Alaska crime victims isolated

Posted: Monday, November 07, 2005

KOTZEBUE - Susan Jones knew she had to leave her southeast Alaska village when she came home to find her husband clutching his loaded rifle.

In his other hand, she said, was the crumpled restraining order she had filed against him the day before, after he sent several bullets whining past her head.

"He just had it bunched in his hand and it clearly didn't mean anything at all," Jones said.

Jones divorced the man she said violently abused her for 10 years and moved 1,250 miles northwest to Kotzebue. For the past 13 years, she has run the family shelter in this small western Alaska city just above the Arctic Circle.

Jones assists women and children - and occasionally men - who are victims of sexual crimes or domestic violence in the Inupiat Eskimo hub community or its 11 satellite villages.

Clients face the same predicaments Jones said she encountered as a crime victim in rural Alaska: weak law enforcement, lack of anonymity and no easy way to escape the state's remote Bush communities.

About 80 percent of Alaska's 655,000 residents live in or near the state's three largest cities - Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. The rest live in villages or tiny cities scattered over an area more than twice the size of Texas.

Dangerous weather or lack of a road network in rural Alaska can leave crime victims marooned for days. Most villages can be reached only by air and sometimes by boat or snowmobile.

"There's nothing comparable to that in the Lower 48 in the sense that even when we're counties apart, the counties have roads," said Susan Lewis of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Penn. "It's one thing to say rural, but the word more often used for Alaska communities is remote."

Victims cannot hop into cars to seek help or escape their tormenters. Many fly hundreds of miles from home to safe houses and treatment centers in the cities.

"I knew I'd have more opportunities to get help here than if I went to the village," said a woman who identified herself only as Theresa. She left her village to live in Anchorage after she was sexually assaulted in Bethel more than two years ago. She would not give her last name because many in her 750-person village near Bethel have not heard of the assault.

Kotzebue's family shelter, like others around the state, pays for victims and their children to fly to the region's central city for treatment. The shelter receives funds from Maniilaq Association, a nonprofit that provides health and social services to northwest Alaska Natives.

Marked only by its barbed wire fence, the shelter sits in a widely spaced row of houses on a snow-packed residential street in this coastal community of 3,000 people.

Two freezers stand against a wall in the spacious, warmly lit kitchen. One contains fare such as chocolate cake and frozen corn dogs. The other holds Alaska Native foods donated by the community, such as salmon heads, seal oil, caribou and moose meat.

Jones said the traditional food is comforting to clients, who come from villages as far away as Point Hope, 160 miles to the northwest. The center has either housed or counseled about 50 victims in the last two months.

Alaska has struggled for decades with the problem of rural public safety.

A report this year by the federally appointed Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission recommends stronger anti-alcohol laws, recruiting more rural residents to work in the justice system and increasing funding for village law enforcement to improve safety in the villages.

About three dozen of Alaska's more than 200 Bush villages have no law enforcement because of a lack of state or local funding.

Those who stay in their villages after reporting a crime must wait for Alaska State Troopers to catch a plane or helicopter from the nearest large community, a trip that can take hours or even days in blizzards or fog.

"We could get a bad weather case and it could be days, in a worst-case scenario, before we could get out there," said Lt. Rodney Dial, a deputy commander with the troopers.

The lengthy response times often result in victims recanting their calls for help. Delays can also allow telltale wounds to heal or perpetrators to destroy crucial evidence.

"One of the best ways to prosecute is to obtain forensic evidence," said Andre Rosay, Assistant Professor with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. "But timing is a problem in preserving evidence."

But even communities with small police departments or state-funded Village Public Safety Officers have difficulties helping victims.

According to the rural justice group, VPSOs are limited to protecting crime scenes until a trooper arrives. They are often local hires related to, or good friends with, alleged perpetrators, meaning they can be more reluctant to investigate crimes. They are barred from carrying guns and are usually the only law enforcement presence in their village.

A victim's decision to get a restraining order, routine in urban areas, can be a deadly choice in the lightly patrolled Alaska Bush. "That piece of paper's not bulletproof," Jones said.

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