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The Community Asks & ASPEN Advocates Answer

By Jenny Jo Allen, ASPEN’s Education & Outreach Coordinator

I recently sat down with the Safe House Manager for ASPEN, Holly Knodel, and ASPEN’s Program Advocate, Rebecca Ruhd, and asked what are some of the most frequently asked questions and/or misconceptions that people have about ASPEN and its services.

With the increase of travelers in Park, Sweetgrass and Meagher counties (the three counties in ASPEN’s service area) throughout the summer, we hope these clarifications can reduce misconceptions and increase accessibility for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, as well as human trafficking.

JJ~ Hi Holly and Rebecca! It's been a while since we’ve had the chance to sit down and chat.

HK~ Yes, this summer has been very busy!

JJ~ Right now we have a lot of tourists visiting ASPEN’s service area. Does ASPEN help survivors who are just visiting Montana or do you have to be a resident?

HK~ ASPEN does not put any conditions on a survivor accessing any level of service or support that we can offer, including their place of residence. Receiving one level of service is not contingent on agreeing to participate in any other level of service.

The survivor is never judged, or discriminated against due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, age, ability, faith, medical status, physical and mental ability, language, national origin, and immigration status.

RR~ And what Holly is saying is true any time of the year, not just summer. ASPEN is a small, but mighty, staff and our service area is large. This means that ASPEN’s office is staffed Monday - Friday 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, and (Rebecca) holds office hours in Big Timber and White Sulphur Springs once a month, and schedules meetings as needed. Our support line is always covered by on-call staff and volunteers, so we can provide emergency assistance after business hours. It’s always best to try and schedule a meeting time with an advocate if it isn’t an emergency.

JJ~ What can survivors who reach out to ASPEN expect, regarding confidentiality, from their engagement with ASPEN services?

RR~ Advocate Privilege is a keystone for anyone needing services from ASPEN. It means that the choice of who and how we share any of their personal information, including the fact that they are working with us, is theirs. If we don't have direct, written permission, we can't share anything with anyone. We make every effort to explain this clearly to clients and with agencies we collaborate with. Much like with your therapist, if we were to meet at the grocery store, our clients get to decide whether to greet us first or not, we don't initiate that contact. This privilege is upheld by both state and federal law. The agency and acknowledgement of ownership that this practice recognizes on behalf of survivors is a strong piece of the empowerment ASPEN is committed to supporting in those that have experienced abuse.

HK~ Also, it’s important that advocates are aware of the closeness of the communities we work in, due to the smaller size of the communities. This includes understanding that the survivors we work with have considerably less anonymity than they may have in a larger town or area. We need to meet the survivors where they are most comfortable if it is a safe space for them as well as us. We are vigilant in maintaining confidentiality and privacy for those we serve. We do not acknowledge to anyone that we are working with a survivor. Their story is not our story to put out there. The working relationship we need to have must be built on trust and respect.

We cannot foster that if we breach confidentiality or the privacy of survivors.

Another important point when talking about what to expect from ASPEN services is what we expect from survivors using ASPEN services. There are so many ways ASPEN can help besides the safe house program. A survivor seeking shelter may not want to move to the ASPEN Safe House, but rather may need some time in a hotel to work on a plan for moving forward from the abusive situation. When survivors are placed in either a hotel or the ASPEN Safe House, they are expected to respect the property and not bring anyone else into the hotel or Safe House (with the exception of their children and/or adolescents). Survivors who identify as men are placed in hotels, due to the need to maintain the comfort and emotional safety of women in the Safe House.

If a survivor decides that they are not ready to take further steps in seeking help after initially engaging with ASPEN staff, they are not judged for making this very personal decision. We will meet a client where they are at any level, including emotional, and we want survivors to know they can seek out our services at any time in the future.

JJ~ As a community-based advocate, what’s one message you would give to every survivor of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, or Human Trafficking?

HK~ It is okay to put yourself first. Be selfish in demanding what you need for your safety and well-being. The hope would be that the survivor will become their own best advocate.

RR~ Holly and I have similar thoughts here - I’m not the first to say this, assertion can feel like aggression when you haven’t been allowed to center your needs, goals, and ambitions. Learning how to listen to your body, trust yourself and develop your voice can be uncomfortable, but you are worth the growth!

JJ~ That’s great advice and it reminds me of the refusal skills lessons the ASPEN TREE program teaches to K-12 students. Especially in rural areas, kids know most of the adults in their lives and are taught to be polite to everyone. We teach them to forget politeness when they feel unsafe. Conflict resolution lessons focus on the differences between passive aggression, aggression, and assertion. Working upstream from the problem with prevention education is so important! So many folks did not have the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills when they were younger. And asking for help can be really daunting in our culture!

RR~ Montanans are so fiercely independent; and when abuse happens to you, there’s some hard terrain between you and asking for help. The folks that work at ASPEN and in other helping services never consider asking for support to be a weakness. We are here because we believe that community is stronger when we support each other. You aren’t meant to weather the hard storms alone.

JJ~ (support phone buzzing in Rebecca’s pocket) Thank you both so much for taking the time away from the work to talk about the work!

RR~ (whispering to me as she begins to answer the support line) Getting the word out about the work IS part of the work!

HK~ Our support line is answered by trained advocates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are here to help – 406-222-8154.


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