Before YWCA opened its Hardin shelter with four one-bedroom apartments for victims of assault and domestic violence in May 2021, victims from across Big Horn County had to travel to the YWCA in Billings for emergency shelter services.
Just 50 miles away, the YWCA shelter in Hardin has been full ever since it opened.
“One of the biggest struggles for victims is having to choose their community and their family versus being safe,” said Nancy Old Elk, a victims advocate at YWCA Billings and former rural victims advocate in Big Horn County. “Adding the shelter was a huge step forward for services there. Now people don’t need to leave their family, their community and take their kids out of school to go to another county to get resources just to be safe.”
Old Elk and other victim services advocates from across the state presented issues their clients face with the criminal justice system to the Criminal Justice Oversight Council on Tuesday, and advocates highlighted inequities in services in rural versus urban areas as one major area state programs need to address.
Some counties, like Gallatin, have a system-based victims program through their county attorney’s office that can see 2,000 or more cases annually, according to testimony at the hearing. Gallatin’s Victims Services Program can provide a wide range of assistance from referrals when officers arrive at an assault scene to advocacy for victims when setting plea agreements and in sentencing hearings.
However, many rural communities across Montana do not have programs through local government offices and rely on community-based organizations like YWCA and the Friendship Center in Helena to advocate for victims in the courts and to find shelter accommodations.
The Department of Corrections Victim Services Bureau, whose six victim liaisons work 5,500 to 6,000 cases a year, is designed to pick up cases at the sentencing stage or later. However, with the lack of systemic programming in many rural counties, they often become involved in cases from the beginning in underserved areas. Advocates said clients in these areas often experience multiple barriers to participating in the court system.
“There are areas in Montana where there just aren’t services, and that’s where we’ve seen gaps, and for some clients, a barrier of access is access to basic needs,” Tawny Rogers, a state victim liaison with the Board of Crime Control, said. “The court system may be moving as it’s supposed to; however, the victim is unable to participate in the system as she doesn’t have childcare or a job that allows her to take time off.”
Advocates also reported that the taxing process of litigating their assaults leads to many of their clients feeling re-victimized. Victim services providers say this makes their presence in each step of the criminal justice process vital for victims to have their voices heard in court hearings and plea agreement negotiations.
According to Gina Boesdorfer, executive director of the Friendship Center in Helena, clients who have already worked with the criminal justice system are less likely to engage again than those who have not experienced previous victimization. She also said it is not unusual for victims to see two to three years go by from their initial assault to their sentencing and restitution hearings.
“We have clients who prepare for trial, relive their trauma in preparation, brace themselves to face their offender in court and know that their credibility and integrity is likely going to be attacked as a part of that process,” Boesdorfer said. “The message a lot of our clients receive going through the process is that the victimization didn’t happen, that they’re not believed and that it wasn’t as severe as they thought it was. When they do have a concern about the process, they’re afraid if they complain it will impact the outcome of their case.”
Rogers said there is no state funding dedicated specifically to victim services, and all of their funding comes from federal grants, which have been declining over the past few years. The Crime Victims’ Fund in the Victims of Crime Act saw a surge in funding at its record high of $4.4 billion in the 2018 fiscal year and has decreased each year since.
“Victim service providers understood that it was likely going to go back down, and we are seeing a decrease and asking for stabilization from the state so we can continue providing at the same rate we’re at,” Rogers said.
In 2020, Montana became one of 10 states to receive a $500,000 discretionary grant through the Office for Victims of Crime’s State Victim Liaison Project, which the Board of Crime Control is using to identify gaps in services through a statewide needs assessment. The first year of work shows up to 300 gaps in services, with continuity of care across counties emerging as a top priority. With their call for state funding and collaboration between system-based services and community-based organizations, advocates hope more rural areas can increase their access to shelter and legal services to be on par with larger counties.
“What they’ve created in the Bozeman and Gallatin area is a wonderful set of resources, and it doesn’t exist in a lot of other places,” Rogers said. “We’re studying where our greatest needs are and what will be a bang for our buck out there. We need more resources to be available because as the money goes down, so does access to services for victims.”