Lone Highway

Photo by Colter Ellis
Knight and Ellis photos

Project Leaders Colter Ellis, Ph.D.,
Kelly E. Knight, Ph.D. 
MSU Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
Curriculum Vitae (Ellis)
Curriculum Vitae (Knight)

Little is known about victimization and its detrimental effects on health disparities in rural Montana. But emerging research may suggest that service providers across the state who help victims with crises such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse may experience significant mental and physical health problems themselves as a result. That, in turn, may jeopardize their ability to help others in rural areas where public health resources are already scarce.

Building on key informant interviews and focus group data collected among providers on the front lines, the Rural Montana Victim Needs Assessment, with cooperation from the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, hopes to identify rural Montana’s most significant victimization issues. Among them, early results suggest, is the fact that victim-service organizations have difficulty finding, training, and keeping qualified and effective providers. This may be due, in part, to the health effects of the work itself, which can lead to physical and mental health problems and substance abuse among providers.

Project data indicate that most victim-service providers, such as advocates, shelter staff, and child protective services workers, choose their roles because of their own personal histories of victimization. This appears to place them at increased risk for secondary trauma, a poorly understood outcome of empathetic engagement with traumatized populations. While this kind of secondary victimization can occur anywhere, the rural Montana landscape may make it more acute, since rural providers may not have the funding or health support systems they need to combat secondary trauma. Often they are the only professionals of their kind serving an entire community.

Ultimately, the efficacy of victim-service provision in rural Montana may be severely compromised, further contributing to health disparities among people of all types. Given these findings, the second phase of the project will include a more refined focus on victimization, secondary trauma, and health consequences as the research continues in new parts of the state.

Selected Project Accomplishments to Date

  • Founded the Secondary Trauma Intervention Learning Lab (STILL) in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
  • Conducted key informant interviews and focus groups with service providers, including individuals in Gallatin County and the oil-impacted region of eastern Montana.
  • Developed a collaborative research relationship with the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
  • Won a two-year grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation to fund a separate but related project working with American Indian victim-service providers. (Read the MSU press release.) Have held more than a dozen meetings with the local Community Advisory Board to guide a needs assessment and the development of an intervention response for this community.
  • UP NEXT: Implementation of an intervention response among providers in Southwest Montana.

Related Publications and Presentations (Selected)

Ellis, C., Knight, K. E., & Robinson, R. A. Vicarious trauma among rural victim service providers: A theoretical model. Manuscript in preparation.

Knight, K. E., Menard, S., Simmons, S. B., Bouffard, L. A., & Orsi, R. (in press). Life course and intergenerational continuity of intimate partner aggression and physical injury: A 20-year study. Violence and Victims.

Knight, K. E., & Ellis, C. (chairs) (2015). Studying rural victimization: Challenges, methodologies, and findings. Roundtable session presented at the meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Washington, DC.

Simmons, S. B., Knight, K. E., & Menard, S. (2015). The consequences of intimate partner violence on substance use and depression for women and men. Journal of Family Violence, 30(3), 351–361.

Investigator Spotlight

While Drs. Knight and Ellis are married, their collaboration on this project is a purely professional match. Both joined MSU in 2014, when Knight first proposed a victimization study for CAIRHE in keeping with her primary research focus. The challenge of studying these issues in Montana brought in Ellis, who is interested in rural settings and specializes in qualitative research.

“We’re learning everything we can about secondary trauma, and what we’re finding is that it’s understudied, it’s not well-defined, and there’s no known effective intervention,” Knight says. “It’s a challenging issue to study and address, but we think there’s some real room for growth in our understanding.”

STILL students

Dr. Colter Ellis (left) and Dr. Kelly Knight (right) pose with the eight undergraduate research assistants who worked for the 
Secondary Trauma Intervention Learning Lab (STILL) in 2016-17. They are: (back row, left to right) Greer Wagner, Tara Condon, 
Heather Olson, Samuel Murphy; (front row, left to right) Terra Dion, Rachel Gemar, Eleanor Sawyer, Rebecca DeLaittre.

To Learn More

Read more about the project in this excerpt from the Spring 2016 CAIRHE Newsletter.