MSU professors’ grant researches American Indian victim service provider needs

Two Montana State University professors have received a grant from the Montana Healthcare Foundation to research health disparities and victim service provider needs among American Indians in Montana.

Kelly Knight and Colter Ellis, both assistant professors in the MSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology within the College of Letters and Science, secured a two-year, $25,000 grant for their work. The new study will build on Knight and Ellis’s broader, statewide project that examines the health and wellbeing of those who provide services to victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse and neglect, sexual assault and other kinds of abuse.

Knight and Ellis began their latest research after a tribal member contacted them about addressing needs and issues common among victim service providers on the reservation, Knight said. Knight noted that the reservation will remain anonymous, as is common in research of this kind.

The project will foster strategic planning partnerships among American Indian victim service providers and create a culturally responsive “toolkit” for addressing secondary trauma, or the acute stress that service providers themselves often face when helping victims, Ellis said. Victim service organizations will learn how to implement the toolkit through a sustainable “train-the-trainer” model that will be presented at an educational retreat and conference event.

The project uses what researchers call a community-based participatory research framework, which generally starts with identifying a topic of importance to a community before going on to develop an equitable partnership between a research team and the community. Ultimately, the research is intended to combine knowledge and action to create meaningful and sustainable change.

Knight said little is known about victimization and its detrimental effects on health disparities in rural Montana. But early results from Ellis and Knight’s research suggest that one of the biggest challenges is related to the professional and volunteer service providers who may be isolated from one another physically but who share a common interest in helping victims. Some providers may be former victims themselves.

 “People often choose these professions because of their own victimization experiences,” Knight said. “They’re working every day with people who have had profound and traumatic experiences, which can lead to trauma of their own.”

In such cases providers can exhibit the same symptoms as primary trauma victims, she added, including significant mental and physical health problems and substance abuse. That, in turn, may jeopardize their ability to help others in rural areas where public health resources are already scarce.

Although Ellis and Knight’s newest research will focus on American Indian victim service providers, they believe the findings could apply to rural areas statewide, which are often strapped for resources. And, the research should benefit and apply to anyone who provides services for victims, Knight said. That includes police officers, lawyers, people involved in child protective services, people addressing sexual assault, healthcare professionals and advocates of various kinds.

Ellis and Knight emphasize that they see a lot of strength in the communities and providers with whom they interact.

 “There are a lot of fantastic resources in these communities,” Ellis said. “We want to facilitate access to resources that are already present and potentially introduce additional resources that could be beneficial.”

Knight added that they would like secondary trauma – an umbrella term encompassing the many consequences of engaging with traumatized people – to become more common in providers’ terminology.

 “Ultimately, we want folks to be informed that it’s a normal process, it’s not pathological and it’s not a weakness,” she said.

Ellis said the research and management tools could prove invaluable to American Indian and other rural communities beset by health disparities and trauma – including historical trauma, or the emotional and psychological wounds that may have accumulated over time.



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