In an effort to combat Alaska’s high rate of domestic violence, on June 11, Alaska State Governor Sean Parnell signed Senate Bill 22, a bill addressing domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Cheri Smith, executive director for the LeeShore Center said this bill has some great pieces that will help victims, Alaska and the community.
Through the end of fiscal year 2013 on July 1, Smith said the shelter, which serves the Kenai Peninsula from Clam Gulch to Moose Pass, had 155 women and children stay in the shelter. This is a slight increase from the previous year, which saw 144 women and children call the shelter home. The center helped 457 people on a walk-in basis in fiscal year 2013 compared to 483 the previous year. Crisis calls saw the biggest change, jumping from 481 in fiscal year 2012 to 831 in fiscal year 2013.
Soldonta Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said the police department has made 26 domestic violence arrests through June 2013. Last year’s total was 58.
Kenai Police Chief Gus Sandahl said the Kenai Police Department has made 32 domestic violence arrests between January and June 2013. Last year, officers saw an unusually high number of arrests at 81.
“I would love to see our numbers far less, but I think other parts of the state … probably have higher incidences of domestic violence than we do here,” Sandahl said.
According the 2010 survey by the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault that provided Alaska’s first comprehensive study on domestic violence and sexual assault, 59 percent of women in Alaska experience either partner violence or sexual assault by anyone in their lives.
But whether or not the crime bill will encourage the 59 percent to seek assistance is hard to say, Smith said. However, she said, Parnell’s focus on this subject has brought awareness to the issues.
“More and more people because of governor’s crime bill, and what he’s done … are talking about the issue and more and more community members are getting involved … calling and saying, ‘How can we help?’” Smith said.
For victims who do seek action, one thing that Smith thinks is very beneficial is that the bill gets rid of any time limit allowing victims of not only sexual assault, but also sex or human trafficking to press charges.
“Often victims may not feel comfortable coming forward right way,” Smith said, “and it’s only when they feel safe and supported that those things then become disclosed in a lot of cases. Having that piece where, it might be a year or two down the road, they can come and still receive the help that they get.”
The bill also allows for the court to order domestic violence and sexual assault offenders to wear GPS monitoring devices.
“As far as criminal action, I think that’s a really important piece,” Smith said.
Smith said she is an advocate for offender accountability and is pleased with the push for stronger sentencing for stalking and child pornography.
“We’ve got to be able to hold offenders accountable for what they do,” Smith said. “It sends a very strong message that it’s not going to be tolerated in our community and state, that our first priority is to victims — their safety.”
To ensure victim safety, shelter and services need to be available for the abused and offenders need to be held accountable, Smith said.
One part of victim safety Smith thinks needs to be strengthened is violations of protection orders.
As of the end of June Kenai Police Department had five incidents of violations of domestic violence restraining orders. Soldotna Police Department had zero by the end of June.
Smith said response to those violations needs to be quicker and perpetrators need to be held accountable.
LeeShore Center provides not only shelter to battered and abused women and children, but also assists with filing for protective orders and makes safety calls — ensuring a victim’s safety by checking in via a phone call.
Smith said that she thinks people often mistakenly think that if someone feels unsafe in their home that they should leave. She said, when a victim tries to escape, that’s when it’s the most dangerous because the abuser may try to forcibly prevent the victim from leaving.
Another misconception Smith hears is that abuse is caused by alcohol.
“Alaska does have a high rate (of cases) where alcohol may be involved, but it’s not the cause,” Smith said. “People who go through treatment, who stop drinking, that doesn’t stop their battering. … The two issues have to be addressed together.”
Along with the new crime bill to help victims of violence on the Peninsula, Kenai was selected to bring Green Dot, etc., — a violence prevention initiative — to the community. The organization is funded through the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and five Alaska communities were chosen to implement the violence prevention effort including Homer, Fairbanks and Juneau.
LeeShore Center is in the middle of a three-year plan to train community members on what to do if they see a potentially violent situation to help stop the situation from escalating. The center is in the strategic planning phase — developing a curriculum specific to the Kenai community.
Once the curriculum is developed, trainers — Community Action Coalition members and public health officials as well as others — will be certified through Green Dot, etc., and then teach community members what to do to help defuse a potential abuse situation.
“That’s (Green Dot, etc.) part of this whole prevention push … not only for helping change those social norms, but understanding what domestic violence and sexual assault actually are and educating people on those issues and building in those components to keep victims safe and hold offenders accountable,” Smith said.
The crime bill and the implementation of Green Dot, etc., are just two steps toward reaching Smith and the LeeShore Center’s goal of “working themselves out of business” — wiping out domestic violence.
Kaylee Osowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.