closed doors without adult witnesses. They said they knew that with no witnesses, it was easy to hide what really went on behind closed doors. Unfortunately, many admitted that they would do it in front of their small children.
They told about how they had physically and emotionally abused their loved ones. Most of them wept during the three hour long panel as the victims of both domestic violence and rape told their stories, talked about their feelings and shared how badly their and their children's lives had been affected.
In closing, the one victim said, "We ask the wrong questions. Why do we ask 'Why doesn't she just leave him?' Why don't we demand the answers to 'Why does he hit her? Why does he call her names and degrade her?' and 'Why does he continue to do it?'"
Ann Jones in her article "Back Talk, Why Doesn't She Leave Him?" Woman's Day, June 1994, examines that question.
"What bothers me most about that question is that it's not a real question. We'll never find an answer that's good enough to lay it to rest because it's really an accusation. It passes judgment. It implies that violence is the problem of the woman who suffers from it, and hers to solve. It ignores the fact that battering is a crime and insists that the crime victim walk away and forget about it
Worse, by blaming the woman who suffers from violence the question diverts our attention from the man who inflicts it. Through the decades, the 'experts'...have discussed her low intelligence but not his. They've used research grants, provided by our tax dollars, to study her masochism, but not his sadism, her 'low self-esteem' but not his pathological aggression, her 'learned helplessness' but not his studied assaultiveness.
A battered woman called a radio talk show to set me straight on this point. I'd been advising women to pack up and leave abusive partners. 'Why should I leave?' the caller asked. 'It's my house. I worked for it. I painted it. I clean it. I'm not committing any crimes here. Why don't you tell him to leave?'"
And for those who insist upon asking "Why doesn't she just leave?", here are a few reasons.
For many women, death is the result of trying leaving. Leaving the situation is in many cases the most dangerous thing a woman can do., "Seventy-five percent of the women who are killed by their abusers are killed after they leave the relationship," according to Kristina Swanson, one of SSTEP's coordinators. SSTEP (Seeley-Swan Talk, Education, Protection) is the local program for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Then there are the logistics of many women's situations. If they leave, where will they live? How will they feed their children? How will they get transportation? Where can they find a job that will pay enough for child-care and all the bills? Homelessness and hopelessness can keep women in abusive situations.
Others stay because the remorse shown by the abuser after an upheaval is enough to spark hope and the emotions that were present when the relationship was new and good.
Many stay because this type of treatment is what they were raised with, and they've never know anything else.
And still there are some family members, ministers and "friends" who will encourage the victim to stay and make the marriage work because divorce is an unacceptable alternative.
Domestic violence and sexual abuse are complex issues. There is help available locally. And October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, which is a great time to learn more and/or get involved.
Since October of 1995, the local program, SSTEP, has changed both the access to help and the awareness level within the community. It has drawn together counselors, police officers, the clergy, citizens and students to help fight against two of the most destructive forces in society.
This year, Missoula County received an additional $252,872 to work in rural communities over the next 18 months. This money is part of the nearly $500,000 awarded to Montana programs against domestic violence by the US Justice Department.
The additional money will be used to expand services such as counseling and legal aid to rural areas in the county as well as provide additional training and equipment for rural programs.
SSTEP has two basic groups. The critical group is called the Help-Line volunteers. Volunteers were chosen based on their compassion and willingness to ensure confidentiality. The Help-Line volunteers are the heart of the SSTEP services. They staff the weekend Help-Line which offers compassionate listening and options for those in crisis. They schedule appointments and help victims of stalking and abuse complete paperwork necessary to petition for an Order of Protection, which is a court order demanding a person to stay away from another.
Currently, nine people are available on the Help-Line, and there are volunteers available to provide transportation for victims to safe shelters and services in Missoula.
Those on the Help-Line people complete a 40-hour training session and continue to meet monthly to improve services and continue training.
