By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven 

People living in rural, urban and suburban areas all experience domestic violence at similar rates — a fact that’s reflected in data and in research. 

Though it’s not a perfect metric, the number of calls to domestic violence hotlines provides some sense of the problem in North Carolina. The NC Council for Women and Youth Involvement reports that domestic violence hotlines in North Carolina received about 93,000 calls between July 2020 and June 2021.

Around 48,000 of those calls came from urban and suburban counties, a rate of 6.5 calls per 1,000 people. The remaining 45,000 or so came from rural areas, about 12 calls for every 1,000 people — nearly double the urban/suburban rate. 

Regardless of geography, survivors face many barriers to leaving. Years of financial abuse might mean they don’t have access to their own money. Some abusive partners so severely isolate a survivor from their loved ones that they have no one to turn to for help. Also, many survivors worry what will happen to their children. 

All that and more helps explain why it takes an average of seven attempts before people leave their abusers for good

For rural survivors, those barriers are amplified: They often live farther from the nearest shelter, they’re less likely to have access to public transportation or ride sharing apps, there are fewer mental health providers and they often worry that, in a small community where everyone knows each other, their experiences won’t be kept private.

That can make leaving an abuser feel like an insurmountable task.

In North Carolina, those barriers are amplified for rural Latinx survivors, according to a new study published by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill. Latinxs comprise about a million of the state’s residents, and while about a quarter live in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, many Latinxs live in rural communities. 

The UNC study found that, compared to non-rural organizations, rural intimate partner violence agencies were less likely to have bilingual staff and volunteers and less likely to have their websites available in Spanish.

Fewer rural organizations described having a strong relationship with their local Latinx community compared to urban and suburban organizations, and they said services to support these survivors — ESL classes, legal aid, immigration assistance — are hard to find. 

This new study enables those in the field to conclusively say what they’ve been seeing for years: rural domestic abuse survivors, especially those with other marginalized identities, don’t have access to the care they need. Without that care, the consequences can be deadly. 

High poverty + no interpreters = isolation

“Unfortunately it’s not surprising,” said Kathleen Lockwood, the policy director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Domestic violence services across the state have funding needs that aren't being met right now and haven't been met for years, and we've heard that from our members in rural settings.” 

Rural domestic violence agencies often serve high-poverty areas. That means many of the barriers that rural Latinx survivors face are the same barriers all low-income rural survivors face:  lack of transportation, child care, shelter beds, etc. 

Being in a low-income area also means organizations don’t have access to the same local donor bases that some urban agencies do. And, geographically, they’re more isolated. 

“We also know that immigrant communities or Spanish-speaking communities face more isolation in those areas,” Lockwood said. 

Too hard to get help

North Carolina’s Latinx population is growing faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the state, which makes providing adequate services to this community all the more crucial.

Since 1990, the number of Latinxs in the state has increased nearly 1,400 percent — from about 75,000 residents to more than a million — and much of the community’s growth has happened in rural areas. In Duplin, Sampson and Lee counties, which are in the eastern part of the state, Latinxs comprise more than 20 percent of county residents. 

Though Latinxs make up less of the population of rural western North Carolina, the community still does exist. About 10 percent of Macon County and 7 percent of Jackson County residents, for example, identified as Latinx in the last census. 

REACH, the domestic violence agency serving Macon County, is small. They have a staff of fewer than 10 people. But they’ve long aimed to offer as robust care as they can to Latinx survivors.

“One of our staff — the lead court advocate, human trafficking, sexual assault and shelter supervisor — is bilingual. English is actually her second language, and she has worked with REACH for more than 17 years,” said Jennifer Turner-Lynn, the agency’s assistant director. 

If you need support, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or the local domestic violence agency in your county. Their numbers are listed here.

In the last year, about 10 percent of the clients REACH served and about 5 percent of shelter residents were Latinx.

Turner-Lynn said the agency always tries to have shelter staff who speak Spanish. They also translate their most common forms into Spanish and have a tab on their website in Spanish that describes the most critical information. Non-bilingual staff have access to a live language line that operates 24 hours a day, and they make use of translation apps when needed.

“I would say that the accessibility of services for Latinx folks is comparable to what most folks experience in small, rural communities,” she said. “We have two Latinx based groups/agencies in Franklin and Highlands, and Vecinos is scheduled to open a new facility in Franklin, which will offer a combination of services — including health care.” 

the mountains in western macon county
Vecinos' new clinic sits just outside Franklin, in the heart of Macon county's mountains. Photo credit: Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

That future community health center is projected to be the first bilingual, integrated community health center in western North Carolina. Similar models exist in Charlotte and Asheville, but fewer rural communities have been able to muster the resources.

