Poll aims to get baseline data for Alaska domestic violence

'ALARMING': Officials in Alaska may learn if efforts to curb the problem work.

January 24, 2011 

JUNEAU -- Nearly half of all Alaska women have been threatened or physically harmed by a partner during their lifetime, according to a newly released survey intended to provide a baseline for domestic violence and sexual assault rates in the state.

About 37 percent of women polled said they'd been sexually victimized at some point during their lives.

Andre Rosay, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, which took the lead in conducting the poll commissioned by a legislative committee, called the rates "very alarming." It's not immediately clear how Alaska compares with other states: The survey, which found nearly 48 percent of women in the state have been threatened or harmed by a partner, was based on a national poll, the results of which aren't expected for several months, he said.

The Alaska survey of 871 women has holes: Conducted last May and June, it involved only English-speaking adults with at least one phone in their household. The report on its findings notes rates of violence "may be significantly higher" among those not interviewed -- including non-English speakers and women in prison or shelters.

It also notes the continued stigma connected with reporting violence and calls the findings conservative.

Rosay called the survey a "first wave" of information gathering. He said it provides a baseline that includes both incidents reported and not reported to law enforcement. Using the baseline, he said, officials should be able to track whether steps being taken to curb the violence are working.

Gov. Sean Parnell has made cracking down on what he calls the scourge of domestic violence and sexual assault a centerpiece of his legislative agenda -- calling on Alaskans to speak out, take away the stigma. So-called "Choose Respect" rallies, which Parnell helped lead in Juneau last year, are slated for communities around the state March 31.

Last year, the Legislature passed a suite of measures aimed at addressing the problem, including funding that Parnell said put village public safety officers in communities that did not have any law enforcement presence and what he called greater access to counseling services and shelters for abused women.

The governor is seeking funding for 15 additional officers for the next fiscal year.

Efforts are also under way to do regional victimization reports, said Lauree Morton, interim executive director of the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Variations among different parts of the state could be significant, Rosay said, and the results could show where additional attention or resources need to be focused.

The current proposals are "headed in the right direction," he said. "But I don't know if they'll be sufficient. It will take a great deal of effort and time to turn the curve."

Sen. Hollis French, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has been looking at the issue for some time, said the state has a "strong set" of laws for sentencing those convicted of sexual assault, but he said he wants to make sure investigators have the resources they need to build stronger cases to ensure there are more successful prosecutions. For example, he said, in many cases photos that could help build a case are never taken, or cell phone records that could establish a relationship between the victim and abuser aren't obtained.

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