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A History of Violence

The ugly truths of domestic violence are lost in Utah's bureaucratic squabbling and focus on the family



In summer 2012, directors of Utah’s domestic-violence shelters, desperate for money to keep their doors open, formed a committee that would represent them and the battered women and children who seek their help. They invited Peg Coleman, the recently appointed executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council, to attend. When Coleman told the shelter directors that advocating for them “was what UDVC was supposed to be doing, people were pretty confused,” she says.

But it was Coleman, fresh from a nine-year stint running a shelter in Alaska, who was to end up the most perplexed. “It was heartbreaking to see so much struggle and suffering that doesn’t have a voice,” she says. “The job of the coalition is to give power to that voice.” But when she tried to reposition her supposedly autonomous nonprofit to be the voice of shelter providers and domestic-violence victims, she encountered entrenched opposition from local government officials. She also found that Utah places an unusual emphasis on treating (typically male) domestic-violence offenders with funds that, advocates argue, should be dedicated to serving victims.

Utah’s 16 shelters, three of which are managed by the Division of Child & Family Services, typically function in poverty, advocates complain. “It’s a much better deal to work in McDonald’s; it’s often better pay, you get breaks and benefits, less heartbreak and, often, sadly, more respect,” Coleman e-mailed a state official.

Rural shelters, in particular, are often in dire straits, with one bed available per 348 square miles, compared with urban Utah, where it’s one per .089 miles. The Richfield shelter, which covers five counties, can afford to have only half its lights on. The downtown Salt Lake City YWCA, the oldest and most powerful presence in domestic-violence services in Utah, has one of its four floors closed because of lack of funding.

In 2012, more than 4,099 people found protection from abuse in Utah’s domestic-violence shelters, but more than 2,200 adults and children were turned away in the same period from the YWCA alone. YWCA CEO Anne Burkholder estimates that statewide in 2012, close to 2,000 households’ requests for shelter were turned down due to lack of resources.

Logan-based shelter Community Abuse Prevention Services Agency [CAPSA] turned away 56 families in 2012. “We need more beds or the ability to get them into transitional housing,” says CAPSA Executive Director Jill Anderson, who says her resources are always stretched to breaking point.

She recalls one recent day when she had gone to Salt Lake City for meetings, stayed up till 2 a.m. writing grants, then, an hour after she went to sleep, received a call from local law enforcement that they could not reach the on-call staff at the shelter.

Anderson rushed over to the shelter to find that the one staff member she can afford to have working the night shift—at $7.25 an hour—was counseling a suicidal client and had forgotten her cell phone. Meanwhile, the police needed a trained sexual-assault worker from the shelter to be with a rape victim in a local hospital.


“We are so underfunded,” Anderson says.

That’s an issue that the Utah Domestic Violence Council is supposed to address, at least according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which represents 50 state domestic-violence coalitions nationwide. State domestic-violence coalitions emerged from the grass-roots battered-women’s movement of the 1960s, and in 1994 began receiving federal funding through the Violence Against Women Act. The nonprofit coalitions, federally required to be autonomous and nongovernmental, support organizations that provide “immediate, lifesaving services” for domestic-violence victims, namely shelter providers who are required to have the majority vote.

UDVC started in 1978 as an advisory council housed in the Department of Human Services. Although it was spun off as an independent agency in 1994 so it could apply for federal funds, local government involvement— or direct management, some would say—in domestic-violence nonprofits, both UDVC and private shelters, has continued. State meddling has long been a source of tension and frustration, and has resulted, advocates say, in a marginalization of their role and the people they serve.

“Part of our role as nonprofit advocates is to sometimes push back against the system, so if it isn’t responding or providing to survivors in a helpful, healthy way, then [we can] say these policies need to change,” Anderson says. “If they are so involved in the nonprofits and governing them, then we can’t play that role, and survivors aren’t going to have their needs met.”

When New Jersey-raised Coleman was hired to run the UDVC in 2012, only eight shelter providers had votes on the up to 36-member UDVC council. But after 55-year-old Coleman and her board wrote new bylaws to align her nonprofit with the requirements of its federal funders by giving shelter providers control—and curtailing a block of six votes permanently held by domestic-violence-related state offices—she found her efforts the target of behind-the-scenes lobbying by state officials.

