Domestic Violence in Energy Boomtowns

Domestic Violence in Energy Boomtowns

by Kristi Rendahl, Hamline University

As a native North Dakotan, the most recent oil boom was front and center on my radar. During the initial wave of the boom, people around the U.S. celebrated lower gas prices and the state boasted a surplus of well-paying jobs in the middle of an otherwise dismal economic situation. As time passed, though, media outlets began to report on the less savory aspects of the seemingly unlimited extraction of oil and natural gas.

There was the truck traffic that caused accidents and left the roads in disrepair. There were the oil wells and 24/7 gas flares marring a landscape that had gone untouched for years, save for the boots of hikers and hooves of antelope. There were the ugly “man camps” and RV trailers littering empty lots and the rows of trees between fields. There was the increase in bar fights and domestic violence and the emergence of the phenomenon of sex trafficking in women and girls.  In other words: The money was good, but it didn’t come without negative consequences.

This is how the topic of my doctoral dissertation was born. It was the perfect marriage between the place I’m from and the work I do now. The notion of “place identity” is no small thing for a farm kid whose great-grandmother crossed the sea at the age of 19 to find opportunity for her own future and, ultimately, my own. I’m employed as an organizational development advisor to torture rehabilitation organizations in post-conflict countries around the world. At the end of the day, the place I am from and the work I do represent both loss and hope. And that’s really what my dissertation is about.

So, when I decided to interrogate the issue of domestic violence in energy boomtowns, it made perfect sense to me and anyone who knows me. It took a while to settle on the exact scope of the project, of course, in order to meet the requirements for my doctorate in public administration from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Eventually, though, I determined that my interest was to better understand the barriers to identifying and serving female victims of domestic violence in energy boom towns and, specifically, in the oil patch in western North Dakota.

My literature review covered domestic violence in general, domestic violence in rural areas, and the phenomenon of boomtowns, including the social disruption hypothesis. It was a qualitative study, using semi-structured interviews and a focus group with the program directors of sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy agencies in rural North Dakota, thanks to a partnership with the North Dakota Coalition of Abused Women’s Services (NDCAWS).  Though not captured as field notes for the dissertation, I spent many hours talking with people in and from the oil patch.

My connection with the informants was at once serendipitous in a heart-warming way and ironic in that it represents one of the very barriers I sought to identify. It was heart-warming because the connection was the result of someone overhearing my conversation about the topic in a small coffee shop in North Dakota and connecting me with the right people. And it was ironic because a lack of anonymity in rural communities is one of the documented barriers that victims of domestic violence face in seeking help.

What I found through this study was consistent with the literature on domestic violence in rural areas and the social disruption hypothesis in energy boomtowns. The barriers in rural areas are distinct from urban and suburban areas: geographic isolation, lack of anonymity, lack of services, lack of public transportation, patriarchal culture, etc. Those barriers, I found, are more pronounced during an energy boom when there is an influx of workers, primarily male, as well as an increase in the prevalence of domestic violence, putting greater strain on all types of public and nonprofit resources.

The data from informants shows that the severity and frequency of abuse has increased since the boom began. There is a reported increase in the presence of weapons. The prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues are greater among both victims and perpetrators. It is extremely difficult to access affordable housing, and the access to and costs of transportation are also problematic, in particular for those who wish to return to an out-of-state home. The increase in sex trafficking creates challenges for advocates and other responders who have not been trained in issues specific to that phenomenon. Finally, the importance of a community-coordinated response to domestic violence appears critical to establish in advance of a boom, since the demands on time once a boom begins preclude time for relationship building.

Worth noting is that the State of North Dakota’s definition of domestic violence, which only regards physical violence, differs from that of the federal Department of Justice. This disconnect may contribute to the community’s limited understanding of domestic violence, which would also contribute to victims’ perceptions of their own situations and willingness to seek help. Aligning the State’s definition is a recommendation within my dissertation, along with a public awareness campaign.

Additionally, with or without the boom, there needs to be an exploration of telehealth to respond to the dearth of mental health and substance abuse services. Likewise there should be investment in organizational capacities of agencies responding to trauma.

Conspicuously absent from this study was the unique experience of Native American populations during the boom, particularly on reservations, where rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence far exceed those off the reservation. This was a conscious exclusion due to a lack of time, resources, and to appropriate gatekeepers and cultural liaisons. This remains a gap in the research that needs to be filled.

The findings in this study relate directly to broader state-wide conversations about how to strategically manage the “rainy day fund” from oil boom profits, and nation-wide conversations about gun violence and access to health care, including mental health care.

In the meantime, we know that there are fierce advocates for victims of domestic violence in rural areas. In response to a question about what was the most important thing we had discussed, one advocate stated without hesitation:

The most important issue is the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. We can gripe about money, but if we didn’t have any grants, I would find some way to help these people. I would go knocking on doors.

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