ANCHORAGE - Alaska has long led in the nation in sexual assaults, but it's the state's rural areas where children are being molested at the most alarming rates, according to a report released Tuesday.
In nearly 1,000 cases studied over a two-year period, the average age of victims was 16 while the average age of alleged abusers was 29. In four out of five cases, the suspects were relatives or friends or acquaintances. Overall, 89 percent of the victims were female. One out of three cases were reported more than a month after the abuse occurred, leaving evidence hard to collect.
These numbers are unacceptable, troopers said at a press conference.
"Each of us has a role in ending sexual violence in Alaska," said trooper Col. Audie Holloway. "We need to think into the future."
The study, conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Justice Center, looked at 989 sexual assault cases reported statewide to Alaska State Troopers in 2003-2004. Researchers did not look at cases reported during the same period to municipal police departments, including those in Anchorage or other urban centers that account for 80 percent of Alaska's 670,000 residents.
Overall, 46 percent of the cases were referred for prosecution. Of those 452 cases, about half resulted in convictions.
The study is believed to represent only a fraction of abuse that was actually committed in trooper jurisdiction. Still, Alaska has had the nation's highest per capita occurrence since 1995. According to statewide figures for 2003-2004 alone, there were 89 rapes per 100,000 people, almost three times the national average of 32 rapes per 100,000, said Andre Rosay, the Justice Center's interim director.
"There are a lot of excellent programs here, so it could be reporting rates are higher here. We don't know, though," he said. "But even if there are higher reporting rates, our rates far surpass those in the Lower 48."
Just under half of the cases studied occurred in the troopers' immense, sparsely populated Western area known as the C Detachment. The largely Native region contains a third of the state's land mass, stretching from Kotzebue in the north to the Aleutian Islands chain. With few communities connected by roads, about 50 troopers working in the region must fly out to villages to respond to crimes beyond the scope of village safety officers.
Capt. Steve Arlow, commander of the detachment, said the numbers were not surprising. Sexual assaults account for the bulk of work done by troopers, he said.
"Our troopers are out there dealing with it every day," he said.
What was startling to Arlow was the age difference between the youngest victims and their attackers. He hopes the study leads to increased trooper staffing and more equipment to enable them to do a better job.
"Time is critical," he said. "We need to give troopers more time. We need to refocus them."
Alcohol was involved in only 43 percent of the cases, although researchers said that number may be skewed since significant time elapsed before many of the cases were reported.