Hoffman reflects on 30-year career with CARES

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

It’s a safer, more responsive, more understanding place for domestic violence and sexual assault victims within Big Horn County.

After 30 years working within CARES, serving as the organization’s director since 2006, Leslie Hoffman knows the struggle against domestic assault in the county better than anyone. During her time, local organizations have banded together to aid victims while the cultural discussion has shifted, giving faith and understanding to those who speak out. As Hoffman retires this week, she knows intimately how Big Horn County has grown to address domestic violence within its borders. 

“The reason that myself and our advocates get up and go to work every day is that we are helping people,” Hoffman said. “Not every victim is a success the first time we see them. Sometimes we see them for years and years and years, but for many of the people we see, we really made a difference in their lives, and their lives are better. That keeps all of us getting up every morning and coming to work. It even helps you get through the administration. It’s rewarding that you can see people’s lives change.”

CARES is a non-profit organization that assists victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and victims of other crimes by providing them with advocacy, assistance and crisis counseling.

Hoffman first connected with the organization in 1991. Joining Big Horn Counseling as a receptionist, Hoffman attended CARES training as part of accepting that position. Back then, CARES was under the umbrella of the counseling center, meaning that while Hoffman was not working as an advocate, she would still be communicating with victims in her role. 

But, what started as a required training soon became a focus for Hoffman. In 1998, when CARES separated from Big Horn County Counseling, Hoffman was on the CARES board. In 2002, she became their bookkeeper, submerging herself in the organization’s financial operations. Then, in 2006, Hoffman rose to director of the organization. 

“I’ve seen many positive things happen in my time,” Hoffman said. “I think the biggest thing is the fact that people are more aware. You should know that from watching the national news. Back when I started, there was a whole lot of victim-blaming. We blame victims because it makes us feel safer. If they did something that we don’t do every day, we figure it’s safe. So, it’s really easy to blame victims, and for a long time, we did. But we’ve done a lot of awareness-raising since 1991.”

Hoffman’s entry into victim advocacy work is a little atypical. She’s never suffered abuse or violence herself. She just knows that those who do need someone to be there for them. That’s always been motivation enough.

“Maybe I look at it a little bit differently,” Hoffman said. “But, it’s the same thing that makes people want to be a social worker. It’s the same thing that makes someone want to be a pastor. It’s the joy and fulfillment you get from helping people.”

Domestic and sexual abuse is especially insidious because of the deep impacts on victims. The most pernicious wounds are none of those which are visible but rather the damage caused by being profoundly harmed by someone a victim should feel safe with.

“I can’t tell you how it works, but we know a person loses themselves after being violated that intimately. As we’re getting smarter about the brain, research is showing that it actually affects the brain after a violent or sexual assault,” Hoffman said. “You think of maybe a bar fight or something, and someone gets really beat up, and there’s a lot of blood and guts. People get over that, but sexual assault and being assaulted by someone who should love, someone you should be able to trust, takes away from who you are.”

Much of the work Hoffman and her advocates engage in is direct advocacy, working with victims intimately to keep them and their children safe and, in time, resolve the situation. It involves being a shoulder to lean on and a place of consultation. The work often involves drafting a safety plan, a pre-established set of actions a victim can take while under direct threat.

“When I safety plan, I ask a victim what their biggest concern is, and sometimes it’s not what my biggest concern would be, but that doesn’t matter. We find a way to get around their biggest concern, and often times we are a part of their safety plan,” Hoffman said. “That’s something everybody can be. If you have a friend in this situation, you can be a part of their safety plan. You don’t have to jump in and get in the middle of it, but if you would be a part of their safety plan, that is huge.

“I would advise people with friends in an abusive situation to not make judgments either. Let the victim drive what you do. That’s the important thing.”

The most important outcome is ensuring the victim’s safety and autonomy. Sometimes that looks different than one would expect. According to Hoffman, it’s important to shed preconceptions before working with anyone.

“We have one victim who was older and in an abusive relationship. This lady is now away from her perpetrator, and they still have a relationship. That’s OK. She’s not being abused. She has her own apartment. That’s a success,” Hoffman said. “She’s in charge of herself now. That’s the whole thing. Abuse takes away your control and ability to live your own life. But she’s great now. She has the upper hand, and if she still wants to have a relationship with that person, that’s a good outcome for me.”

