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Opinion: Utah is not a safe place for families until we change our domestic violence stats

In Utah, 1 in 3 women experience some form of domestic violence. We need to turn the tide on this trend if we want women and families to feel safe here

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Becky McFalls-Schwartz helps place flags representing those who sought safety from domestic violence.

Becky McFalls-Schwartz, a YWCA grant writer, helps place 3,452 flags, each representing an individual who sought safety from domestic violence through Salt Lake County Services, on the lawn outside of the Salt Lake County Government Center to kick off Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Salt Lake City on Oct. 1, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Recent events in the media have reminded us, yet again, that domestic violence is a serious and widespread issue affecting women and families in Utah. From the devastating loss of Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s cousin, Mandy Mayne, to concerns over the Salt Lake County District Attorney declining to prosecute domestic violence, two things are clear.

First, domestic violence is a big problem in Utah, and second, there is not enough being done to help.

We urgently need to turn the tide. 

Research tells us that 1 in 3 Utah women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime, which means that over 370,000 Utah adult women have already or will directly experience this type of violence. And, that 40% of adult homicides in Utah are domestic violence related. In fact, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence reported that 33.6% of Utah women (and 21.4% of Utah men) experience “intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner talking in their lifetimes.” In addition, in 2020 — just on one day — the domestic violence programs in Utah served 1,205 victims of domestic violence and the hotline received 359 calls. 

These statistics don’t even take into account the negative impacts of domestic violence on children. When children experience or witness domestic violence in the home, it becomes what is call an “adverse childhood experience.” An ACE is defined as a potentially traumatic event that occurs in childhood — between the ages of 0 to 17 years. These experiences undermine a child’s sense of safety, stability and bonding and can have devastating lifelong impacts. 

In long-term rigorous studies, ACEs during childhood have been linked to chronic health problems (including cancer, diabetes and heart disease), mental illness, substance use problems, sex trafficking, food insecurity, toxic stress, frequent moving and suicide. ACEs also negatively impact educational completion, job opportunities and even earning potential. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the economic and social costs to families, communities, and society from ACEs total hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

Although the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, service providers and state agency employees around the state work tirelessly — the tide has not yet turned. Sadly, the high prevalence of domestic violence in Utah has gone on for decades without being addressed in ways that can halt this disturbing trend. And, because of the lack of support and resources, many women and families are not being served. Many of the preventable measures — like awareness and education — have been seriously lacking as well.

It is time to turn the tide!

I do believe that there is hope for change on the horizon. I am encouraged by the recent interest of more Utah legislators who are stepping forward to be involved in conversations on both domestic violence and sexual assault, particularly Reps. Pierucci, Ivory, Johnson, Romero and others. I’m encouraged that Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Henderson have recognized and spoken out about their concerns around these issues as well. I’m also encouraged by the recent work of state agencies, coalitions and other partners finally coming together to co-create better processes, systems and approaches that will help with effectiveness.

But more financial support will be needed.  

The bottom line is that Utah is currently not a good place for women and families in terms of domestic violence. In all our rhetoric around Utah being such a great place for families, we are missing the mark if we are not protecting women and children.

Creating change in Utah will take substantial work. Each of us (men and women) needs to learn more about how we can recognize domestic violence and how people can get help. Each of us needs to contact our legislators and other political leaders to let them know we need change — now. We need to make waves that become a force that cannot be ignored. Let’s do what’s right. 2022 is the year to turn the tide on domestic violence. 

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.