Lawmakers tackle domestic violence 'epidemic'

Stakeholders discuss governor's 10-year plan to curb abuse

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010

During a Joint Legislative Health Caucus discussion on sexual assault and domestic violence Wednesday, Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, said the issue hits close to home.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"It was only several weeks ago that I was in my office talking with people about domestic violence and it suddenly donned on me that I was a child victim of domestic violence," said the caucus co-chair. "... Something that I am having to work on is learning to say my story too."

Some of the top government and private sector stakeholders met in the Capitol to discuss Gov. Sean Parnell's initiative to end the "epidemic" of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska. It was standing room only for much of the hour-long presentation that discussed the governor's 10-year plan to eliminate Alaska's staggering domestic violence and sexual assault statistics.

Attorney General Dan Sullivan gave the first presentation to the caucus and highlighted some of the most eye-popping figures regarding the subjects. Alaska has the worst rate of rape per capita in the nation - 2½ times the national average - and even higher than that in some communities, he said. Alaska also has the worst child sexual assault rate per capita in the nation, almost six times the national average, he said.

"It's always important to remember that behind these stats are human lives that in many cases are ruined," Sullivan said.

He outlined the five strategic objectives of Parnell's initiative. They include:

• Breaking the cycle of abuse using a comprehensive public education and prevention campaign to promote a culture of respect that does not tolerate violence against women and children.

• Deter, segregate and treat sex offenders so they pose no risk of harm to women and children.

• Establish a law enforcement presence in every community that desires one to improve public safety.

• Increase victim service so more people have a safe place to go and access to the services they need to heal.

• Coordinate and streamline efforts among all stakeholders to effectively combat violence against women and children.

"The purpose would be within a decade, end the epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence and make Alaska the national leader in fighting these (issues)," Sullivan said. "Unfortunately we're not the leader right now, we're pretty much in the basement."

Department of Health & Social Services Commissioner Bill Hogan said all Alaskans must take stake in the issue if solutions are going to be found.

"Although we in government can provide some leadership, we can provide some direction, we might even be able to provide some resources - the solutions really rest in communities and they rest in individuals and families in every community in Alaska." he said. "So, if we're really going to be able to solve this we need to empower individuals, families and communities to come up with solutions."

Alaska State Trooper Director Col. Audie Holloway said right now domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and child exploitation are some of the highest priorities of the Department of Public Safety.

"It's easily 40 percent of our workload," he said.

Cissna said the domestic violence and sexual assault issues have ramifications on just about every department within the state, including increased financial burdens. It is estimated it costs about $185,000 of taxpayer money for each child that deals with these issues, according to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente.

Officials at the meeting said sexual assault and domestic violence could result in lifelong struggles for people, including chemical dependency, obesity, depression, criminal behavior, suicide and more.

The state is looking at evidence-based practices and programs that can be used to combat the problems, Hogan said.

"We want to make sure that we're entering into this with our ears wide open and our eyes wide open because we want to make sure that if there is something that is working that we think can be replicated statewide, we go in that direction."

Southcentral Foundation Chief Executive Officer Katherine Gottlieb discussed the Native healthcare organization's Family Wellness Warriors Initiative to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence. The organization works with families of the 50,000 Natives it represents by providing guiding principles and tools to create healthy relationships.

"We are showing results in breaking generational trauma and generational domestic violence and generational child sexual abuse and neglect," Gottlieb said.

Research has shown that people who tell their story in a full and honest way are unlikely to repeat generation abuse, she said.

"I don't know how many people are willing to step up and say such things, but in our Alaska Native community we are breaking the silence," Gottlieb said. "We are out of the closet. We are addressing the issues, both all of us who have harmed and those doing the harming."

But the problem spreads much further than the Southcentral region of Alaska, she said.

"It is not a Native problem. It is a Native and non-Native issue and it isn't just about perpetrators and victims," Gottlieb said. "It's about family and all of us in it together."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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