Missoula expert: Absence of statewide system could lead to flaws in domestic violence data

The lack of a single statewide data system for tracking domestic violence and other sexual crimes has officials in Missoula concerned, saying the absence of a unified process could lead to flawed data and a skewed response in dealing with emerging trends.

Relationship Violence Services last week told members of the Missoula City Council that it recently implemented a tracking system on the local level after the Board of Crime Control under the Montana Department of Corrections tried but failed to create a single statewide system.

That left counties searching for their own preferred system, and while it works well for Missoula County, the lack of a statewide system could lead to reporting gaps and flawed data, according to Shantelle Gaynor, director of Relationship Violence Services.

“Having a single system that can track across the state can help us have a better picture, which should ultimately impact how our Legislature approaches these crimes and how they’re funding programs to deal with them,” Gaynor told the Missoula Current after a Wednesday discussion.

Missoula County saw 720 cases related to domestic violence over the past year and 513 cases of stalking, or violating an order of protection, according to recent data. It also saw 165 cases of sexual violence and 74 cases of child abuse.

Relationship Violence Services also provided 196 free counseling sessions to clients in Seeley Lake and helped 192 victims in rural communities, providing them with more than 1,300 nights of emergency shelter at the YWCA in Missoula.

While the data frames a picture of the challenges facing Missoula County in regard to domestic crimes, it doesn’t reveal the challenges facing other communities. That makes it hard to compare trends.

“From community to community, there are unique needs but there are also similar needs,” Gaynor said. “Domestic violence happens in every part of our state. Being able to see trends, like if we’re being impacted by a flood of drugs, can suggest how that impacts the overall picture of violence.”

Gaynor said in the past, a wave of meth use in Montana saw domestic crimes escalate from a push to a broken bone. There wasn’t more violence, she said, but the violence grew more intense.

Without a unified tracking system, she said, such statewide trends will be harder to measure. It may also leave state officials comparing “apples to oranges” when making policy decisions or funding prevention programs.

“If Missoula was able to invest in a more robust data collection system and another community has not, are we collecting and utilizing data in similar ways?” Gaynor said. “I think over time, the communities that have more resources will have a better opportunity to see what’s happening in their community through the data. Otherwise, we might be missing opportunities and trends.”

Nearly 40 percent of all crimes against persons in Missoula County are related to domestic violence, according to crime statistics. Of Montana’s five most populous counties, Missoula has the second highest rate of reported domestic violence and the highest rate of reported sexual violence.

Such figures are based on Missoula’s robust tracking system, which has resulted in a line of programs aimed at education and prevention. But without a single statewide system, Gayor said, it could become harder to pull out similar statistics in other communities.

And that could leave Missoula appearing to have a higher rate of such crimes.

“In theory, that could happen,” Gaynor said. “But it could be the flip way, too, where someone in another community might duplicate a client in the way they’re tracking, and because they don’t have a system that alerts them to duplication, maybe they’ve counted somebody three times. It really can just mess with the overall integrity of the data.”