My turn: Alaska must find creative solutions to domestic abuse

Posted: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Gov. Sean Parnell's new initiative, unveiled last month, is to be commended for its renewed intent to tackle domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska. Things could definitely be better. Beefed up village public safety presence, increased commitment to prosecution and extra access to legal aid for victims will certainly help.

But these problems have not improved significantly from previous top-down efforts. I propose that effectively addressing these problems is going to take new ways of thinking about and dealing with them. They need to be addressed in deeper, more creative, more sustainable and hopefully more effective ways. Here are some important ideas for the initiative's new violence and abuse prevention coordinator to consider when addressing these issues.

Be open to fresh ideas. Part of the problem is old thinking that inhibits innovation. There are ways to increase safety and accountability not done in Alaska.

Explanations of domestic violence need to be more complex. There is not just one single, simple explanation for men's violence toward women, such as power and control, or just one solution. Each perpetrator is individually accountable. But abuse has many aspects. Crimes involving intimate partner or family violence may include substance abuse, mental illness, character defects, moral failings and gender role entitlement, among others.

Relevant ethnic and cultural aspects to these problems need to be emphasized. While domestic violence is done within all ethnic groups, Alaska Natives are at greater risk for violence and abuse. This is an unfortunate legacy of massive cultural upheaval. There is evidence that violence and abuse have escalated greatly in the last 150 years among Alaska Natives. Researchers have traced this elevated prevalence directly to colonization of Alaska. Historical trauma and related intergenerational abuse is considered to be a clear risk factor for violence among Alaska Natives.

Extensive community involvement is central to tackling this problem. In public health circles it is understood that, "If the problems are in the community, the solutions are in the community" (G.H. Friedell). To be sustainable, communities must own the problems, and take responsibility for solutions, using both traditional and mainstream assets. This initiative doesn't emphasize community enough. It is absolutely key.

In his 2004 speech at the Anchorage Violence Against Women Summit, hosted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, former Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes said, "More than anything, we need to expand the involvement of community in attacking these crimes." Yet involvement can't be forced; community leaders will have to sign on, the help of other community members must be enlisted and funding must be secured.

With a community-centered focus, the criminal justice model is not the most appropriate for dealing with this problem, especially in Alaska Native communities. The criminal justice system seeks retribution and punishment, as made clear by Attorney General Dan Sullivan at the rollout of this initiative. But disadvantaged ethnic minority groups already are poorly served by mainstream criminal justice. Restorative justice is holistically oriented to repair the damage to victims, families and communities caused by violence. It is the preferred alternative that is already used in Alaska with juvenile offenders.

The Alaska State Department of Health and Social Services publication, "Healthy Alaskans 2010," recognizes restorative justice and peacemaking circles as good approaches for communities to deal with violence because they are aligned with traditional Alaska Native values (Healthy Alaskans 2010, Vol. II, Chap. I, available online). First Nations peoples of Canada, Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and other indigenous peoples around the world use restorative justice methods and healing or peacemaking circles to successfully reduce interpersonal violence and heal historical trauma and intergenerational abuse.

Lastly, the Alaska State Department of Corrections regulations on batterer intervention programs are more than 10 years old. It is time to revisit the regulations and revise them where necessary to allow for more flexibility and innovation. Some judges already are mandating conditions of probation outside the regulations, because they insist on other alternatives.

Innovations are occurring elsewhere around the country. The nation's first court ordered Circles of Peace program is now an option for domestic violence cases in Nogales, Arizona. It would be encouraging to see programs like that, which are culturally appropriate and have built-in support from invested stakeholders, in Alaska's Native and non-Native communities too.

• Paul McCarthy has worked in the domestic violence in Alaska for nearly 13 years. He is interested in truly innovative and sustainable community based approaches for effectively dealing with family and intimate partner violence.

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