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‘The fear is real’

Poverty, drugs, crime fuel Blair’s protection-from-abuse filings

Statistics compiled by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court show that in the nine years ending in 2018, Blair County had more protection-from-abuse cases filed per capita than the state overall or any of the surrounding counties, and that in the five years ending in 2018, Blair’s filings exceeded those of all but one of the state’s half-dozen fifth-class counties.

With 424 filings per year, Blair had 115 more on average per 100,000 people than the state as a whole, according to the State Supreme Court website.

It had 13 more than second-place Bedford among contiguous counties.

Blair’s annual average is about midway between those for the state’s most urban counties: Allegheny at 295 and Philadelphia at 617.

Yet despite the numbers, over the last several weeks, it proved difficult to get a local recipient of a PFA to speak to the Mirror about her experiences, reflecting the kind of fear and distrust often generated by the events that lead to such orders.

“Kathy,” a woman in her 30s who agreed to talk, left an initial voicemail, but didn’t provide contact information, due to anxiety about her persecutor, didn’t share her real name or elaborate on details of her case when she spoke to a reporter, even though she has not had dealings for several years with the man against whom she has the PFA.

“It doesn’t surprise me that (the PFA victim who spoke to the Mirror) was skittish,” Ashley Gay Vocco, victim services program director for Family Services Inc., wrote in an email.

“What we know about people who file for PFAs is they are scared,” Vocco wrote. “The fear is real.”

It’s understandable that Kathy is reluctant to reveal details of her case, according to Vocco.

“If the abuser has been able to fool those around him (by hiding the PFA from friends and family), being ‘outed’ like that will most assuredly make him angry, and this could increase her risk of lethality,” Vocco wrote.

Accused see complaints

The PFA process requires that alleged abusers receive copies of victims’ complaints, which can escalate risk of retaliation, according to Vocco.

“That person (the perpetrator) sees everything the victim wrote about the incident or incidents,” Vocco wrote. “This can add to the level of threat.”

In filing for PFAs, victims must “reveal their vulnerabilities,” adding to the stress, Vocco wrote. “No one likes to admit they are vulnerable,” she added.

Despite her fears, Kathy decided to talk to the Mirror in hopes her cooperation will help others extricate themselves from similar situations.

Her relationship with her former significant other went bad after he manifested mental health problems, Kathy said.

At first, she tried to persuade him to get professional help. It didn’t work.

Then it got scary, she said. “I decided that I needed to do something,” she stated.

She called police, who recommended applying for the PFA. The officer sought assurances that she’d follow through.

“She could tell it was a bad situation, and she didn’t want me to stay in that,” Kathy said.

She filed a report, then attended an interview, then a hearing, where she was granted the permanent PFA, she said.

It was embarrassing to reveal the details of her situation, but “you have to be open and tell exactly the truth,” she said. The officials involved were friendly and supportive and minimized the embarrassment, she said.

Threats sent

Kathy’s significant other didn’t want her to leave and sent hundreds of emails and text messages, threatening to ruin her reputation with her friends and family, trying to get all of them on his side, she said.

At one point, he said he had someone watching her home, Kathy said.

She responded to the first of his messages, asking him to stop.

She didn’t respond to any of the others, which turned out to be “the best thing I could ever do,” she said.

Continuing to respond — engaging with him — would have encouraged him, affirming he was still in control, she said.

“(They) want you to be afraid,” she stated.

To some extent, Kathy feels safe and comfortable now.

“But you just never know,” she added.

She’s “absolutely” glad she went through the process. “It worked for me,” she said.

One reason for the relatively high level of PFAs in Blair County may be poverty, according to attorney Schawnne Kilgus of MidPenn Legal Services, which represents PFA victims locally.

The rate of poverty increases the rate of domestic violence, Kilgus wrote in an email.

“Incidents of domestic violence can be triggered by financial struggles,” Kilgus wrote.

“Intimate partner violence rates were highest in the poorest neighborhoods,” states the abstract of a paper cited by Kilgus and titled “Intimate Partner Violence and Neighborhood Income: A Longitudinal Analysis,” by Amy Bonomi and others, available through HHS Public Access.

