Mining jobs: Domestic violence increases with rising unemployment rates

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THE deaths of 12 miners in the Sago Mine disaster and then four additional miners in other mines made international headlines. But below the radar, unemployment and uncertainty in the U.S. coal mining industry leak an invisible poison, claiming silent and stoic victims in the frustration and rage of domestic violence.

I know because I was one of them. I was married to a coal miner for 10 years, from 1980 to 1990. In 1991, I moved to Buckhannon, not far from the Sago Mine, to be managing editor of The Record-Delta. As a coal miner’s wife, the quality of my week depended on how much coal the mines produced. In 1982, my husband lost his job, and we nearly lost our home, located not far from the site of the Jan. 21, 1866, Newburg mine explosion in which 39 miners died. My husband’s verbal abuse of me soon turned to physical abuse.

As the number of coal miner jobs in West Virginia has decreased, domestic violence has increased. By 2004, employees in the West Virginia coal industry numbered a little more than 20,000, less than half the 1983 figure. And the number of domestic violence incidents documented numbered 14,489 in 2004, up from 1,232 in 1983, according to the West Virginia State Police’s Uniform Crime Reports.

Ann Shaver, professor of behavioral sciences at Fairmont State University, recognized a connection between unemployment and domestic violence as early as the 1980s. Students from coal families confided to her fears about the violence that “seemed to be beginning or escalating in their families.”

This is in no way an indictment of the coal miner or the unemployed. Many of my closest friends are from mining families. At Sago, my family lost a good friend in miner Terry Helms. But it is testimony to the ripple effects of unemployment. And it is a warning to Ford, Sago and other company families.

Experts are only now recognizing what a critical component unemployment can be in domestic violence. Unemployment doesn’t cause abusive behavior but exacerbates stress, relationship tensions and insecurity about failing to be “a true man in our society,” says Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. She has studied domestic violence for about 25 years. Her 2003 study involving “intimate partner violence” and the abuse or murder of 563 women in 11 cities revealed unemployment was the only significant social, or demographic, risk factor.

Unemployment makes it four times as likely a woman will be killed, Campbell found. In overall risk factors, unemployment was second only to a man owning a gun as risks for family violence. Until recently, law enforcement didn’t consider a man’s employment status when conducting investigations.

In October, at the 13th Annual West Virginia Children’s Justice Task Force in Charleston, Mark Wynn, a decorated Nashville, Tenn., police officer, advised police handling domestic disputes to ask about employment. That way, they can assess how deadly the episode of family violence might become. Unemployment, he says, is “a possible aggravator” and a “double whammy” that exacerbates other issues such as alcohol use, marital woes or depression.

History shows that the life of a coal mining family follows the ups and downs of King Coal. In 1976, West Virginia had nearly 65,000 employees on the mining payroll, its highest number during my lifetime. In 1980, my husband was employed in a union mine as a section foreman, earning about $40,000 a year. Life was good, and my worries were few. By 1981, however, he was making much less working in a non-union mine. As a journalist, I reported facts and figures about the cycle of unemployment within the coal industry. But as the wife of a coal miner, I knew what happened only too well when a man came home with a pink slip.

My husband joined the growing number of unemployed coal miners. And I joined the growing number of women suffering domestic violence. We were among the many mining families who stood in long lines at the Newburg Senior Center in Preston County for free food, including “Reagan cheese.” My husband was stressed and depressed at being unemployed. He often took it out on me.

By 1983, the state’s unemployment rate hit 18 percent, nearly double the national figure, largely the result of layoffs in the coal industry due to changes in regulation, technology and profits. The industry employed 42,483. According to the West Virginia State Police, the number of reported domestic violence incidents rose from the 1,232 cases in 1983 to 2,565 cases in 1989 – a year when West Virginia saw the biggest fall in the number of people employed in the coal industry. Police say most domestic violence incidents go undocumented.

Domestic violence in West Virginia has deadlier consequences than in the rest of the nation. From 1993 to 1999, only 12 percent of the nation’s homicides were related to domestic violence, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources. But in West Virginia, that figure is almost 40 percent. The State Police say a domestic homicide occurs every 14 days – a figure that has held steady since the late 1970s.

In Upshur County, the Sago disaster adds stress that can exacerbate domestic violence. “Tensions run high. People become more irritable, and then you have explosions,” says Harriet Sutton, director of HOPE Inc., a women’s shelter in neighboring Marion County that has seen increases in domestic violence after layoffs.

In West Virginia, the unemployment rate has decreased to 5.3 percent in 2004, or 41,900 people out of work, according to the Bureau of Employment Programs. But the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, a part of the U.S. Commerce Department, says unemployment is a much greater issue in Appalachia, especially in central counties of West Virginia and Kentucky, compared to the rest of the country.

Shannon Wamsley’s husband, Alton, survived the Sago mine disaster, one of 16 men who rode out of the mines just before the explosion. She said the families are very fortunate that International Coal Group has provided jobs and counseling. But she – like everyone – is worried about the long-term effects, especially among those who are too spooked by the tragedy to return to work.

“They can have all this pent up emotion inside of them,” she said, “which turns to anger and frustration because you have to blame something.”

NOTE: Reprinted with permission from Charleston Newspapers (West Virginia). This op-ed originally appeared February 9, 2006, on page 5A. (Copyright 2006)

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

1 Comment

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