Utah’s domestic violence community is awash with coalitions, councils and state offices all dedicated to helping victims, or at least their cause. But relationships between key members of the many acronymed organizations can be volatile, begging the question of how a system that fights so doggedly with itself can effectively fight for the victims they all serve.

For some, the power struggle between representatives of state offices and nonprofits involved in domestic-violence and sexual-assault work boils down to the ever-increasing need for shelters pitted against shrinking resources, but other longtime advocates and providers perceive a more nuanced fight being waged within the domestic violence community: a battle between Utah’s patriarchal, family-driven values and the victim-centered standards of shelter providers who focus on protecting victims from their abusers and help victims build new lives for themselves.

“Utah obviously has very strong family values and a high regard for the authority of men in the household,” Coleman says. “That’s why it’s very important to have the separation of church and state, and to have different points of view to not allow our own hopes, dreams, biases and belief systems to compromise safety.”

On Coleman’s downtown Salt Lake City office wall is a picture of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. That’s how Coleman’s felt since she arrived in Utah.

YWCA CEO Burkholder says previous executive director Judy Kasten Bell pursued a decades-long advocacy for domestic-violence victims and oversaw a complex evolution of UDVC from “a government-sponsored group to an independent nonprofit organization.” When Kasten Bell decided to leave after 10 years, Burkholder chaired the search committee for a new executive director. Among other qualifications, she says, the search committee was looking for someone committed to the critical role that frontline advocates play, “someone who was a strong leader, who would be fearless speaking out on strengthening Utah’s response to domestic violence.”

In Coleman, they found someone with 35 years of frontline experience. Coleman took over UDVC in April 2012 following nine years of running a domestic-violence and sexual-assault shelter in Homer, Alaska.

Such was Utah’s apparently progressive approach to domestic violence on its grant applications that “I thought I was coming to kumbaya land,” Coleman says. She anticipated using her experience working on domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness to focus on policy, and support people doing the work. But it took only a few months for her to realize that Utah was “a puzzling fire-walk.”

Shortly after taking over, Coleman drove around the state to visit shelters. The lengthy distances quickly made it apparent how thinly stretched rural service providers are in Utah. When Coleman arrived at the first shelter, her office called to say Ned Searle—Gov. Gary Herbert’s point man on domestic violence, running the Office of Domestic & Sexual Violence out of the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice—was upset that she had gone by herself to see the shelters.

Searle declined to comment for this story.

“I was very surprised there was an expectation that I would go with a state official,” Coleman says. She didn’t want to make the state angry, she says, but she wanted an unvarnished picture. “If their funder shows up, they’re not going to say what they need.”

As she toured the shelters, she found that shelter directors, typically earning around $35,000 annually, were struggling with paltry resources. “Do I cut my salary in half or do I cut services?” was a common question, Coleman says.

“Karen” knows how it feels to call shelters for help, only to be told to look elsewhere. Her name has been changed for this story.

One late April night in 2013, her ex-husband was arrested for domestic violence in a front of a child after he assaulted their eldest son. He was released the same night and texted Karen about their son: “He’s just like you, he doesn’t want to hear what he needs to hear.” Frightened for her children, whose ages range from 9 to 19, Karen and her children sought shelter with little more than the clothes on their backs. “It’s like your whole life drops from you, you’re just skin and bones,” she says.

Karen called agencies and shelters from her car at rest stops, places “I felt would be peaceful. I tried to be inspired, tried to stay calm.” The Salt Lake Community Action Program told her she had to have a job to get assistance. The downtown Salt Lake City YWCA was full. The Road Home homeless shelter could not promise that her children would be kept with her. The Rescue Haven didn’t have any beds. The Volunteers of America would only take her in if she had an addiction. Family Promise in Salt Lake City had a month-long waiting list. Logan-based Community Abuse Prevention Services Agency [CAPSA] couldn’t take her, but it could take her children if the son who had been hurt became their guardian.

In the face of each rejection, Karen still clung to the belief she had done the right thing in leaving. But each “no,” she says, “breaks your spirit.” If worse comes to worse, she thought, they could sleep in the car at a rest stop. “I felt safe there. There were people there, truckers,” she says. “It was not in the middle of nowhere.”

