The human side of "the Bakken"


David L. Dodds

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The human side of "the Bakken"

Interdisciplinary UND team to examine domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in the oil patch.

Recently, the University of North Dakota has proven to be a critical partner to the oil and gas industry when it comes to petroleum engineering research and getting more of the valuable stuff out of the ground.

But the University also is interested in the social impacts of oil above ground.

This is especially true in the western North Dakota oil patch, the Bakken Formation, which extends into northeastern Montana. The area has rocketed the state to the No. 2 spot for oil and gas production in the nation. With increased oil activity have come more jobs and more people, and a need for more of pretty much everything else to sustain changing human dynamics in once sleepy rural communities.

Unfortunately, with all the good has come some challenges, specifically an uptick in domestic and relationship violence.

That's where UND steps in again.

An interdisciplinary UND team comprising faculty members from the Departments of Criminal Justice, Sociology, and Social Work and others in the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines has received an award of nearly $500,000 from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) for a three-year project to examine the impact of Bakken oil development on domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in North Dakota and Montana.

The exploratory study will focus on 33 oil-impacted counties in those states and affected tribal reservations. The findings will assist legal and criminal justice officials, domestic violence and sexual assault agencies, other health and human service agencies, government officials, policy makers, oil industry executives, and local communities in addressing interpersonal violence in the oil patch, according to Dheeshana Jayasundara, assistant professor of social work.

Jayasundara, a native of Sri Lanka, has a background in research on violence against women and domestic violence, including her initial training in sociology and criminology.

"As my work looks at health, criminology, and social work aspects, it all ties in very well for the project," she said.

Jayasundara and co-principal investigator Thomasine Heitkamp, professor of social work, conducted a pilot study in 2012 regarding the impact of the oil boom on human service workers. Forty representatives of stakeholder groups were recruited to participate in focus groups and interviews.

Heitkamp said that UND used the preliminary analysis to support its proposal to the NIJ.

"It was not a funded study," Heitkamp said of the preliminary work. "Rather, it was done because of our research commitment to UND."

Heitkamp, a former Social Work Department chair and a certified social worker with 40 years of experience, some of it as a child protection worker in western North Dakota, has seen firsthand the changes taking place in the oil patch and the need for the study.

Rounding out the team are Tracy Evanson, associate professor in the graduate nursing department; Roni Mayzer, associate professor of criminal justice; and Liz Legerski, assistant professor of sociology.

Evanson, a native of Arnegard, N.D., in the heart of the North Dakota oil patch, also brings a professional background and familiarity with the people, communities and culture of the oil patch. Her most recent research study examined the experiences of rural nurses working with victims of domestic violence and identified the nurses' training needs.

Mayzer's expertise is in corrections, criminological theory, and women in the criminal justice system.

Legerski specializes in gender, social inequality, family, and health and social policy.

Collectively, the team members bring extensive experience in qualitative research, mixed methodology and statistical analysis. They also have years of teaching experience in their varied fields of expertise.

They know the issues they will be studying. But most of all they know the people of the area because they've lived and worked among them.

"I just feel strongly that UND needs to have a presence in the oil patch," Heitkamp said. "They value us for the service and scholarship obligation we bring to examine the impacts of the more complicated issues created in oil-impacted areas relative to human need."

David Dodds University & Public Affairs writer

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