Tucked away in the countryside, where neighbors aren’t next door and buses and trains don’t run, the cries for help persist.
Mary Ann Bigaouette is listening.
How long is it going to take, she wonders, until Minnesota can talk about domestic violence in the open?
The Southern Valley Alliance for Battered Women was founded in 1982 by Maxine Kruschke, Bigaouette’s mother, a time when people didn’t talk openly about violence against women. Bigaouette has led the nonprofit for 26 years in the rural Scott and Carver counties, where women can become trapped by distance, a lack of financial resources and, sometimes, snow.
“If the snow is too deep, and your husband is the one who drives the tractor with the snowplow attached to it,” Bigaouette said, “you’re not getting out.”
October is national Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the Southern Valley Alliance is taking stock.
In 2015, it served 758 victims — a year when the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women says there were at least 34 domestic homicides statewide.
A dozen flags hang outside the Belle Plaine Police department to recognize the state’s victims of domestic homicide so far this year, Chief Tom Stolee said.
“Our goal is to not have to put these flags out,” Stolee said. “Ever.”
The nonprofit alliance operates on an annual budget of $585,000. It’s funded mostly by private sources, though Carver County contributes $15,000 a year and Scott County gives $6,000.
Kruschke, who died in 1990, founded the organization after she ended an abusive relationship. The alliance now runs a 24/7 hot line operated by more than 60 volunteers, mostly women in rural towns, some of whom take overnight shifts. It also has a separate program for Spanish speakers.
There are no women’s shelters in Scott and Carver counties. The closest is in Burnsville. Volunteers offer “safe homes,” where women and their children can stay for two to three nights.
“We’re a local resource. I think that’s our greatest asset to the women we’re serving,” Bigaouette said. “They would rather drive 100 miles out in the country than 20 miles into the city.”
Mary Wright, 57, of Chaska started volunteering a few years ago after moving to Minnesota from Milwaukee. A friend whose life seemed healthy — “great couple, great kids, beautiful home” — surprised Wright by revealing that her husband was financially and verbally abusive. Now, Wright, who recently started a part-time role at the alliance, directs victims toward local support groups.
“They are astonished that there are all these other women in the same situation,” she said.
Hot lines are still essential in cases where women are unlikely to publicly accuse attackers or leave an abusive relationship. A national hot line spiked by a third the week after tapes were leaked of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting, in 2005, that he would sometimes kiss women and grab their genitals at will.
In recent years, the alliance has focused more on educating men to head off future violence. Some tips: Don’t repeat or tolerate abusive jokes; teach your sons to respect women, Bigaouette said. “We thank men for talking about what is typically seen as a ‘women’s issue.’ ”