Local column: Fight the cycle of domestic violence

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2008

This week I attended a legal-training seminar in Anchorage sponsored by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

The network is a nonprofit that provides services to victims of two very major social problems on the Last Frontier: domestic violence and sexual assault. I went in the capacity of volunteer attorney for the network. This is the tenth year this training opportunity has been offered, and the second time I attended. I learned a lot.

Many Juneau residents know that the AWARE shelter on Glacier Highway is a safe place for individuals and families to go if they have suffered from domestic violence or sexual assault. What you may not know is that AWARE is one of 19 such facilities around Alaska that perform similar roles in their respective communities.

Sexual assault and domestic violence are problems that occur across society at every level, criminal acts perpetrated by men and women, persons of all races and social classes, and in all communities, large and small. We are fortunate in Juneau to have a shelter like AWARE to help meet victims' needs.

Communities from Barrow to Ketchikan to Unalaska and Nome share in this good fortune, but the vast majority of Alaskan towns and villages aren't so lucky.

While most readers probably believe themselves to be generally informed about domestic-violence issues, I learned some statistics this week of which I had previously been unaware. I was shocked to learn that an estimated 82 percent of the population of our correctional institutions in Alaska had been exposed to domestic violence as children. That's an alarming figure, impossible to interpret as a coincidence, and something that ought to prompt society to address the matter.

There have been studies done and laws passed in recent years that take into account the unacceptably negative effects of domestic violence. Even if a perpetrator of domestic violence in the home "only" abuses the adult domestic partner, it affects the children. Young eyes and ears take in so much information, and despite some parents' efforts to hide conflict from offspring, it doesn't work that way.

That is why the Alaska Legislature passed legislation several years ago that prevents awarding custody to a parent who has a history of domestic violence, unless certain conditions are met. These conditions include successful completion of a batterers' intervention program and the strict avoidance of substance abuse by the would-be custodial parent.

Batterers' intervention programs are groups where those who expose others in their households to domestic violence meet and try to make progress. Similar to substance-abuse group therapy, the collective efforts to admit prior bad acts, accept responsibility for them, and think of ways to change fundamentally all aspire to a common goal: preventing future acts of domestic violence.

There is some skepticism about whether batterers' programs work, but to those skeptics I would ask, what's the alternative? Give up, and just accept the certainty of future violence and the need for permanent incarceration or isolation of the perpetrators? That's no solution, and even as a non-solution it would waste too many scarce resources.

As we considered the nexus between healthy children and families and domestic violence, it occurred to me that as a volunteer attorney, I am likely only to become involved in factual situations late in the game, say, to advocate for an alleged perpetrator, or to seek an end to a failed relationship for an alleged victim.

My role will be putting out fires. I thought how much more efficient it is for our society as a whole to find ways of preventing fires from beginning in the first place, to break the cycle of domestic violence and sexual abuse so that children currently being born and raised in Alaska families won't be exposed to violent acts that will so dramatically increase their chances of having trouble controlling their adult behaviors with the resultant legal and social problems they'll likely face.

Ben Franklin said, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and I can think of no social problem where the truth of this statement is clearer than in providing for healthy families. It isn't an easy task, and spending more money blindly won't get us where we need to go.

But if we remember that domestic violence is a cyclical problem, and that breaking the cycle promises vastly improved outcomes for many individuals and for society as a whole, we can have a better-informed debate about how to spend public funds with maximum efficiency.

• Ben Brown is a Juneau resident and lifelong Alaskan.

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