Gov. Sean Parnell has a message for the 12-year-old girl sexually assaulted by a foster parent and shunned by her community for reporting it and for the 16-year-old sent away by her parents to "silence" her from talking about her father's sexual attacks and the 14-year-old who cannot sleep at night because she fears her father will molest her younger sister and for the college student raped on campus and for the woman beaten by a loved one in her own home.
"My counsel to them is there is no shame and no guilt in coming forward," Parnell said in a recent interview. "They are made to feel like they should be ashamed, like there was something they did to deserve it. No human being deserved to be raped or molested, and until we are willing to open our arms to the survivors and say, 'We will help you, we will get you the help you need,' until we are willing to do that, we can't even call ourselves human. It is that spark of dignity, that spark of humanity that I spoke to in my Inaugural Address that compels me to move for these survivors."
Alaska has the highest sexual assault rate in the country and Parnell has vowed to be vigilant on that issue, and on domestic violence.
"It's about our people, it's about keeping our people safe," Parnell said. "It's our constitutional duty. Because it is eroding us from the inside. It is a private evil that is like a cancer eating us from the inside, and if we don't take action to prevent it and to stop it from happening, we can't function as a state."
Parnell's grandfather was an alcoholic who died on Seattle's skid row, but his father chose faith to raise Parnell and his brother and provide a healthy marriage.
"Everybody knows somebody who is affected in some way by domestic violence," Parnell said. "I was one generation removed, but I have seen it on the streets."
Parnell was a trial lawyer for 13 years before becoming a legislator in 1992, and experienced street life first-hand by riding with police officers and troopers on their beat.
"I saw that 70 percent of the calls that police officers went on were domestic violence and sexual assault related cases," Parnell said. "I began to see it on the streets and in the villages of our state, and then I began to see how pervasive the problem was nationwide."
In 1996 Parnell took action with the Domestic Violence Protection Act.
"Like alcoholism, I think acknowledging that we have a problem and challenges ahead is the first step. And I think in the last year to a year and a half we have raised awareness on domestic violence and sexual assault to a state now where people are willing to step forward and be courageous with their friends in addressing these issues," Parnell said. "I see the awareness increasing some numbers as people make their escape and understand that there is a better life that they can choose, but I think general awareness of the epidemic has been elevated and is sign number one that we are doing a good job."
Parnell plans a three-fold approach to continue his efforts on domestic violence and sexual assault: prevention and pride (which is to choose respect), more law enforcement officers (village public safety officers and trooper investigators) and more funding for shelter services and beds.
"It's going to take not only individual Alaskans taking personal responsibility, but it is going to take a system that is working in a comprehensive effort to address the epidemic," Parnell said.
Along with new enforcement, Parnell acknowledges the need for new prosecution, new prison beds and more counseling services and shelters. The soon to be completed Goose Creek Correctional Center will return Alaskan prisoners that were shipped out of state, as well as relieve the burden of overcrowded prisons in state and still have some excess capacity.
"But where I see a need right now is primarily in the prevention end as well as in more shelters, beds and services," Parnell said. "We'll address the need for new prosecutors as it comes up, I am open to that, but at this point I think we need to take a whole system-wide approach -- looking at funding each part of that system as needed. The other piece is that I recognize that public safety works together within the system. We have to have enough prosecutors, we have to have enough prison beds, we have to have a court system that works, we have to have a health and social services network as well. What I have done and what I will continue to do is break down those silos between these departments so they are communicating well and keeping the public safe."
While a supporter for the death penalty "for heinous crimes," Parnell doesn't plan to initiate any legislation related to it and doesn't foresee it coming "down the pike here in Alaska." Parnell was on the finance committee in the '90s when the issue was last addressed.
"That is a very serious issue that requires a lot of time and resources to contemplate in the legislative process," Parnell said. "It ate up weeks of hearing time during the legislative process in the '90s, and I have not heard of a legislator at this point who said they were willing to pursue it. That is not part of my legislative agenda this year."
There is proposed legislation in 2011 for expanded stalking measures including via cell phone or Internet and for obtaining federal dollars.
"We have advocated and obtained more dollars to fight the federal government from the Legislature," Parnell said. "Again, as we see the need, we'll ask for more and demonstrate the need in the public process of the Legislature."
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