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Mobile Office Helps Rural Missouri Women Escape Abusers

Nearly 90% of cases the Crime Victim Center assists with deal with domestic violence.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Even with techonology, rural women need in-person help to get the resources needed to escape their abusers.

WAYNESVILLE — Using online services to help rural people in need isn’t new, but a domestic violence shelter has learned it takes more than that when internet access in safe spaces isn’t available.

That’s why Genesis, a domestic and sexual violence victim advocacy agency, is combining its online offerings with a roving staff member who travels to women in need.

“If they can just get to me at the disclosed location, I can set them up with therapy services through our therapists over the internet,” said Wendy Miller, the rural victim advocate for Genesis.

Three days a week, Miller goes to small towns in Pulaski County, about 130 miles southwest of St. Louis, with a laptop bag she calls her “mobile office” in tow. She sets up for the day in a back room or empty office of a business, health department, doctor’s office, or other places that don’t attract attention.

That’s by design — to avoid arousing suspicion of an abuser who may see a victim’s car.

“All the places we go to, I designed that they are public places that it’s not going to look odd for them to go into it. So if their abuser goes by and sees them going into a health department, it’s not weird,” Miller said.

Miller is a lifelong Pulaski County resident and a 12-year survivor of domestic abuse. She said rural areas are so tightknit, from farms to churches, that women in danger can find it hard to go anywhere to get help. 

Friends and neighbors can often, sometimes inadvertently and with good intentions, tip off the abuser that a woman is trying to get away.

That can lead to intimidation or even more violence.

Online access to therapists and resources for them to get out and start a new life help. But Miller said that doesn’t do much good if they can’t get online in a safe place.

“There may not be internet access in the home because of poor coverage. Or it may be monitored by the abuser,” Miller said.

Miller said the program is working. It’s been running for a little more than a year, and she has helped more than 60 women find help to get away from their abusers. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence applauded Genesis for its work and had the agency present its program at a national conference. 

Megan Setter, a therapist at Genesis and one of the people who created the program, said the women this is designed to help are far away from the kinds of resources found at the shelter in Waynesville, which has about 5,000 residents and is next to Fort Leonard Wood.

“We’re talking about areas where you are literally going for miles before you even see your neighbor, let alone any access to some sort of public location or business or anything like that,” Setter said.

When she arrived at Genesis a few years ago, Setter said, she saw the need to help rural women.

“For us as an agency, the amount of missed appointments, and things like that, too, that were occurring, just because people could not physically come in to get the services that they needed,” Setter said.

So she developed online access to therapists and people who could help with such needs as obtaining restraining orders, lining up child care and finding a new job.

Adding Miller’s roving services was the final piece in making sure rural women in the county could get access to these new services.

The problem is not unique to Missouri. Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said rural agencies in all states are under constant pressure to find ways to innovate because of the population they serve and a lack of funding.

“In urban areas, there’s foundations, there’s corporations, there’s different access to money that our rural agencies don’t have,” Smith said. “And they may find they are running out of money pretty quickly if they are trying to be creative and do services in a different way.”

Genesis is running its rural program with a collection of grants of about $50,000 that they hope to have renewed as well as find other funding sources. 

The coronavirus outbreak that is forcing people to stay in close quarters could be exacerbating domestic violence problems. But it's also adding to the attention Genesis is getting. With more and more restrictions on personal interactions, many organizations are looking at using online services.

“We’re getting a ton of calls about what we’re doing, and I’m actually going to record a training to post and share with our coalition so other people who want to implement this program right now, given the current situation, are able to do so,” Setter said.

Genesis staff was planning to go to New Mexico to train rural providers there on using telehealth and roving staff, but the trip was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Setter said she hopes to reschedule that.

For now, Miller will keep rolling her mobile office around Pulaski County to help women in need. 

“If I have to meet a woman at a truck stop or in a McDonald’s to help her become a survivor, I’ll do it,” Miller said.

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Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.