Lynn Carlson, a therapist and the executive director at an agency in Haywood County that helps survivors navigate the court system, explained that beyond Vecinos, there are limited options for Latinx survivors in western North Carolina to access care.

“I think there's two other private therapists that speak Spanish,” she said, referring to the far western counties. “Having victims be able to process trauma in their primary language is absolutely critical. … Therapy is not something you can do through an interpreter.” 

Complicated legal landscape 

The court system presents a unique problem for many Latinxs whose primary language is Spanish. Carlson referred to the courts as “English-centric” and explained that on top of the language barriers, the legal system itself is confusing for many immigrants. It’s often very different from the one in their home countries.

Also, for people who are undocumented, going into a courthouse — even voluntarily — can be terrifying. Lockwood, from the state coalition, said state legislators have proposed bills that, if passed, would make this system even scarier for immigrants to navigate. 

“This study mentioned that survivors have fear of immigration consequences that deter them from even seeking out services,” she said. She cited Senate Bill 101, a proposed bill from last year’s legislative session

legislative building in Raleigh where lawmakers create policy around Medicaid and other health issues
Advocates worry another bill will be introduced this year at the NC General Assembly that would require local law enforcement to collaborate with ICE.

“What it does is it requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of people arrested for certain criminal offenses and honor ICE detainers for up to 48 hours,” she said. She expects the bill to come up again this year. 

Those actions are very likely to lead somebody who’s in the country without status to be put into deportation proceedings. While many people want their abuser to be arrested, they don’t want them deported, though SB101 all but guaranteed they would be. 

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill in July.

A bill such as SB101 could have consequences beyond deporting perpetrators of domestic violence. Sometimes, an abusive partner forces the other into sex work, which is a form of sex trafficking. Many times, this results in victims of abuse being arrested for prostitution and other crimes.  

“Our systems don't always work where the person harmed is the victim in a criminal proceeding, and that is the case of domestic violence, just as it's the case in sex trafficking situations,” Lockwood said.

“Abusers will use the criminal system in order to further abuse their victims. So when we look at policies like Senate Bill 101 that require checking the immigration status of someone arrested, we're also thinking about survivors who may be arrested as part of their experience of abuse and the risk of deportation that comes to them because of that.”

Rural victims see higher homicide rates

Beyond involving ICE in domestic violence issues, the court system’s infrastructure can pose a challenge for rural Latinx survivors, Lockwood said. 

“Often, our court districts in those areas are structured … so you have a judge that's traveling between counties to hear domestic violence protective orders, for example,” Lockwood said. 

A protective order, called a DVPO or 50B order in North Carolina, is a legal document that prohibits a suspect or perpetrator of domestic violence from coming into contact with the accuser or victim. If they violate the order, they can be arrested.

“[Judges] are not going to be as fully available to hear emergency requests for orders in the same way that in urban areas or smaller court districts the judge is on the bench and able to quickly hear a request for a protective order,” she said.

That means sometimes a survivor may have to travel to the courthouse multiple times. If the judge isn’t there, they’ll get a temporary order from a magistrate and then will have to return for a judge to finalize it.

“I've heard from survivors and advocates that they often work with folks who either initially reach out and then the barriers are just too high for them to continue accessing — especially — court services” she said. “And we know from [domestic violence] homicide data, a lot of times folks have had no interaction with service providers prior to the homicide.”

Because there is no specific domestic violence homicide charge, and because the data-gathering methods on domestic violence homicide performed by the State Bureau of Investigations are relatively opaque, the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence creates its own database. They scour statewide media and put the details about these crimes onto their website.

Their most recent numbers show 42 domestic violence homicides between Jan. 1 and Nov. 29, 2022. Twenty-two of the victims lived in rural counties.

Researchers have found that, despite similar rates of domestic violence occurring across geographical areas, rural domestic violence tends to be more chronic, more severe and result in higher numbers of homicides. 

“I think there's a really good comparison to be drawn from what we saw during the pandemic,” Lockwood said, “as to what rural communities are likely facing just on a daily basis.” 

During the height of lockdown, shelters in every region noted that people were arriving to them after experiencing extremely high levels of violence, far more often than they saw pre-pandemic. It seemed that lockdown brought to urban and suburban victims many of the barriers that, in regular times, trap rural people in abusive situations. 

“So, it makes sense to me that folks either never really get the opportunity to access services before a homicide,” she said, “or by the time they do kind of break through the barriers that exist, it's become a much more serious and highly lethal situation.”

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Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven covers rural health and Medicaid. She previously worked at the Asheville Citizen Times where she reported on the police, courts, and other aspects of the criminal justice system....