Alaska has some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country, with studies finding that almost half of women in the state have been victims in their lifetime.
A recent series by the Alaska Beacon takes a look at various facets of the domestic violence epidemic in Alaska, from root causes and proposed solutions to adverse health effects.
Beacon reporter Claire Stremple says funding for shelters and other programs to help domestic violence victims is hard to come by.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Claire Stremple: Shelter directors will tell you that they’re strapped for cash, even though the state adds money to federal funds that we get to address the issue. The state’s former Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Director Diane Casto told me that those programs are just really expensive and recent inflation is not helping those budgets. But she also pointed to this other thing that’s really important, which is that the state spends most of its money to treat domestic violence on shelters and other services for after harm happens. But she said, if we want to stamp out domestic violence, we really have to focus on prevention, on keeping it from happening, and that’s harder.
But then the root causes of violence, advocates say, and state data bears this out, that violence begets violence. So most domestic violence offenders have experienced violence in their lifetimes as victims. That’s broad, but the Alaska-specific piece of that answer has to do with our state’s colonial history. I spoke with Charlene Apok, she’s the director of Data for Indigenous Justice. And in that work, they keep a record of missing and murdered Indigenous people, which of course, has a lot of crossover with domestic violence. (She) said that institutional violence, especially against Alaska Native people, is violence that also begets domestic violence. So they give the particular example of boarding school violence against children, physical violence, which can have devastating effects on adulthood. But they also talked about how stripping cultural values and practices, that psychological violence can also have impacts.
Wesley Early: So you note that in a lot of these instances of domestic violence, women are unable to get away from their abusers, with many having trouble finding housing. Can you talk about those barriers and what’s being done to take them down?
CS: So housing is a struggle in the state whether you’ve experienced domestic violence or not, but it is especially devastating in that context. Survivors of domestic violence often need assistance to find and pay for housing, because data shows that abusers commonly sabotage their victims’ economic stability. So that can result in things like trouble finding rental properties because of poor credit, or a bad rental history, or a spotty employment history. Mandy Cole runs the DV shelter in Juneau, and she said, essentially, there’s no daylight between surviving domestic violence and independent, affordable housing. So it is this crucial piece, but it’s also, because of the violence and the trauma that people have experienced, harder to access.
What’s being done to take those barriers down? At the Juneau shelter, and at some other shelters, they’re building permanent supportive housing for victims of domestic violence. So it’s something that people are working to address. I don’t know if there’s this large policy solution that’s aimed specifically at fixing that problem.
And another thing that I’d like to note, and this, I guess, is not going in the solutions direction, but domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and their children. So nationally, most women who experience homelessness have been victims of domestic violence.
WE: Advocates who you spoke to in your reporting also point to a myriad of adverse health trends that are linked to domestic violence. Can you talk a bit about those?
CS: The specific outcomes that we talked about in this series, the first is that domestic violence is linked to our high maternal mortality rate in the state. So in the past 10 years, the number of people who die in the year after labor has nearly doubled in Alaska, and more women die from homicide, suicide or overdose than from medical complications. And of those women who die in the year after labor, about 70% of them had experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes. And one thing to point out when we’re talking about the suicide and overdose piece is that those two, and studies and research bears this out, is that they’re common responses or even escape measures to domestic violence.
Another issue is traumatic brain injury. Alaska has the highest rate of deaths from traumatic brain injury in the nation. And it also has among the highest rates of domestic violence, and recently in Alaska, advocates and caregivers are starting to link those two data points. But they do say that as high as the rates are in Alaska for both traumatic brain injury and domestic violence, they’re very likely undercounts. The state is developing a screening tool. It’s in a pilot program right now. But it’s aimed at being used in shelters to help advocates spot those symptoms, spot TBI symptoms, and connect survivors of violence to resources. So that’s really exciting.
WE: Continuing on that, you know, what else is being done to combat this epidemic of domestic violence in Alaska? What resources are available either from local nonprofits or the government?
CS: There’s actually a lot of work that’s being done to combat domestic violence in Alaska. And while working in such a difficult subject, it’s something that really gave me hope, is how many people have dedicated their lives to helping to heal that issue. So I’d say first, Alaska is a state that contributes to solutions financially. Not all do. About half the budget for shelters and programs statewide comes from state funds. So this is something that our state does recognize and aims to fix. There’s a funding gap this year. One of the sources of federal funds has shrunk substantially, which is leaving a multimillion-dollar hole in the budget. But there is money going that direction. And that’s, I think, important to recognize.
But then there’s also a great example of an upstream solution prevention program that aims to stop violence before it starts. Students across the state are actually legally mandated to take healthy relationships classes. Teens learn what healthy relationships are. They learn how to maintain them, how to avoid dating violence. And all of that is really important because so many survivors of domestic violence say they didn’t initially know what was happening to them, or didn’t have the tools to identify the unhealthy parts of their relationships. So that work is really important.
A traveling social worker based in Bethel told me he sees that curriculum work, and he travels from Bethel to schools and villages around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to share those curriculums. And I recently traveled with him to Nunapitchuk, and it was amazing to see the bond of trust that he built, not only with the students, but also with his colleagues there in the school and how those relationships meant that people really absorbed his message
“Domestic Violence in Alaska” was produced with the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.
If you’re a victim of domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. A full list of Alaska shelters and victim’s services providers can be found here.