While the police were initially supportive, she says, when her ex-husband filed a complaint that she wouldn’t let him see the children, one officer interrogated her. When she complained to his captain, she says, he blamed her for her situation. When she told CAPSA of the cops’ attitudes toward her, they said her ex-husband was harassing her through the police, rendering her a domestic-violence victim. They took her and her four children in.

The CAPSA shelter is set back from a road in a residential neighborhood in Logan. It’s a large house with offices, a communal kitchen, counseling rooms and small bedrooms with bunk beds. “Compared to a rest stop, the shelter felt pretty good,” Karen says. “Now, I could walk through a room and nobody was going to come in and yell at you. You can finally breathe, you exhale.” The shelter gave each of them a gift bag with toiletries and a robe. “It made you feel like you were wanted.”

On the surface, UDVC appeared to be an autonomous state domestic-violence coalition using federal funds—$230,000 annually—to advocate for domestic-violence victims like Karen and shelter providers like CAPSA. Those same providers are federally required to have a majority vote over UDVC’s affairs. But, in addition to finding that only eight shelters were voting members of the 36-strong council, Coleman found that six government offices had permanent votes.

The governor’s domestic-violence point man, Ned Searle, wrote in an e-mail to many in the community that Kasten Bell had tried repeatedly to bring the nonprofit into alignment, but “we never did quite make it.”

Both the Division of Child & Family Services and Utah’s Commission of Criminal & Juvenile Justice have domestic-violence offices while doubling as granting agencies. Both offices also had a UDVC vote, meaning, YWCA’s Burkholder says, that those who depend on the funding can find themselves in a relationship of unequal power with the funders, where “You’re always dancing. What can you say, how can you say it?”

Burkholder says Coleman’s predecessor, Kasten Bell, “navigated and strengthened” the relationships between UDVC’s public partners and its coalition work. “I give her credit for nurturing relationships and keeping us talking together,” Burkholder says. But, she acknowledges, those very efforts to bring public and private stakeholders to the table “over time had some consequences that may have diminished the key role that victim service providers play.”

Family Violence Prevention & Services [FVPSA] is a key federal funder of Utah’s domestic-violence services. FVPSA provided just over $1 million for Utah’s shelters in 2012, with another $1.1 million coming from a federal social-services block grant. When FVPSA’s Kenneth Noyes did a Utah site visit in March 2013, he told UDVC board members that, based on its voting structure, the nonprofit appeared to be an arm of the government. If that weren’t changed, the nonprofit’s funding could be jeopardized.

While some see Coleman and her attempts to draw boundary lines between her agency and the state as polarizing, other welcome her firebrand style.

“I think the questions she raises are good ones,” says DCFS division director Brent Platt. “They may be uncomfortable for some, but they are healthy.” He sees that shelter providers “feel that the need is always increasing, but the available funding stagnates. ‘Who’s listening to us?’ they ask.”

He acknowledges, “The reality is we depend on them, our communities depend on them. I just feel like we could do a better job supporting them and advocating for them.”


The more time Coleman spent in Utah’s domestic-violence services community, the more she became concerned that behind Utah’s focus on the family lay a disturbing pattern of victim-blaming.

She would hear local advocates opine that “it takes two to tango,” and when talking about batterer accountability, almost inevitably, she says, individuals would shift to talking about “pushing his buttons, how difficult she is, she is with one perpetrator after another, what does that say about her?”

Neither FVPSA’s Kenneth Noyes, nor Coleman, had ever heard before of domestic-violence treatment as it is practiced in Utah. It’s essentially clinical therapy for both victim and batterer, with little if any differentiation made between the two.

Because of the “lack of ongoing supervision for persons working with batterers and a lack of meaningful connection to DV advocates,” the approach, Coleman says, can “lead to minimization of the violence and colluding with the batterer.” She points out that in calls that have come in to UDVC’s LINKLine, a federally funded anonymous hotline, victims have reported their therapists telling them that their batterer-partner was getting better, even as he continued to hit her at home.

When Coleman read UDVC’s domestic-violence training manual, she found one section was dedicated to working with offenders, recommending that after 12 weeks of clinical treatment for the batterer, he and his victim could take “couples counseling” together if he had a “low” level of incidence. The Violence Against Women Act prohibits couples counseling for victims and perpetrators because research indicates it may impact victim safety.

