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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



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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.