IRON RANGE — “People who come in here don’t have a voice anymore. They’re not believed and they’re misunderstood.” — Mandie Aalto, executive director of Advocates for Family Peace
Situated 35 miles southwest of Hibbing, the Grand Rapids branch of Advocates for Family Peace (AFFP) is tucked just off Highway 2 in a remodeled building that looks more like an inviting family home than a business. The parking lot and main door are tucked in the back, allowing private entry for anyone seeking help for domestic violence.
Mandie Aalto is the executive director over the organization, which has several locations across northeastern Minnesota. Together, she and her staff provide support to those experiencing intimate partner violence, including emotional abuse, patterns of coercion, intimidation or threat of physical or sexual violence.
With October being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Aalto sat down with the Hibbing Daily Tribune and shared that over the past year she and her team have been witnessing an influx in the number of women “pouring” into their lobbies — the majority of whom are from Hibbing.
“We don't know why,” Aalto said. “I have no context to understand why. We just started seeing a lot more people coming through the door and the level of violence was significant.”
Though AFFP has been around for years, the increasing number of reports involving strangulation and women being trafficked has been puzzling for staff. Nearly all of the cases involve drug use. “You see an increase in domestic violence when society breaks down,” Aalto said. “You’ll see increases in domestic violence or sexual assault, depending on the type of event that’s happening in the community.”
Yet there has been nothing she can easily pinpoint to explain the unnerving trend. Meanwhile, Aalto and her team have also been juggling stretched staff and dwindling state funding. For these reasons, they closed their Hibbing office last month, leaving their Virginia and Grand Rapids locations to carry the load. Even so, Aalto insists the advocates will continue to serve Hibbing residents through their 24/7 hotline and provide the same level of assistance they always have.
“We find places,” she said. “We will drive and meet them in churches or wherever we can.”
Arrests down, incidents steady
Advocates for Family Peace relies on a combination of private and government funds to operate. Money funneling in from the federal government is based on statewide conviction rates and is divided out to various agencies, like AFFP.
Despite the uptick in women seeking help on the Iron Range, a lower overall conviction rate means less support locally.
During an interview earlier this month with Hibbing’s Deputy Chief of Police Tyler Schwerzler, the HDT learned that the arrest rates for domestic abuse and assault-related incidents in Hibbing have gradually declined in the last three years. Between January and early October of this year, there have been 89 domestic-related arrests, compared to 112 arrests for that period in 2018, and 125 in 2017. Of those numbers, felony level arrests for domestic assault have remained somewhat consistent, though misdemeanor domestic assault and strangulation arrests have gone down.
While places like Advocates for Family Peace continue to serve up to 500 adults and 300 children annually in St. Louis and Itasca counties, Aalto wagers that those seeking help may not be reporting abuse to police. However, she is quick to credit the “innovative” efforts of law enforcement and court systems in both counties. One being the exploratory group (drummed up by Sixth Judicial District Judge Rachel Sullivan) that is looking to start a domestic violence court calendar in Hibbing. Acknowledging the issue is the first step, Aalto said, tackling a long term solution requires ongoing community wide effort.
Every week, staff at Advocates for Family Peace meet people who are being abused and stalked, who feel isolated and don’t know what to do. Advocates have found tracking devices on cars and embedded in the phones of those who come to them. They’ve also woken up to the news that women they were trying to help were murdered by intimate partners. It’s a job that brings them face-to-face with “hardcore realities” as they strive to provide emotional support to those who need it most.
Some ways they offer support is by assisting in filling out orders for protection, sharing options and providing supervised visitation between the non-custodial parent and their children, as well as supervised exchanges so parents transferring children don’t have to contact each other.
There’s also a 28-week Intervention Program for Men and Fathers, which takes in as many as 180 men annually who have been court-ordered to attend for domestic violence. Meanwhile, a similar program for women sees about 20 participants each year.
Aalto noted, however, that many of the women in the program have themselves been on the receiving end of abuse. She gave an example of a boyfriend keeping his girlfriend awake for days, restricting her food and beating her. Eventually the girlfriend calls the police. Tensions run high as officers arrive and something triggers the girlfriend who then hits her boyfriend in front of an officer. Now they’re both arrested.
“In the eyes of the laws, those are the same crime, but the context is different,” Aalto said. “There’s always context between the violence.”
And that convoluted context can make navigating the legal system difficult during an already challenging time when people are trying to process trauma. Aalto shared that a common scenario is a violent partner getting arrested with a no-contact order issued — but the abusive partner may have all the access to the money, car and others resources. This can leave the person experiencing abuse with a difficult decision: either break the no-contact order and to get money and keys to drive the kids to school, or listen to the prosecutor and steer clear as bills become overdue and school truancy officers begin calling. “Sometimes there’s no nice choice,” Aalto ceded.
What’s worse, is that “the burden of ending the violence falls on the victim.”
‘Why doesn’t she leave?’
Speaking in a soft tone, Aalto highlighted another issue she is constantly trying to combat: “Often times people ask, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ or ‘Why does she stay? When what you should be asking is, ‘Why can’t she leave? Why doesn’t he stop? Why is he allowed to commit violence?’” Fighting the backward perception of responsibility is what Aalto says staff at AFFP are committed to doing. Through community outreach efforts, including school and college presentations, they aim to challenge local communities not to turn a blind eye but stand up against the violence happening around them.
The work is a passion project for Aalto, who for the past 16 years has been steeped in nonprofit work. She never envisioned herself in working in the domestic violence field. It’s work that has challenged every bias she ever had and is wrought with heartbreak as well as fulfillment, but she wouldn’t trade it for a thing. “It has a way of drawing you in and there’s no greater cause you could fight for,” she said. “When you are impacted by how people are suffering, you are forever changed by that. You can’t unsee it. And it compels you so much more to fight that much harder.”
For anyone wanting to leave a violent relationship, it can take between seven to 12 times to make the final break. Aalto acknowledged that every situation is different but encouraged anyone in an abusive situation to educate themselves about their options. One way to do this is to call Advocates for Family Peace on their 24/7 crisis assistance hotline at 800-909-8336.
“There’s not a nice choice, and there’s not always a good choice. It’s just trying to pick the best choice you can in the moment,” Aalto said. “We will meet people where they’re at, for sure. We do a lot of driving.”
Domestic Abuse Resources
Computer use can be monitored and history is impossible to completely clear. If you need help for domestic abuse and are afraid your internet usage might be monitored, call:
National Domestic Violence Hotline 800−799−7233
Advocates for Family Peace Crisis Hotline 800−909−8336
If you have safe access online, visit:
In an emergency, always dial 9-1-1