Gov. Sean Parnell has been traveling statewide since being elected on a campaign platform that promised he would be diligent in lowering the numbers of domestic violence and sexual assault incidents.
“From our large towns to some of our smallest villages,” Parnell said. “Whether it is Crooked Creek, or Anchorage, or Nome, Kotzebue or Bethel I have been all over this state.”
Parnell began such travel as lieutenant governor in 2006. His work with former Gov. Tony Knowles culminated in the Domestic Violence Protective Act, which crossed party lines to create a consistent policy. Now his position as governor provides him the sounding board he needs for victims of these crimes.
“The problem is worldwide,” Parnell said. “As far as my job as governor, it is a statewide issue.”
Parnell told of his first ride-along with an Anchorage police officer in 1993 on a patrol from late evening to early morning. He said roughly 70 percent of calls that were domestic violence-related.
“It didn’t matter the demographic,” Parnell said. “It was poor, middle class, rich …”
Parnell’s awareness was heightened as rural and Bush Alaska presented their unique needs for help. There is little law enforcement and it takes up to a week for responses to crimes to be assisted or investigated in some remote areas.
In Parnell’s travels through the state talking about initiatives to curb sexual assault and violence, a three-fold approach of prevention efforts, enforcement efforts and support services for victims and survivors has been the theme.
“And also, obviously, some services (are) needed for perpetrators too through the judicial system for counseling after prison,” Parnell said. “The bottom line is, on the prevention side, it is going to take an individual awareness and sense of responsibility for these issues.”
Most notable are the low-cost Choose Respect marches and rallies that rely on private sector effort and funding. Last year, 64 communities participated in the public awareness marches and individuals stepped forward as a result of the broadcasts.
“Victims saw those marches on the news,” Parnell said. “They realized people cared and they got out of their abusive situations and into shelters. They realized the life they were experiencing was not normal in any sense of the word.”
Penalties for domestic violence and sexual assault offenses have been beefed-up on the enforcement side and the number of Alaska State Troopers and Village Public Safety Officers has increased, with more to follow. Two years ago there were 46 VPSO statewide, and an estimated 90 will be in place by January.
“There are now 45 more villages that have law enforcement that didn’t have it before,” Parnell said. “That decreases the number of assaults and increases response times to calls.”
Additional support services such as shelter nights and shelter beds and counseling services for victims and survivors have increased. As more victims come forward, especially those of sexual abuse of a minor (SAM) and child in need of aid (CINA), there is a need for additional funding for victims’ advocates so their voices can be heard.
“That is part of this whole effort,” Parnell said. “That is why additional resources go to it. But if we could have written a check we would have done it and the problem would have been solved. It is going to take additional resources, but it is also going to take individual Alaskans, all of us, taking responsibility for ourselves and for each other in that way.”
Parnell used the Mothers Against Drunk Driving program as an example. Thirty years ago it was common for adults who drank to leave a party and drive home.
“Today if we see a friend who has had too much to drink, we don’t think twice about going up to them and telling them we are taking their keys and will drive them home,” Parnell said. “That is accepted social behavior, in fact it is encouraged. Certainly there are people who will climb behind the wheel drunk, but I think we have changed the social norm when it comes to drinking and driving and I think we can do that as Alaskans when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, and not remain silent about it. That is what I am trying to do from the state side but ultimately it is an individual heart issue.”
Statewide, victims are coming forward as a result of rally marches to show their bruises and tears and tell their stories.
“The first thing I hear is thank you,” Parnell said. “There is a thankfulness when somebody tells them that we care and that we and they can do better.”
Victims are connected with non-profit and state services.
Parnell reflected on a personal story that occurred in the Juneau Governor’s Mansion during a legislative session tour.
Parnell told that group of 60 about his commitment to ending the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault.
A woman raised her hand and Parnell thought a question would follow. Instead she thanked him for running the public service announcement that told his family’s story and how his father escaped an abusive situation and chose a different path.
“Her 11 or 12-year-old boys saw that and asked her what it was about and she communicated to them about why she had had to leave their father,” Parnell said. “It gave them permission to speak about a topic that had been very hard to speak about in their home and she thanked me for having that opportunity with her boys to talk about it. For her to be able to urge them to choose respect in their relationships.”
A couple months later the lady returned in another tour and spoke of what had occurred since that initial visit. Her boys had taken that message to their classmates, who in turn asked their parents, and the parents formed a group to discuss the topic.
Parnell encouraged victims to speak out, to try and not let the shame and guilt of something they are not responsible for prevent them from asking for help.
“They have nothing to be ashamed of,” Parnell said. “They have done nothing wrong and they are valuable people and we want to help protect them. It is our duty. We need to adequately protect them from their perpetrators. We need to enforce our restraining orders and our laws and we need to be able to provide the services they need when the are in that situation.”
Parnell also said that the system is not without a risk.
“Certainly we live in an imperfect world and there are certainly people who escape it only to find that there is additional harm that can come to them because they did speak up,” Parnell said. “That has been the nature of that action for ages.”
Skeptics say the governor’s pledge to end the epidemic in a decade isn’t realistic and is just election year politics. Parnell believes change is possible because his grandfather was an alcoholic who died homeless on the streets. He says his father was able to break the cycle, and he believes others can too.
“I don’t speak about it in too much detail because I think it is my father’s personal story,” Parnell said. “Suffice it to say my grandfather was an abusive alcoholic who was very rough with my father. Consequently because of who my grandfather was, my parents did not feel like me or my brother would be safe in his presence. So I only got to see him twice in my life. He died when I was 6 years old and he died on skid row in Seattle. That chapter of my family’s life is something I have been open about but because it is my father’s story I have respected him and asked him how much I could say about it. Because he is still alive and dealing with these memories himself, that is all I am prepared to speak to.”
Parnell stated that his efforts will continue to move forward on raising awareness and choosing respect. His new goal for the third annual March 31 Choose Respect rallies is to have 100 communities participating, up from an initial first year of 18. The public will also see additional budget funds for enforcement and more funding for more shelters and services.
Two weeks ago Parnell met with the Alaska Federation of Natives on domestic violence and sexual abuse issues, possible partnerships for prevention and about law enforcement in rural communities.
“I want to stress this is a statewide issue,” Parnell said. “The AFN is a group that focuses on rural Alaska and we spoke on the unique challenges of keeping Alaskans safe in the Bush, promoting healthy lifestyles, and offered to collaborate with the city and tribal councils to a greater degree on keeping people safe and making a change.”
When asked how “Joe Public” could aid in the sensitive, yet horrific, statewide domestic violence and sexual abuse of minors crimes, Parnell said. “By being courageous in speaking about these things with our closest friends and family members. We tend to, and I am as guilty of this as everybody, to have friendships in which we don’t broach or dive into private topics together. Just giving permission to start a conversation is half the battle. The individual Alaskan can help by being lovingly courageous with their friends and family members and open these conversations.”
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.