Alaska has held the title of being the most violent state toward women and children for 23 of the last 30 years. Alaska's rape rate is 2.5 times higher than the national average and violence against children is six times higher, according to the Department of Public Safety. To make matters worse, Alaska Native women are twice as likely to be assaulted than other ethnicities in the U.S.
Domestic violence in Alaska has been referred to using words like "epidemic," "crisis," and "tragedy." Staff members employed with Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies (AWARE) have a different word in mind: preventable.
"(Domestic violence) seems to be a larger problem in Alaska," said Sara Lyn Tabachnick, AWARE executive director. "We want people to know it's preventable."
AWARE provides intervention, prevention, outreach and education regarding domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Services are provided in Juneau, where the shelter is located, with outreach services extending to the communities of Elfin Cove, Gustavus, Haines, Hoonah, Klukwan, Pelican, Skagway, Tenakee Springs and Yakutat.
Services include legal advocacy, an emergency shelter, community education, rural outreach, children's counseling and leading the Juneau Batterer Accountability Program.
Women choose whether or not to file police reports in instances of abuse and rape but are not obligated to do so, according to AWARE's confidentiality agreement. AWARE counselors, however, must report all abuse aimed at children.
Aiding those in need
So far this year, AWARE has assisted nearly 120 women and more than 70 children victimized by domestic violence. AWARE counselors also fielded more than 2,800 crisis calls and staff accompanied 40 victims to the hospital.
"Many people don't understand how big an issue this actually is," said Mandy O'Neal Cole, AWARE direct services manager. "Abusive people give themselves permission to be violent. There's no situation where it's justified. There's always a way to react without violence."
Cole said AWARE's goal is to help women reclaim empowerment of their own lives. Too often blame is placed on the victim, she said, and stigmas associated with domestic violence prevent many women from seeking help.
Other factors attributed to Alaska's high domestic violence rate include its remoteness and a general lack of resources in rural communities, where violence against women and children is most prevalent.
Reading the signs
Cole said domestic violence is less spontaneous and more predictable than many people think - if you're looking for the right signs.
Some of the signs of potentially violent behavior include: controlling or abusive behavior, emotional abuse, isolation from friends and family (support system), child custody threats, public and private humiliation, and inequality in the relationship.
AWARE offers courses and counseling to teach women the skills needed to recognize and avoid abusive situations, such as its 10-week Healthy Relationships for Women Class offered twice each year. In November, AWARE will offer educational courses ranging from domestic violence and sexual assault to children's life skills.
The AWARE organization itself is designed to be a support system for those who need help breaking free from patterns of abuse, said Ellen Naughter Andrews, AWARE administrative programs services manager.
"(AWARE) offers resources that teach how to be non-violent," she said. "We try to be a beacon and embodiment of non-violence."
How you can help
Scourging domestic violence from Alaska must be a community-wide effort, said Ati Nasiah, AWARE rural and community outreach manager. The first steps toward that end are to not blame, judge, or attach stigmas to victims of violence and for men to choose a non-violent approach, to include not using sexist or degrading terms to describe women, she said.
"As a community, we can't blame victims," Nasiah said. "And if every healthy adult connected with five teens to promote non-violence, that'd be so powerful in helping to prevent domestic violence."
Swarupa Toth, AWARE volunteer coordinator, went so far as to invite members of the community to "walk through the door, sign the confidentiality sheet" and to view the staff's commitment, safety of the shelter, and impact of domestic violence firsthand.
"The women who come here and speak up against domestic violence are the real heroes," she said. "Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these women, the trauma we see in the shelter is similar to what you'd see in (soldiers) coming back from war."
Juneau's AWARE shelter is located at 1547 Old Glacier Highway in Juneau. For questions about services, courses offered or how to volunteer, call 586-6623. More information can be found online at www.awareak.org. Trained AWARE advocates also answer a 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-478-1090 for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.