Budget cut hurts rural victims of domestic violence

What others say

Posted: Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It's hard enough for a woman to escape an abusive relationship in Anchorage. Here, domestic violence victims have a safety net of services and some room to hide from their abusers.

It's immeasurably harder for an abused woman to escape in rural Alaska. Most small, isolated communities have no safe place for victims to go. Getting to the nearest help requires waiting for a plane flight out, which is expensive and may be delayed or canceled by weather, while the abuser knows exactly when and where the escape route is.

Now, the path to safety for abused partners in rural Alaska will be even more difficult. Alaska's free legal aid agency has lost critical federal funding and has to drop three attorneys who helped domestic violence victims untangle their lives from their abusers.

The federal cut flies in the face of advice from Alaska's joint state-federal Rural Justice commission. Its draft report recognizes domestic violence as a significant social ill and notes that services are scarce.

''Domestic violence and sexual assault programs are not adequately funded,'' the commission's draft report says. In many cases, victims need legal help with family law matters like divorce and child custody. Yet, as the justice commission found, help with civil law problems in rural Alaska is hard to find. Its draft noted a steady, long-term drop in funds for free legal aid in the Bush: ''People do not have access to sufficient legal assistance to redress legal problems.''

Alaska's eight years of federal funding for this important type of legal aid ended under mysterious circumstances. After being rejected, Alaska Legal Services was told the federal grant program would not fund divorce and child custody work. But no such prohibition was included in the request for proposals, according to legal services director Andy Harrington. All along, previous federal grants had funded that legal assistance.

This funding cut may well be a decision with life-or-death consequences. Every year, Alaska sees cases that end in tragedy, when an abused victim finally works up enough courage to try to escape.

Legal Services will scramble to do what it can to fill this unexpected gap. But there's no getting around the impact of this cut: Domestic violence victims in the Bush will get less help, and there's substantially more risk that vulnerable Alaskans will die.

— Anchorage Daily News,

Sept. 25

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