PUBLISHED: 12:27 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Break the cycle
Organizations call attention to domestic violence

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She could be your friend, your neighbor or your children's teacher. A doctor, a lawyer or a stay-at-home mom. Domestic violence victims come from all walks of life, and they are found in every community in Alaska.

According to the state's Health and Social Services Department, Alaska ranks among the top five states in the nation for per capita rates of domestic violence. Alaskan women are killed by a partner at a rate of 1.5 times the national average. In 1995, 80 percent of homicides investigated by the Alaska State Troopers were domestic violence-related.

"Alaska leads the nation per capita in women being murdered in interpersonal relationships by a former or current partner," said Chris Ashenbrenner, project coordinator for policy, training and research, Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. "Alaska also leads the nation per capita in sexual assaults. This state is a pretty high-risk place for women to live."

In Juneau alone, the Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies shelter provided services for 713 clients last year. This number included 471 women and 242 children.

"Though it's hard to gauge exactly why this has happened, we have definitely seen an increase in the volume of clients we've served over the past year and a half," said Program Director Natalie Powers.

At the 48-bed AWARE shelter, women are provided with safe emergency shelter for up to 30 days, though this time can be extended, depending on a woman's situation.

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Other services that the shelter provides includes medical advocacy, including accompanying women to the hospital after a sexual assault; assistance in gaining legal aid to file protective orders or to help with divorce or child custody issues; and a children's counselor to work with children who have been traumatized by domestic violence or who suffer from child abuse. On Oct. 22, the AWARE Shelter will also be sponsoring a self-defense class for women.

"When a woman comes to us for help, we try to be very objective and to provide them with options," Powers said. "We don't judge why they are here."

While some women are able to make a clean break from an abusive relationship and move on with the help of the Shelter, others may choose to return to their partners.

"Sometimes women may feel that the violence will increase if they leave, so they stay in a relationship," said Powers.

"Other times, they may return for economic or family reasons. Our role is to provide them with education and options."

The AWARE Shelter serves 10 communities in Southeast, including Juneau, Haines, Hoonah, Skagway, Tenakee, Gustavus, Yakutat, Klukwan, Elfin Cove and Pelican. Sitka and Ketchikan have their own domestic violence shelters, Sitkans Against Family Violence and Women in Safe Homes.

In addition to the physical facility, AWARE also offers a 24-hour crisis line, which takes calls around the clock.

"We understand that it is not just women who suffer from domestic violence," added Powers, "so though we do not offer shelter to men who are victims, we do help provide them with the community-based services they need, like help in getting protective orders, and phone support."

This past January, the Shelter also began a state-certified, 48-week batterers intervention program.

"The Juneau Batterer Accountability Program is aimed at changing long-term behaviors," Powers said. "For about 1-1/2 years, Juneau was without this type of program, and there was a huge need for it in the community."

The program works with batterers referred to them by the courts for domestic violence or assault charges.

"While the perpetrators are in the program, we also have the opportunity to make contact with the victims, and to provide them with the information and options they need," Powers said. "This is often difficult when a victim is still living with the perpetrator."

In addition to helping women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, the work that AWARE and similar organizations do also benefits the community. According to statistics on the Health and Social Services web site, more than 82 percent of Alaska prison inmates were abused physically or sexually as children, and there is a strong correlation between homeless youth and teenage pregnancy and growing up in an abusive household.

"A large majority of men who grow up to be batterers grew up in homes where they witness violence or experienced it as a child," Powers said.

"Prevention begins in the earliest years, when we teach children to behave in a nonviolent way," added Ashenbrenner. "For those already in the cycle, it is important to offer education and community support. Many people, both victims and abusers, have escaped from the cycle when provided with the avenues to do it."

During October, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, organizations like AWARE and the Network are working to educate the public on this important societal issue. Purple ribbons were distributed to raise domestic violence awareness, and the clothesline project, a visual display to remember women who were victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault, was displayed at various venues.

"We also have a display at Bartlett Regional Hospital called Silent Witnesses, which is a powerful portrayal of eight Alaskan women who died from domestic violence," said Powers.

"The most important thing that communities can do to end domestic violence is to develop a zero tolerance policy," said Ashenbrenner, when asked how Alaska might progress in this area. "Offenders must be held accountable, and victims must be given support instead of being re-victimized by blaming."

"I think we are seeing progress, because people in the communities do care," she added. "They are becoming more educated, and they are continuing to gather together to solve this problem."

If you are a victim of domestic violence in need of help, call AWARE's 24-hour crisis line at 800-478-1090 or 586-1090 in Juneau. In Ketchikan, call WISH at 225-9474, and in Sitka, call SAFV at 747-6511.