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Woman Overboard

Controversial director of domestic-violence coalition resigns, but fight over DV treatment and funding continues


Peg Coleman - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Peg Coleman

Nearly 40 percent of homicides in Utah are related to domestic violence, a topic that tragically grabbed headlines in January when a Lindon Police Department officer killed his wife and children before killing himself. But while the demand for nights at Utah’s nonprofit domestic-violence shelters has risen by 67 percent in the past five years, funding for the shelters has remained flat, according to figures from Utah’s Division of Child & Family Services.

On Feb. 5, Kendra Wyckoff made a five-minute presentation to the Utah Legislature’s Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee. The executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition asked for an ongoing appropriation of just under $700,000 to assist the 13 nonprofit domestic violence shelters in Utah.

Wyckoff assumed the executive-director position just days prior to appearing before the subcommittee, replacing veteran victim advocate Peg Coleman, who stepped down at the end of January.

Coleman left, she says, because the animosity toward her from state officials at the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice became a problem to where it was impacting her agency. “It was not a good fit,” she says. She ended up, she says, “fighting folks within public policy who forget their role as public servants.”

She raised numerous questions during her 15 months in Utah, including why the state was so involved in domestic-violence and sexual-assault nonprofits and why millions of taxpayer dollars that could have gone to shelters was instead being passed through DCFS and into the treatment of perpetrators, without there being any accountability or explanation of how that money was being spent. That and other issues were documented in City Weekly’s June 27, 2013, cover story, “A History of Violence.”

Jenn Oxborrow, the program manger of domestic-violence services at the Department of Human Services, says that when Coleman “provided feedback about the deficits she saw in the system, some of the stakeholders felt criticized. Some of these stakeholders in DV have done this for a very long time, so when Peg said the system was not working, when she pointed out alarming rates and trends, she was perceived as critical of the efforts and lifework of those stakeholders.”

Coleman argues that part of the problem of having had a domestic-violence coalition without a strong voice—or at least one that wasn’t controlled by state officials—was that domestic violence “was framed as a pathology”; essentially, presented as a mental-health issue when it came to policy discussions with legislators, leading to financial resources being directed to therapeutic approaches.

But, she says, “DV is a crime … [when] somebody crosses the line into abuse, all bets are off. The research shows that it escalates.” Perpetrator treatment, she says, “should be funded differently. It’s a crime; people are expected to pony up.”

Some legislators, however, argue for a different approach. Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, who sits on the Social Services Appropriation Subcommittee, says that he would prefer to see male domestic-violence offenders who co-operate not be tagged with the label of criminal but rather allowed to pursue therapy.

While society gives financial and educational support to women struggling with emotional and marital problems, he says, “we take a man with similar problems and we throw him in jail and make him pay a lot of money.” He is also highly critical of protective orders, having gone through a divorce where he unsuccessfully fought for custody of his 11-year-old boy.

“There is a tendency to demonize men in the DV community,” Tanner says. “Part of it is obviously some men resort to violence as their tool of last resort. It shouldn’t be, and many of them would admit that.”

Coleman says prosecuting domestic violence is not about demonizing men, but empowering them by holding them accountable, something that Oxborrow echoes. Oxborrow says that research shows that while Utah is marginally worse than the national average rate of domestic-violence-related homicides and suicides, those figures would decline if “effective treatment and accountability programming were mandated for perpetrators of DV.”

Compared to other states that have reduced the rate of both domestic violence and suicide, Oxborrow says, “Utah’s treatment and accountability protocols for DV offenders are incredibly loose.” The state’s offender-treatment programs vary one from another, she says, and do not reflect national best practices that have been shown to reduce family violence, suicide and homicide.

Tanner, for his part, would like to see religious leaders working with social workers involved in domestic violence. He suggests a conference where LDS bishops and Relief Society presidents can learn about the complexities of domestic violence.

The LDS Church “has a huge infrastructure,” he says. “We might as well try to take advantage of it.” Mormons, he says, “have a culture of nonviolence. You are told over and over again that violence to your spouse, your child is unacceptable.”

While Tanner would prefer a focus on case management, rather than beds, Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, who also sits on the Social Services Appropriation Committee, speaks from personal knowledge of the need for shelter nights. He takes a deep, shuddering breath as he recalls encouraging a close friend to leave an abusive relationship of seven years and take her six children to a shelter.

But when she did, there was no room at the shelter for her and her children.

“It’s a travesty when we as government can’t provide a basic service to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he says. “It’s maddening.”

Coleman has already started a new position at a shelter in Seattle, far away from the dramas of the legislative session and her former agency’s push for funds for shelters. The gift of Utah, she says, was that it taught her that “a middle-age white woman with 35 years of experience held no privilege here whatsoever.” Since she’s gone, she says, state officials can’t use their conflict with her to avoid answering tough questions about policy and money.

Now, legislators have to balance the shelters’ financial request against others from the social-services spectrum who have come to the legislature, cap in hand.

While that decision is expected in a few weeks, more fundamental changes for domestic violence are in the wings. Oxborrow is shepherding in a statewide needs assessment for domestic violence that may be finished in the summer. That will mean Utah will be able to look at domestic violence not only in terms of the need for shelter nights but also for case management and services.

While Coleman “tuned up the system,” Oxborrow says, “we have a lot of work to do.”

Twitter: @StephenPDark


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