While personal information must be taken in certain cases, such as if one needs financial assistant or seeks to file for a protection order, one does not need to give personal information to call CARES. Hoffman even encourages those who believe they have a friend being abused to call. CARES seeks to be a safe place for anyone encountering domestic and sexual violence.


But, direct advocacy is not the entirety of the work, nor is it the work that’s going to reduce domestic violence within the county. That work extends far past CARES.

“If we accept it, abuse will happen. What causes incidents to go way down is if there’s no public acceptance, especially from men. That’s what will solve the problem,” Hoffman said. “We’re a Band-Aid. We need the Band-Aid, but it’s not how you change the world.”

Changing the world is a responsibility that lies with men, Hoffman said. 

“Ultimately, it’s got to be the men of the world who step in and say it’s not OK,” Hoffman said. “What is going to change the world is when people can say to their friend that it’s not OK you treat her like that. Men have to police themselves. Law enforcement can’t solve the problem. Women can’t solve the problem. But when good men will step up and say that’s not OK, that’s when it’s going to change, and I think it’s happening.”

Abuse is not normal, Hoffman said. It’s essential victims understand that. Hoffman estimates that 90 percent of people don’t engage in abusive behaviors, and most relationships are safe. Still, those who do abuse tend to abuse multiple partners across the span of multiple relationships. When the larger society does nothing, though, everyone is complicit in that abuse.

“Our culture in the 50s and the 60s, what happens behind the closed doors or somebody’s house is nobody’s business. Not police, not the clergy, not anybody,” Hoffman said. “We have thankfully gotten past that, but that was hard. It was especially hard for victims. We were collectively participating in the abuse. We are at the point now where most kids will speak up now and say that’s not OK. It’s not always safe to intervene, but I think now when people are aware, more of them speak up.”

Perhaps the most impactful facet of Hoffman’s work is her work in high schools. Hoffman meets with students and teaches programs in Greybull and Lovell High schools. It’s the teenage years where she can have the most impact. 

“We all probably have abusive tendencies, but if you can get me somebody when they’re 15 and tell them that’s not the way to go and encourage them to get some help, and not condemn them, but tell them this is not the way to have good relationships, there’s a really good chance they can change,” Hoffman said. “Now, if they get to be 25 or 30 years old, I’ve never seen an abuser who has turned over a new leaf. I don’t know; it’s just so deep-seated when they are that age. I totally believe if you can get to kids by the time they’re 15, you can change them.”

Big Horn County has joined together in other vital ways, Hoffman said. Today there are more resources available for victims and greater acceptance of their plight due to partnerships across advocacy groups, law enforcement and community institutions to address the issue. That common front was not in place when she began, Hoffman said.

“What gives me a lot of hope is seeing the group efforts between law enforcement, CARES and the community, because we all have to work together to help the victim,” Hoffman said. “In 1991, that was not common. Everybody worked in silos. Everyone did their job, and everyone was protective of their money. It took a while for everybody to realize that this works better if we all work together. That includes medical providers and the media, religious leaders and law enforcement, CARES, schools and family services. It works if everybody works together.”


By the time this is published, Hoffman will be in Florida.

It’s quite the story. A widow for 24 years, Hoffman met an old friend she had in the third grade at a 50th class reunion. As fate would have it, they fell in love.

So, Hoffman, at a vibrant 70 years old, is off to Florida to get married.

That’s not how she planned it either.

“I didn’t see this one coming,” Hoffman said. “I had my life set up to be very happy in Lovell. I’m giving up my mountains for a man.”

Hoffman easily sees herself volunteering for victim advocacy work in the Sunshine State. She also has grandchildren here in Wyoming, so she sees herself returning often.

Back home, Kathy Dobbs will take the reigns of CARES. 

Dobbs has roots in Big Horn County, growing up in Deaver. She spent 10 years as part of the  Campbell County drug court program, before moving back to Big Horn County to be with family. After nine months working in the Big Horn County Drug Court, she accepted the position of CARES director. 

“This is a hard job, but she can do it. She will be able to take it on,” Hoffman said. “I’m leaving her with a wonderful board of directors who are so supportive. I’m leaving her with really good advocates. All of my advocates have been in CARES for at least five years, except for just one. Kathy is compassionate and has a background in business. I’m leaving her with lots of help, and the program will be in good hands.”

Hoffman said one lesson shines through the most during her 30 years in CARES. Even in the darkest of moments, hope can shine through.

“There is always hope. Hope is so important,” Hoffman said. “I want people to know there is always hope out there.”