The median income of Blair County is lower than the rest of Pennsylvania and the nation, Kilgus wrote.

Blair’s median income is $42,000, $8,000 less than for Pennsylvania as a whole and $10,000 less than for the U.S. as a whole, according to online sources.

Blair’s poverty level between 2009 and 2013 was

14.1 percent — which places it in the second-most poor quintile among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, according to information at indexmundi.com.

Blair’s poverty rate was higher than two of the five surrounding counties and three of the other fifth-class counties.

Gender roles a factor

Another reason for the relatively high level of PFAs in Blair may be the traditional, “historically accepted” gender roles that tend to prevail in the area, Kilgus said.

“Restrictive gender roles play a part in the increase in rates of domestic violence,” Kilgus wrote.

“More than a decade of basic research has established strong links between gender-based violence — including intimate partner violence, domestic violence, girlfriend abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault — and traditional gender norms,” states a paper published by the California Council on Gender titled “Challenging Restrictive Gender Norms: A Key to Decreasing Partner Violence in At-Risk Communities” and cited by Kilgus.

“Young men who internalize constraining codes of man­hood — as defined by strength, aggression, dominance and emotional toughness — are more likely to hold a constellation of beliefs that support partner violence.”

Those young men may believe that force is OK in an intimate relationship, that men are justified in coercing sex from reluctant partners, that men should determine when and how sex occurs, that women who challenge men’s authority deserve violence and that public control and dominance over women is central to manhood, according to the article.

“Such males have less gender-equitable beliefs and relationships generally, and more often engage in violent and/or abusive behaviors specifically,” the article states.

Such men tend to justify their abuse by saying their partners brought it on themselves by not taking care of responsibilities like cooking, child care and attentiveness to their partner or by being demanding, irrational or out-of-control emotionally, the article states.

“Such men justify their behavior by asserting that they (have) a responsibility to re-establish control, rationality and respect in the relationship,” the article states. “When punished for their violence, they often assert that they were the true victims.”

Submissive attitude hurts

Women’s ideas about their own role can aggravate the problem, according to the article.

“Women who internalize traditional codes of femininity as defined by being submissive, obedient and deferential to males are more tolerant of infidelity, sexual coercion and psychological, physical or economic abuse,” the article states. “Some women may be encouraged to believe they are incomplete without a man, and must put up with violence or coercion in order to hold onto a male partner.”

Such women tend to be less likely to recognize abuse for what it is, less likely to see alternative ways to live, less likely to flee and less likely to avoid future abusive relationships, according to the article.

Circumstances that worsen their predicaments can include economic inequality, child-rearing responsibilities and having a partner in jail, the article states.

The constraints created by these traditional roles tend to be particularly restrictive in poor communities, “where gender codes on the street can be especially narrow and penalties for transgressing them harsh,” the article states.

“Some studies have found that it is the most economically marginalized men who are most likely to deploy traditional ideals of manhood,” the article states.

When “money, jobs and resources are scarce,” a man may look at domination of a woman as a way to maintain his sense of manhood, the article indicated.

Drugs a problem

Substance abuse by perpetrators is also a risk factor for intimate partner violence, according to the Bonomi paper.

There is a high number of drug cases in Blair, according to Blair County President Judge Elizabeth Doyle.

The reasons for that include poverty and the county’s location as a transportation hub.

Blair straddles Amtrak’s mainline east-west route, along with I-99 and Route 22 and is not far from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-70 and I-80, creating easy access to illegal drugs from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Doyle said.

Altoona is an attractive market for drug dealers because users pay more for drugs here than they do in big cities, Vocco said. They pay a premium for the transportation required to get it here, Vocco said.

The use of a weapon in an initial domestic violence incident is a risk factor for continuing instances, according to the Bonomi paper.

It’s a “much stronger predictor” for repeat offenses than poverty, which is more closely associated with the initial incidents, the paper states.

Statistics from onedrive.live.com show that 19 percent of Blair residents 21 and older had a license to carry a firearm in 2017, based on listings for those five-year permits between 2013 and 2017.

