As governor and lieutenant governor, we want to ensure that every Alaskan feels safe in their home, school and community. We are working to build a Safer Alaska where children are supported, communities are resilient, and all Alaskans are treated with dignity and respect.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Rates of child abuse and sexual assault remain unacceptably high in all parts of our state, inflicting lifelong damage on thousands of Alaskans. Last year, our Office of Children’s Services fielded over 20,000 reports of child maltreatment, and a 2015 survey showed that one third of Alaskan women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Those numbers are unacceptable.
April marks 2018’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. As it draws to a close, we must do better. The future of our state depends on it.
Child abuse and sexual assault erode communities, with ripple effects that travel far beyond the individual. Sexual assault leaves victims with long-term psychological and physical injuries. Adverse childhood experiences — including abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness or a parent in jail — negatively affect lifelong well-being. These experiences correlate to higher rates of alcohol and drug dependence, domestic violence, suicide, poor physical and overall health, and reduced life expectancy.
For survivors of abuse, supportive, nourishing experiences build resilience and long-term health.
We are making progress. Across the state, more brave individuals are telling stories that for too long have been kept quiet. We are listening. Too often, sexual violence is met with impunity, and we are working to fix that. Our administration continues to make progress addressing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits: we sent 519 of the 570 eligible kits for lab testing. A cold case investigator is starting this month to bring justice to victims, and our Public Safety Action plan calls for two additional prosecutors focused on domestic violence and sexual assault cases.
Last year, the Department of Health and Social Services created a centralized reporting system to respond to child abuse. Alaskans can now help a child at risk of abuse or neglect at 1-800-478-4444. Our Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (CDVSA) funds 21 community victim services shelters and community victim’s hotlines. In FY17, the CDVSA shelter services provided 3,058 people with emergency and transitional shelter and 106,881 nights of safety.
The Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) has developed new trainings for educators to recognize child abuse and neglect, and ways domestic violence and sexual assault affect students. DEED has worked with partner organizations to develop a Trauma Informed School Framework, which gives communities across the state tools that help heal students from adverse experiences so they can lead productive, healthy lives.
We know children do best close to family and immersed in their culture. Our Office of Children’s Services has stepped up its commitment to strengthen families and reduce the number of children removed from their homes, making Alaskan children safer. And last October, the state signed a historic compact agreement with Alaska tribes and tribal organizations. Tribes will now provide comprehensive child welfare services in their own communities where the children are living.
In this state, we may pride ourselves on our self-reliance, but our greatness really comes from the strength of our communities. As we hear success stories from across the state, we are gratified by the work of individual Alaskans and organizations that are dedicated to creating safe and supportive communities. We are grateful for the parents, teachers, caseworkers, advocates, friends, neighbors, and yes, even bystanders who reach out to support, protect and affirm our long-term goal to make Alaska the best place to be a child.
• Bill Walker is governor of Alaska and Byron Mallot is lieutenant governor.