Taking aim at domestic violence

Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2001

HOMER -- Terrorism on a global scale is on many minds these days, but the more hidden horror of family violence concerned a group of area residents recently.

Gathered around a candle in Homer City Hall on a blustery night Oct. 18, eight women and two men considered ways to help people living in fear of beating and other abuse from within their own households.

According to Laurentia Cham-blee, director of South Peninsula Women's Service in Homer, this area has among the highest rates of domestic violence in a state that is already at the top of the list nationally.

Given Homer's outward image, that may be hard for many people to believe, Chamblee said.

"Homer is so cool, it can't be possible that it is such a problem," but complaints from around the city and surrounding area bear it out, she said.

The evening was to be the annual march and gathering sponsored by the center to raise awareness about domestic violence, but Thursday's outdoor walk was canceled the day before because of a chill not related to the icy wind off Kachemak Bay. Workers on the roof of a new addition to the Women's Services' center on Lake Street reported what Chamblee believes were three shots fired from a passing vehicle.

"The guys heard a bullet whiz by," Chamblee said.

She said a worker reported a sound like a bullet hitting the building, but Homer police did not find a slug.

"We weren't able to determine if it was a shooting or not," Lt. Randy Rosencrans said. "It may have been a backfire."

Without any further leads or suspects, police have little evidence to go on, Rosencrans said. The march was canceled after the incident, but the planned gathering in city hall went on as scheduled.

Work on the long-planned, 1,000-square-foot addition to the Women's Services center continues. With completion anticipated by February, the second-floor space will be used to provide emergency shelter for women and children in domestic-abuse situations.

Construction is being paid for by a $122,612 donation from the Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation and a $70,000 federal grant distributed through the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development.

The closest similar shelter is in Kenai and "it's difficult to take people out of their community," Chamblee said. So "to us and to the community it is really important," she said.

In the 12 months ending June 30, South Peninsula Women's Services provided counseling and advocacy services to 55 victims of sexual assault and 177 victims of domestic violence, according to Chamblee.

Grappling with a way to focus attention on a problem many people have traditionally tended to keep hidden from public view, the gathered participants tossed ideas back and forth across a circle of conversation.

"People would rather save dogs and whales than women and children," said retired educator Daisy Lee Bitter. "There's many more animal shelters than battered women's shelters." Part of the problem is "we need to tell people what they need to do to help," Bitter said.

Aside from donations to agencies such as the center, education and counseling, much of the conversation centered on a judicial system that some said has not always taken domestic violence as seriously as other violent crimes.

Paul McCollum suggested people might "catch the wave of politics" in connection with the global situation. He said the United Nations should take some sort of action against countries where women have traditionally been oppressed.

On a local level, he suggested people pay attention to the records of judges and district attorneys in their handling of domestic-violence cases.

"It's a revolving door," McCollum said, with the same people repeatedly coming before the courts.

Noting "bizarre" cases where abusers have been given custody of children, "Sometimes the justice system is so blind that they follow the letter of the law," instead of a more realistic approach, Chamblee said.

While often thought of as a women's issue, McCollum said most men don't intend to be abusive, "but we need to tell men that they need to get actively involved" in preventing it.

"It's everybody's business," said Stephanie Leib Migdal, client services supervisor for South Peninsula Women's Services.

Saying that the victims of beating and other abuse are often asked why they stay in the household, Migdal said a better question is "why is he doing it?"

Faced with the Sept. 11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and the ongoing U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan, "we really need to take better care of each other," Susan Cushing said.

Chamblee agreed.

"We may be helpless about what happened (in New York), but we can be kind to each other," she said.

R.J. Kelly is the assistant managing editor at the Homer News.

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