Blair’s license to carry level is 5.3 percent higher than for Pennsylvania as a whole, according to information on the website.

It’s also higher than for Mercer, Adams and Lebanon among the state’s fifth-class counties — although it’s higher for only Centre among Blair’s contiguous counties.

Familiarity can help

Familiarity with PFAs and with the “resources” that can lead to obtaining PFAs may contribute to the high number of filings in Blair, according to Vocco.

“We have strong social services and good awareness that abuse should not be tolerated,” Vocco said.

Among agencies that contribute to such awareness are Family Services Inc., which operates the FSI Domestic Violence Justice Project.

When a victim, often one with children, lacks the financial resources to break away from an abuser, Family Services can help find housing and free legal representation to effect a safe separation, Vocco said.

“FSI is a pretty well-known program throughout the county,” Kilgus wrote. “If more people know that there are services out there to provide support to survivors, more survivors will come forward seeking those services.”

Police departments in the county also tend to know about helpful resources, so they can advise victims of what’s available, Vocco said.

Blair has other services “that more rural counties cannot provide, such as transportation,” which can help make getting a PFA practical, according to Kilgus.

“If someone doesn’t have access to a vehicle or a ride to get to a shelter or the courthouse, and they live in a rural area,” then a PFA may not get filed, Kilgus indicated. “Further, the more rural, the less likely things like Lyft and Uber are available to use.”

Another potential cause for Blair’s high PFA numbers could be the potential inaccuracy of the numbers upon which the county’s PFA statistics are based, given that reporting them is a cooperative venture among various county departments, Doyle said.

“Not that we’re lax,” Doyle said. “(But) sometimes it’s hard to accurately report.”

Criminal cases abundant

Another possible reason for the high number of PFA cases in Blair is the high number of criminal cases in general, according to Doyle.

“I think it’s a parallel track,” Doyle said.

In 2018, there were 2,872 cases available for processing in Blair per 100,000 residents, according to the state courts website. That is 935 more than the rate for the state as a whole.

It is also more than for all the contiguous counties — 181 more than second-place Huntingdon and 1,113 more than last-place Centre.

Blair also had more cases available for processing in 2018 than all the other fifth-class counties — 418 more than second-place Mercer and 996 more than last-place Lawrence.

And Blair had more cases per 100,000 population available for processing in 2018 than either of the two most urban counties — 767 more than Allegheny and 1,741 more than Philadelphia.

“We do a lot of work out here,” Doyle said.

The high number of criminal cases in general may be attributable to poverty and drug crime, Doyle surmised.

Victims get support

Victims who come to the Blair County Courthouse to file a PFA are automatically connected to domestic violence advocates, who help the victim obtain legal representation, provide support at hearings and other encounters with the justice system and who help the victim obtain housing, if necessary, according to Vocco.

Victims first fill out paperwork describing the abuse, then interview with a judge.

The judge calls on the victim to swear that the written allegations are true. The judge then decides whether the allegations rise “to the level of the statute,” Doyle said.

If they do, the judge issues a temporary PFA.

But not all ugly behavior rises to the level of the statute, according to Doyle.

Rude and vulgar behavior “can be horrible” but may not justify a PFA, she said.

For example, in a heated argument, a husband or wife might scream and call his or her partner names, slam a phone on the floor and walk out, but if the behavior doesn’t make the partner feel threatened, it may not justify a PFA, Doyle said.

Not many days after the initial interview with a judge, PFA applicants, both those who received a temporary order and those who didn’t, go before a judge — usually a different one than the one who conducted the interview — for a hearing.

At the hearing, the plaintiff and defendant present their cases, then the judge rules on a permanent PFA, which can be valid for three years.

The basis of such rulings are “very fact-specific,” Doyle said.

The advocates for PFA victims understand the dynamics of power and control by abusers, which include not only physical violence or the threat of it, but restrictions on coming and going freely and on access to money, family and friends, Vocco said.

“(Domestic violence) is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner,” states the Family Services website. “Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure or wound someone.”

Many times a new victim doesn’t know what to do, Vocco said. But advocates like her can help “through the entire process,” Vocco stated.

“Our only agenda is to be there for that person,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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