PLYMOUTH CO. -- Domestic violence victims who live in rural areas face unique barriers in seeking help.
That's according to Dr. Valerie Stokes, a social work professor at Northwestern College, in Orange City.
For her doctoral dissertation, Stokes interviewed 12 survivors of domestic violence from Plymouth, Sioux, Lyon, Osceola and O'Brien counties about their experiences.
She connected with the women through local agencies such as the Council on Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence (CSADV).
Cathy VanMaanen, CSADV outreach coordinator for Plymouth County, helped find participants for the study.
"It's a resource that was extremely well done to share the truths about what survivors face -- not just from their abusers, but from their community," VanMaanen said of the study.
The women, all of whom are mothers, shared their stories of intimate coercive control and their help-seeking processes.
Coercive control is used to prevent someone from individual decision-making or keeping her identity in a relationship, Stokes explained.
She stated she wrote her study to "give voice to women through their own words ..."
"It was fascinating," Stokes said. "They are some of the most strong, encouraging women I've ever met."
Stokes shared her work with the Daily Sentinel this month because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
One of the concepts Stokes learned was that mothering was very important to the 12 women she interviewed.
"That process of mothering promoted a pathway to get help," Stokes said.
All the survivors talked about their children's needs being a top priority, she said.
For example, survivor Debbie said, "The one thing is that your kids are your everything ... I just had to focus on them. They don't know they are the reason I got through."
Other barriers the 12 women faced were the lack of available services in rural areas, the distance required to find help and limited transportation options, Stokes said.
Several of the women said seeking help meant driving, and often their abusers controlled that aspect of their life.
For example, Sophie explained, "My ex-husband wouldn't let me get a license or get a car or let me drive the car. You rely on people. You ask for rides."
Another barrier to seeking help is the lack of anonymity in rural communities, according to Stokes' findings.
Jasmine, one of the women interviewed, said it was hard, "to try not to have everybody know your business, every single thing of it."
Stokes study also identified a barrier in that one cannot separate the rural community from the Christian faith community.
For example, two of the women from abusive situations interviewed reported that divorce was viewed as "something wrong" and "not really accepted."
Stokes said she hopes sharing her study about rural victims and the barriers they face in seeking help will make people realize it's happening in their communities.
"If we think we are immune to it, that's a false sense of security," she said. "If we are not immune, it begs us to act."
VanMaanen said she plans to use Stokes' research as a training and education tool.
"I'm going to be able to say to local people 'these were local individuals,'" she said. "It takes away that thought process 'that doesn't happen here.'"