This group studies legal issues, crisis intervention skills, and delves into topics such as lethality assessment of batters, suicide intervention, rape and child abuse. They also help people who are staying in abusive situations develop safety plans.
The second group is called the Family Violence Council. This group meets once a month to plan activities for public education and talk about any problems that arise. The goal of this group is to reach as many different segments of the community as possible.
One volunteer said, "I had no idea the dynamics behind domestic abuse until I got involved with SSTEP. It's amazing how ignorant many of us are when it comes to understanding abuse. It affects all of us in one way or another."
Community involvement is a big part of the program. The Seeley Lake Quick Response Unit has been invited to attend a training session on rape as well as training on confidential support for victims who call them for medical attention.
Swanson said that she and the members at SSTEP would like the residents in the Seeley-Swan valley to take some time during the month of October to consider how we can prevent violence in our homes and in our community. To schedule a presentation for your group, church or business, you may contact SSTEP.
During Domestic Violence Awareness month, SSTEP will sponsor a panel at the Seeley Swan High School. Deputy Sheriff Bob Parcell and a SSTEP coordinator will give presentations on family violence at the grade school. There will be a mailing of the SSTEP brochure to every household in Seeley Lake and Condon. A banner will be hung at the Valley Market and the SSTEP volunteers will host a one-day conference for the Western Montana Crisis Line volunteers from rural areas.
The SSTEP Program has directly served more than 60 victims through the Help-Line. The program has provided transportation to shelters, helped several victims apply for Orders of Protection and spent hundreds of volunteer hours providing peer counseling.
The third Survivors of Abuse Group facilitated by a therapist will be starting this fall. For more information, contact SSTEP at 677-3177.
One of the Abuse Group participants said "Getting out of an abusive situation is tough, but getting out isn't all there is to it. You have to have support. You have to learn what you need to do in order to avoid getting back in another abusive situation. This group was a wonderful opportunity I would not have been able to afford on my own, and it is an opportunity everyone should take advantage of."
The SSTEP program will continue to serve the people in the Seeley Swan area as well as welcome anyone who would like to volunteer and help with the program. For more information about the program you may call 677-3177.
Profiles of SSTEP Coorindators
The first SSTEP coordinator, Claudia Marieb, moved to a new position in Missoula, and she was replaced by Kristina Swanson and Jennifer Gibson. Swanson and Gibson work in Seeley on Wednesday and Thursday, and they work the other three days in Missoula.
Swanson has had ten years of experience working on the issues of domestic and sexual violence. She lives in Missoula and works in Seeley on Wednesday and Thursday.
"The Seeley Swan valley has a unique opportunity as a relatively small community to make a united effort to prevent violence in our families and to hold violent offenders accountable for their actions. We can also help violent people make amends to their victims and to make changes in themselves. We are all responsible and we each have a role in making these changes happen.
We need to ask 'How can the violent behavior be changed.' We need to ask in our homes and communities. We must stop acting as if victim's can end the violence by leaving a relationship or getting counseling. The person who commits violent acts must stop the violence. We need to help the offender stop, just as we need to keep victims safe."
There are programs in the Missoula area designed to help offenders change their behavior.
Gibson has been working in this field for the past four years. In the past she was the director of First Night Missoula and also worked in the Missoula-based domestic violence program called Women's Place.
Gibson said that calling for help is important because victims learn that they are not alone.
"It's important that victims know they have a place to turn, to know it's not their fault and that they do not deserve to be hurt physically or emotionally.
Those who commit these crimes need to be held accountable by the law, their friends, neighbors and their churches. We all need to help stop the violence.
I am very excited that the people of the Seeley Swan Valley have come together to take a stand against violence. This community seems to have made a commitment to foster a climate in which it's not okay to hurt each other. That commitment has taken form in support for survivors of violence and increased accountability for offenders."
To speak to Swanson, Gibson or someone from the Help-Line, or learn more about the program, you may call 677-3177.