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Oil country sees spike in North Dakota domestic violence

The astonishing growth of the oil-fueled western North Dakota economy has provided many opportunities for people from all over to find high-paying jobs in the industry. The accompanying growing pains have also choked city infrastructure and squeezed out much of the traditional way of life there.

One such negative impact on the rise is domestic violence.

“We really started noticing the numbers going up in 2009,” said Lana Bonnet, director of the Family Crisis Shelter in Williston, who has been with the organization since 2006. The shelter offers housing, support and resources for an area of 11,000 square miles and an estimated population base of 30,000 people.

This modest building in Williston, capable of housing 11 women and children, has been stretched to the limit in recent years as oil country continues to grow and domestic violence is on the rise. In 2012 the shelter served the needs of 262 victims and 130 victims so far from January to June this year, which is the latest data Bonnet had to look up.

By Bonnet’s estimation, the shelter has seen maybe 45 days of non-consecutive vacancies since that year, saying that services have “just been non-stop.”

The shelter itself has room for 11 people, all women and children. They assist men, too, but have to put them up in local hotels rather than the shelter itself. The problem with that, though, is that despite new hotels and motels going up all the time in the area, they’re not willing to work with the shelter for reduced rates, Bonnet said, “Because they can get the dollar amount they ask for” from the oil companies or other companies in the area making enough profit to afford the hotels.

The shelter has already spent more than $4,000 from January to June 2013 for hotel needs, but men don’t make up a large part of their clientele. Instead, a big portion of their budget goes to relocating out-of-state women back to their hometowns.

“The biggest issue and the reason we send people back home is because there is no affordable housing,” Bonnet said. “They come here thinking they could make a better life for themselves and their families.”

With apartments still within the upper $2,000 per month to the $3,000 per month range, too many are priced out. And, for the housing contracted to oilfield companies, if there’s a problem in the relationship the woman and the children will be the ones who have to leave for the man to continue to work.

Bus fare and other relocation costs incurred by the shelter rose from $2,500 in 2011 to over $13,000 in 2012. Costs are already over $5,000 through June of this year.

Speaking out: Contributing factors

“There’s more strangulations, there’s more violent assaults,” Bonnet said. “There’s contributing factors. Alcohol, drugs, overcrowding, homeless, we have a lot (of people) living in campers and RVs.”

Then the stressors come out like cramped spaces, alcohol usage, crying children all making for an unstable mix.

“I don’t know why it’s getting more violent, but it is,” Bonnet said.

“The first time I sought help was 14 years ago at this shelter,” said April Stevens, who was working as the residential supervisor at the shelter at the time of this interview, and had been in the position since April. She has now left the state to start anew somewhere far from the man controlling her life for that whole time. “I left him in February. He pulled a gun on me high on methamphetamine.”

The February leave was the final break of four total. She had made it out in May 2012 for a while and even got a good-paying job to support herself and her children until she slipped on a wet floor and damaged her back so badly that she was out of commission for a while and had to come back to him in November for support.

“I didn’t have any other choice,” she said. “I didn’t think I did, anyway.”

She was willing to speak with The Minot Daily News because she is “not ashamed” of her story and wanted to help shed light on the growing abuse in the region.

Stevens was born in Montana, along its border with North Dakota, and grew up in both states and is no stranger to the oilfield.

“As a matter of fact my whole life my dad was an oilfield welder,” she said. “I was raised on rigs.”

“I did think things were going to be better,” she said. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, I got pregnant. He would drug me and make sure I got pregnant. He knew that would make me stay and it did for a long time.”

That child will be 12 in September and will have moved away with her by now. Her other three children are adults and she is now a grandmother.

There’s been a protection order against the man for a while now after their last altercation.

“He took after me with a shotgun and said he was going to shoot me in the basement and that it wouldn’t be murder because the shells were loaded heavy and there’d be nothing left of me but bits.”

Methamphetamine usage on the part of the man was a major contributor to her own abuse, she said. The women she got to support from her time working at the shelter shared many experiences and also talked a lot about the stress they were under.

She points to the lack of homeless shelters in the region as well as the “outrageously expensive” housing still available as ways stress can creep in. In fact, that’s why she’s moving away, she said, because she can’t afford to live there anymore.

“If I wasn’t married, I couldn’t work at this job,” Bonnet agreed, saying that her income is only supplementary to her husband’s and that they couldn’t afford to live there on her salary.

Stevens thinks that deposit funding would help a lot in terms of affordability of housing there.

“The landlords kind of lead you on a little bit, you know. Not a whole lot,” Stevens said, although adding that it’s not all their fault. “They’re overwhelmed and it takes a very long time to get their paperwork done. … It’s heartbreaking.”

Daycare availability is another oft-cited problem that keeps many women from the work they need.

“They’re full,” Bonnet said. “Daycares just cannot take anymore children so they’re on a waiting list.” She added that there’s a waiting list for a lot of needs in the area.

“All of the resources that I can refer them to are overwhelmed,” Stevens said of the victims she speaks with. “Breaking the cycle. That’s a huge thing but I’m not sure that’s something that the community can do … Once you get in that cycle it’s just so hard. It’s like a love addiction.”

Funding needs

The costs of feeding and housing so many people, nearly without break, throughout the year adds up and most of that comes from federal and state grants, but those haven’t yet caught up to the increased demand in the area, according to Bonnet. Instead, funding becomes more community-based.

“Our tri-county area is great,” Bonnet said. “They do give, not only donations (of food and items) but also money donations.”

She even said that oilfield companies, which are often seen as the enemy by locals over their increased housing costs and the like, are “giving us huge donations.”

There is a very generous anonymous donor who wants his money spent directly on the victims and their children, and then there’s even a yearly St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser put on by the Booze Fighter Motorcycle Club Badlands Chapter, which gave $25,000 to the shelter this year.

Bonnet said increased contributions by as little as $30,000 to $40,000 total per year would help them out tremendously.

Breaking the cycle

As for Stevens, she’s out. But she learned a lot when she finally broke the cycle.

She said that support groups for the women helped a lot and that more are needed to reach the most people to share stories and strategies now that the whole thing has become much more a community issue as institutional help is so overwhelmed.

“We have a Boundaries Group and … we have a good turn-out for that,” Stevens said. “It teaches you to put up a boundary so that you don’t over-extend yourself … it changes your thinking pattern so that you can learn to say no. … I was controlled because I wasn’t allowed to say no.”

She’s learned to say no and has helped others along the way.

“We become a family through our common trials and suffering and then figure out that we are not alone. We come in broken and leave victorious, because of each other,” she said.

“Lana taught me how to have a whole new attitude,” she said. “I’m putting on my repaired wings and I’m flying. I’m going for it.”

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