Garfield County fatalities highlight the Valley's problem with domestic violence

Mar 3, 2015

Two high profile fatalities in Garfield County last month involved domestic violence. The number of cases being reported is growing in parts of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Credit Scott Davidson/Flickr/Creative Commons

On February 10th, law enforcement responded to a domestic violence call at a residence near Parachute. They discovered a woman whose face was bloodied from being struck repeatedly. Later, the suspect - her husband - was shot to death by authorities after a high speed chase on Interstate 70. The fatal incident was one of two in Garfield County in February, where domestic violence played a role. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, the problem of domestic violence is growing in parts of our region.

Carbondale resident “Maria” has experienced domestic violence in two separate relationships. Her situation is unrelated to the fatality on I-70. We’re not using her real name to protect her safety. She says the abuse started with a boyfriend.

"He tried to strangle me when I didn’t want to be with him anymore. We weren’t living together, so he went to my house and asked me why and he was really mad."

After that relationship, she says she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was an illness her new husband didn’t understand.

"My husband, the man I married after the previous relationship, couldn’t handle it. We didn’t know what it was at first. He had a really bad temper, which triggered me. And, I had panic attacks."

She says her husband was emotionally abusive at first, saying things like “nobody wanted her.” Eventually she says he hurt her physically.

Maria’s case isn’t that uncommon in the Roaring Fork Valley. She sought help at Response, an Aspen-based non profit that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"We have seen an increase," says Jill Gruenberg, Program Director at Response. From 2013 to 2014, the organization saw a 22 percent jump in calls. Last year, they served more than 250 people.

"My perspective is, I’m happy these numbers are going up, I’m happy they’re calling because it means people aren’t experiencing this behind closed doors and in silence," Gruenberg says.

More people are calling, she says, because the problem is being discussed openly. Football player Ray Rice’s suspension from the NFL for striking his partner brought the issue to the national stage.

Most people don’t seek help. Last year, Gruenberg’s organization served just 50 people within the Valley’s Latino community. She knows that population is underserved.

"We’ve created a system where we expect these people to come to us for the service and we’re going to be undergoing a two-year program called Promotoras, where we’re going to be increasing our outreach into the Hispanic community."

In Pitkin County, the number of domestic violence calls to law enforcement have increased 136 percent from 2008 to 2014. The increase is partly due to more reporting by law enforcement. This week, the County’s Health and Human Services Department launched a new website to assist victims of domestic violence. Nan Sundeen is Director.

"It’s growing in our community and we were concerned. So, we decided to work together to try to get in front of the issue and try and create awareness, education and a call to action for people who are struggling," she says.

Julie Olson is the Executive Director of the Advocate Safehouse Project in Garfield County.

"Domestic violence happens everywhere. It happens in all socio-economic levels. It crosses race and religion," she says.

Last year her organization served more than 400 survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. What’s different in Western Colorado, she says, is victims’ ability to afford help.

"What we see is that when people have more resources, they don’t seek out human service providers. They don’t have to. Compare that to when someone has nothing and they’re up against the wall. We’re kind of it, we’re the last stop."

Her group runs an emergency shelter where people can stay for up to eight weeks at a time.

The Ninth Judicial District handles a fairly consistent number of domestic violence cases. The District, which spans Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, sees between 350 and 400 cases come in the door each year.

For domestic violence survivor “Maria,” she says she’s getting back on her feet now.

"Yesterday I was looking at the definition of "independence." And, I was like, oh gosh, I am independent because I can decide for myself. I can think for myself - what I want, what I like, where I like to go. I can decide all that, and it’s something I had to learn along the way."

She says she’s sharing her story in order to help others struggling with similar problems.