As Coleman dug into the history of UDVC to try to understand its evolution, she was upset at both the dearth of information available about how many people had gone into perpetrator treatment and couples’ therapy, and at how UDVC’s lack of alignment with its federal mandate had created a vacuum into which others had stepped.

UDVC’s subcommittee of treatment providers had used the agency to help promote a cottage industry of for-profit treatment providers specializing in various approaches to counseling domestic-violence offenders.

The UDVC subcommittee, working with DCFS, had also been actively setting practice guidelines for perpetrator treatment for providers and developing licensing protocols for perpetrator treatment.

In late 2012, out of concern their activities would jeopardize the agency’s federal funding, Coleman told the treatment providers that the subcommittee could no longer use funding from her agency. “I’m not saying that perpetrators shouldn’t have treatment, just that any use of VAWA or FVPSA funding should be grounded in victim safety,” she says.

DCFS contracts with numerous providers in the community for services for both perpetrators and victims.

For 2013, Utah budgeted spending $6 million on domestic violence, with $2.8 million going to shelters, and $3.2 million going to treatment contracts for victims and what DCFS calls “perpetrator intervention, workers and tracking services.”

“The consensus is that in order for families to heal, perpetrators need treatment as well,” DCFS director Platt says. DCFS is obligated to make sure that services are provided for all family members, he says. “If I have an adult victim who wants to reunify, a perpetrator who wants to reunify, it’s their family, not ours. Our folks are going to help them, within the context of keeping the child safe.”

Utah spends between $1 and $2 million annually on batterer-intervention programs, but a more detailed accounting of where and to whom that money goes is not readily available. Platt says that three years ago he learned that contracts with treatment providers were “fairly vague, they needed tightening up.” He’s requested that staff track how much money is spent on perpetrators, and how much on victims.

By February 2013, UDVC’s staff and board had gone through nine drafts of new bylaws. UDVC board chairman James Harper, a Brigham Young University professor, sent out an e-mail to members noting that the new bylaws to be voted on in March would “sharpen the focus of UDVC to more clearly represent victims, victim safety, support of victim services and promotion of national best practices for victim services.” That meant that only shelter providers could be voting members of the council, and that the board had to be majority controlled by shelter providers as well. State officials with influence over funding could not become board directors, as that was a conflict of interest.

The Office on Domestic & Sexual Violence’s Searle e-mailed Harper on Feb. 26, criticizing the proposed bylaws as changing UDVC’s identity and making it “just like every other state DV coalition.” He was upset that the bylaws referred to shelters providing sexual-assault crisis work. While shelters often provide that service, along with the Rape Recovery Center, Searle didn’t want UDVC straying into territory that he felt belonged to another nonprofit, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. He asked Harper for his support and further information, concluding, “I’m not asking Peg, because I want an answer from someone like you who has been involved but not so sensitively tied to all of these changes. After all, you are the man in charge.”

In early March 2013, Noyes, of the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act, came to Utah to check on how the federal funds were being spent. He visited shelters, state agencies and, on March 6, met with Coleman, Searle and a DCFS official. Noyes expressed discomfort with aspects of DCFS’s involvement with shelters, particularly with regard to confidential personal information of individual shelter clients. Shelter providers are required to inform DCFS when they take in “children who have directly witnessed or experienced DV,” says Jenn Oxborrow, who became the agency’s new domestic-violence program administrator in May 2013.

Coleman says DCFS is much more involved in Utah’s shelters than is typical elsewhere in the country. “Some women will not come into a shelter, they would rather get beaten than risk kids coming into a state system. Part of our job is look at where the state, agencies or even ourselves cause barriers.”

Platt agrees that there are tensions between DCFS’s primary concern of child welfare and domestic-violence services. “I want to reduce [the tension], I don’t like it,” he says.

If Coleman had thought that Noyes’ statement to UDVC board members that the state should support UDVC rather than dictate policy would be embraced, she learned otherwise from community members as word of a state-driven lobbying campaign against the vote reached her ear. Interviews and e-mails City Weekly accessed through records requests show that Searle lobbied council and board members to vote down Coleman’s changes.

Coleman e-mailed Searle, “I have been maligned, misquoted, shunned and frankly treated very badly.”

