Two discrete heroes dedicated to preventing violence

Michelle Powell (left) along with Tori VanNatter (right) for years have devoted their time, efforts and services to helping survivors of domestic and sexual assault here in Goshen County. Rhett Breedlove/Torrington Telegram

TORRINGTON – There are numerous things right here in Goshen County that should never be overlooked. With this, we are very fortunate to have all the trained personnel in place, ready to go and with the proper resources allowing them able to help local residents in need.

Many would agree Goshen County is fortunate to have what would be considered a trained and in-touch team of law-enforcement, a strong and eager team of firefighters ready to drop what they are doing at any given second, and of course numerous dedicated and educated paramedics who can be there at the drop of a hat.

Undeniably, these are community members who are both extensively trained to help their fellow residents when they are needed the most and should receive the appreciation and credit they deserve.

Most of us would rightfully consider what they do and must face each day as heroic.

Some things simply cannot be overlooked, and absolutely must be talked about from time to time.

The Goshen County Task Force on Family Violence and Sexual Assault first started providing free and confidential services to survivors of violence back in 1984.

The Task Force continues to provide these services almost a quarter into the twenty-first century and has no intention of backing down or being deterred in any way when it comes to helping others.

The office is headed up by two local women, Michelle Powell and Tori VanNetter, whom nearly every day provide confidential and free support to both men and women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

According to Powell and VanNetter, they are survivors.

Despite pressing on with what most would consider a very stressful and even heartbreaking position, both Powell and VanNetter remain both humble and dignified in their everyday work.

“I have been working for the Goshen County Task Force for 20 years,” Powell began. “Seventeen as the Coordinator, and then three as the Executive Director. I am a very passionate person on this particular issue, and I’m just helping people in general. I want to be educating people on domestic violence and sexual assault, and personal experience has led me to this line of work. I love being passionate and trying to help others when they feel they have no hope. I want to bring hope to others.”

VanNetter concurred with that passion by adding, “Often times we are led to this kind of work by family or friend experiences we have seen. It’s first-hand personal experience.”

Both Powell and VanNetter were discreet, yet honest, when it came to common beliefs and misconceptions on sexual assault, both nationally and right here in Goshen County.

Often when we think of a predator, we think of a mysterious dark, hooded figure driving a windowless van that appears suddenly and snatches us right out of the street.

According to Powell and VanNetter, this is a very common fallacy when it comes to the truth about assault.

In a vast majority of reported cases, the assault had nothing to do with physical attraction, and the survivor often knew and trusted their attacker.

“Anyone can be a victim,” Powell said. “There is not a social or economic type of violence. One in four women in Goshen County will be a victim at some point in their lifetime. Just take this, those are the ones who will never be believed.  They often say to us, ‘It was a friend I trusted to take me home.’ How do you tell authorities, other friends or whoever? ‘They aren’t going to believe me.’ Then they start second-guessing themselves. ‘Did I say something? Did I insinuate something? What did I do?’ I think any one of us could be at risk.”

VanNetter continued with assurance on the matter stating, “It’s not just with strangers. It’s a big misconception when it comes to sexual assault. The reality is when they do come forward, they basically have to prove or question if they will be believed. A lot of times what we have found is really that’s all survivors are wanting is to believed. This happened to them, and that’s sometimes the biggest hurdle. Sometimes their healing is just being believed.”

Although Powell and VanNetter are neither licensed clinical therapists, nor certified law enforcement, their mission is purely to provide emotional support and a safe haven for survivors who reach their doors. 

In fact, it should be noted that the Task Force, when working with their clients, do not report to law enforcement and everything discussed in their office is not referred to law enforcement.

When asked what continues to cause both domestic and sexual violence in communities despite continued efforts to raise awareness, both women of the Task Force were once again realistic and straight-forward on the reasoning.

“I would think sometimes these are generational learned behaviors,” Powell said. “Especially domestic violence. Where was it learned? Where was it seen? Most of the time it goes back generations. Maybe that’s how our parents grew up. It’s a very difficult thing. Will they be disowned if they try to change this? I think the same thing goes with sexual assault. It’s about power and control; someone thinking I can do this to whoever and whenever I want. It’s entitlement.”

“Breaking that generation behavior is such a difficult thing,” VanNetter added. “Power and control is based on making someone else feel smaller. Things are so regularly engrained, because I do this job and have heard these things. It really is all around us and I don’t think we realize it. We are here to advocate for those that cannot advocate for themselves, as well as respecting where we are and trying to figure out a way to educate people in a non-threatening, or forceful way.”

Despite admittedly being without any formal training, both Powell and VanNetter possess a very unique gift that perhaps even the most qualified, and educated therapists may in fact not always possess.

“Michelle and I have found it’s about conversations, and listening to what people have to say,” VanNetter concluded. “Most people do have genuine points that are valid, and we have learned a few things where we are exposed to real situations and now we get it. Now we understand their side of it. It’s taking that step back and accepting that there could be things that no one ever wants to think. Also LGBTQ and providing them a safe space while helping them work through so many things. We are in this community and it is difficult sometimes for those who are of that group.  It’s walking in someone else’s shoes and you have to be on the other side of that.”

With some finishing words, both women noted the hard realistic truth that despite all the efforts, decades of experience and infinite compassion for other human beings, the approach can never be one size fits all.

We are all in fact very different despite how similar our stories may be. 

“I think education is key and keeping an open mind,” Powell concluded. “We don’t walk in their shoes and never will, so that’s why we will never force or make someone make a decision that they don’t want to make. The truth is, I can’t tell you how to live your life. Even if we have the same stories, everyone feels it differently.”

“People think we give them a pass and we don’t,” VanNetter also finished. “A lot of times everyone else has abandoned them and they need to have a safe place to come. We are very survival lead. Our way of working with each person is completely led by them, and so is our approach in how we work with them. So, we may have a survivor come in and will work with them differently because their needs are different, and we are very centered with their needs. We don’t force anyone to do anything. That’s what some people are afraid of, that we will make them report it and we don’t. They want to come in and say this happened and where do I go from here? They just want to tell someone, but maybe they aren’t prepared to go through the legal process. But they need to tell someone so that they can heal. We are a safe space for them.”

If you have questions or wish to contact the Goshen County Task Force on Family Violence and Sexual Assault regarding domestic violence or sexual assault, feel free to call 307-532-2118. The office has six volunteers every evening working a 24 hour hotline, with at least one male advocate. All services are free and confidential.

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