Vanquishing violence is a matter of respect

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Alaska is a land of extremes, end-of-the spectrum qualifications by which we identify ourselves, and terms by which others know us.

We are the biggest State in the Union, the farthest north, the farthest west, and because of the arbitrary position of the International Date Line, the farthest east. When we Alaskans travel Outside or abroad, others light up when we say where we're from, and we're proud of the mystique of this place.

Sadly, not all the superlatives attributable to Alaska are positive. Our appalling rates of substance abuse generate pervasive mortality and morbidity. Perhaps the most unpleasant lists which Alaska tops are domestic violence and sexual assault statistics.

Alaskans perpetrate and suffer from household abuse and assaults far more frequently than others nationwide. The reported rate of forcible rape in the Great Land is more than double the national figure. The number of nights victims fleeing physical and sexual abuse at home spent in shelters statewide in one year is equivalent to eight percent of our population.

On the Last Frontier, a child is significantly more likely to be badly mistreated or molested growing up than in other places. It's a horrible state of affairs demanding our attention, because things must get better.

Fortunately, there are many resources already directed at the scourge of domestic violence in Alaska. The State Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is a panel of concerned and capable Alaskans whose mission is to provide safety for victims and those otherwise impacted by abuse and assault through crisis intervention, perpetrator accountability and prevention services. The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA) funds the statewide network of shelters (including AWARE here in Juneau) providing front-line services including short-term housing and safety planning for those directly in fear of a next attack. They also facilitate accountability for those who have perpetrated and are trying to leave behind the life of abuse, assault and neglect of those they should love.

For many years, I have been a volunteer pro bono attorney with the ANDVSA, a challenge and privilege helping individuals who need immediate and long-term legally effective protection from perpetrators, divorce from abusive spouses, and custody arrangements that allow children to hope for peaceful lives where they can grow and prosper. This work is as rewarding as anything one can do as an attorney, because the beneficial effects can appear directly as well as vastly improving future outcomes.

Pro bono attorneys and their time are limited commodities, as are police officers, victim's advocates, doctors, judges, social workers and community volunteers. We can always try to increase the resources federal, state and local governments provide to fix the worst problems in our society, and the Alaska Legislature has been generous with funds for domestic violence and sexual assault, but the need still far outweighs the supply of responsive personnel and programs.

At some point, we must address the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault at its roots with preventative programs. These efforts to intervene in family situations before abuse and neglect occur are often not as successful in obtaining scarce funds because their impacts are not as immediately recognizable. That is a false economy; prevention and outreach need to be placed on an equal footing with programs that treat the symptoms of the scourge.

Increased efficiency in the responsive sector is another way to increase our overall efficiency in helping promote healthier households in Alaska. Gov. Sean Parnell has placed domestic violence and sexual assault at the top of his priority policy concerns, introducing bills that increase the intense consequences, both pre- and post-trial, faced by perpetrators in our criminal justice system. Parnell also has advocated for increased funding for existing programs, most of which are after-the-fact.

Excitingly, the Parnell administration is also taking on prevention as a goal for all Alaskans. The concept of "Choosing Respect" means that domestic violence is everyone's problem and an issue we all have the means to address.

You choose respect in the way you treat your spouse and children and in the way you interact with your friends and co-workers. You can choose to be silent, or choose to speak your mind when you see a situation that is not right. This may mean having the courage to call to task some one you think is committing domestic violence or it may mean calling and reporting abuse or neglect to the proper social-work or law-enforcement authority.

This Wednesday, "Choosing Respect" can take the form of participating in a community event in any of 18 cities, towns, or villages across Alaska. Here in Juneau, Parnell will lead a "Choose Respect" march from the steps of the Capitol through downtown to Marine Park, literally raising our collective voice that we as Alaskans can and will do something to stop a horrific and unacceptable social problem.

I know that domestic violence and sexual assault will never be vanquished altogether, but I firmly believe we can prevent such crimes from happening, and handle them more effectively and efficiently as they do happen. I hope all Alaskans will join the group effort and choose respect to create a better future for us all.



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