On March 19, council members met at the Episcopal Church Center in downtown Salt Lake City to vote on the proposed bylaws.

Longstanding voting members expressed their displeasure at the idea of losing their vote. Shelter providers “talked about serving victims, the struggle they’re having with no resources,” Coleman says. But some individuals City Weekly interviewed said they had been afraid to speak out in support of the pro-shelter bylaws, not wanting to antagonize those who controlled their funds.

Shelter providers and advocates “went in very hopeful that they would have a voice at the coalition table,” Coleman says. But it quickly became apparent that a power play was in process, Coleman says. When several shelter providers said they did sexual-assault crisis work, one of the key funders responded, “No, you don’t.”

That, Coleman says, left many shelter providers who provide support to sexual-violence victims “raw. They had anticipated a collaborating relationship, but then they saw they had no power there,” she says.

One longtime advocate and domestic-violence survivor left the meeting in tears. “I felt as if I had a huge hole in my soul.”

The new bylaws were voted down.

The following day, barbed e-mails, typically copied to many in the domestic violence community, flew back and forth. They culminated in a public e-mail scolding of Coleman by Searle: “When are you going to work with and listen to those who want to support you and have UDVC be successful.”

Tension between Coleman and DCFS also simmered. When she asked for 2011 figures for money spent on perpetrator treatment in order to compile a Utah needs assessment required by FVPSA, DCFS’s former domestic-violence program administrator Del Bircher wrote to division director Platt, “I don’t trust how the information will be used.” Platt agreed: “Which is why I only want to give her very little info.”

Platt says the e-mail exchange was during the legislative session and he wanted to ensure the information given out to her was accurate, “that we were able to explain it. The reality is, facts are facts.”

The board and Coleman reworked the bylaws, simplifying the voting structure. While shelter providers were still in charge, state officials, among others, were once more eligible to be voting members. However, they could not be voted to the board if they had any influence over funding streams to shelters. Two months later, on May 21, the council voted to adopt the new bylaws version.

Coleman has mixed feelings. She now leads the UDVC—renamed as a coalition instead of a council—that, run by shelter providers, “is in minimum alignment” with federal regulations. But to get there, she also had to take out references to shelter providers doing sexual-assault work, the issue that had so irked Searle. “That doesn’t make any sense to me that to please local government I can’t have it in the bylaws,” she says.

Coleman still has obstacles to negotiate, including a federal audit of her agency, which she fears will not go well because of its history of not being in compliance. But she also finds in the DCFS’s Oxborrow someone who speaks her language. Platt gave Oxborrow a mandate to bring the shelters and DCFS closer together. “I told her go check on the shelters, make sure we are in line with them,” Platt says. “I want to renew our efforts, to make sure we are part of discussions, to be supportive of latest research, the latest trends in intimate-partner violence.”

Part of FVPSA’s funding requirement is a state plan to end domestic violence. While many other states have active 10-year plans to reduce domestic violence, no one City Weekly asked could locate one for Utah. There is also no needs assessment as yet done to plot out how big Utah’s domestic violence problem is, nor an effective tracking program in place to identify how the money is spent on treatment and how effective that treatment is.

Oxborrow says she and Coleman have already talked extensively about developing a needs assessment for Utah. “We need to organize ourselves and have a collective voice to seek funding,” Oxborrow says. “There’s been so much chaos for so long” in Utah’s domestic-violence-services community.

Coleman says she seeks “a strong partnership with the state, but one where our differences are respected.” She is determined to hold course. “Where I’ve gotten marginalized, my response is keep standing. That’s really what we ask victims to do.”

Despite the painful rejection Karen encountered when she sought help from Utah’s shelters, she agrees with Coleman. “I don’t have the luxury to crawl under a rock and hide or have an emotional breakdown,” she says. “There has to be a comeback story, the Rocky music, whatever you want to call it. I have to show my kids you keep going and don’t give up. Something will come of it.”

By early June, Karen and her children’s time at the Logan shelter was up. The allotted time for victims is 30 to 45 days before moving to transitional housing. But Karen could not find somewhere to rent that was appropriate for her family. CAPSA gave her a two-week extension while she continued the search.

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Karen says that women who find themselves caught between an abusive partner and the underfunded shelters of Utah shouldn’t think twice.

“Leap anyway,” she says.