Survey paints grim picture of violence against women in Mat-Su

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- A new survey provides the first statistical look at violence against women living in the Mat-Su Borough.

It's not a pretty picture.

More than half the 1,190 women surveyed reported at least one case of personal or sexual violence or both at some point in their lives.

One in four reported at least one forcible sexual assault, according to data released Tuesday from the "Alaska Victimization Survey: Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough."

The University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center and the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault co-authored the report, part of an effort to track violence against Alaska women. Researchers announced the findings in a press conference at the Central Mat-Su Fire Department station near downtown Wasilla.

As disturbing as the numbers are, researchers say, they actually underestimate the problem.

"We know this is a conservative estimate," said Andre Rosay, UAA Justice Center director.

Calls made from April through June targeted women who could speak English, had a phone and lived in a private residence and not a shelter, a hospital or an institution like jail. That left out women who tend to have more extensive histories of violence, Rosay said.

The study also counted women, not individual assaults, he said. "Many have experienced far more than one."

Responses don't necessarily reflect violence that occurred in the Mat-Su, or when the women were adults. Survey takers did not ask for information on the location of the assaults or the age of the woman at the time.

The survey marks the first comprehensive analysis of violence against women in the Mat-Su.

For years, the Valley's service providers relied on shaky data from the Lower 48, said Donn Bennice, president and CEO of Alaska Family Services. The non-profit agency runs the borough's domestic violence and sexual assault program, as well as a 32-bed emergency shelter for domestic violence victims and their families.

Nobody believed the real numbers could be so high, Bennice said.

"This gives us credibility when we go to mayors, city councils," he said. "We actually have well researched information."

The Mat-Su survey was based on phone interviews with women randomly selected throughout the Valley, researchers said. Call takers asked a series of sometimes grueling questions.

Questions that started out, "Have your romantic or sexual partners . . ." ended with chilling scenarios. Among them: "Hit you with a fist or something hard?" "Tried to hurt you by choking or suffocating you?" "Burned you on purpose?"

Another series of questions focused on sexual violence; those questions didn't start with reference to partners.

According to the survey, about 45 percent of the women said they experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. That equals 13,895 women if the survey findings are plugged into the 30,539 adult women living in the Mat-Su, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

Nearly 30 percent of respondents experienced threats at some point, the survey said.

Almost 9 percent said they experienced intimate partner or sexual violence in the past year.

About a third of the women responding said they experienced sexual violence at some point, according to the survey. Three percent reported sexual violence in the past year.

All told, 52.5 percent of respondents said they had experienced intimate partner or sexual violence at some point in their lives, the survey said.

These women are mothers, daughters, aunts, neighbors - "even ourselves," said Lauree Morton, executive director of the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a program within the state Department of Public Safety.

"It's so important to recognize the courage of the women who shared their stories with us," Morton said. It's cathartic for some women to talk about the past, she said, but painful for others to go back in time.

"The pain is as real as it was then," Morton said.

The Mat-Su Health Foundation also participated in the press conference.

Participants pointed to a number of statewide initiatives to curb violence against women, including Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" initiative and state programs emphasizing prevention.

In the Valley, a reactivated Sexual Assault Response Team will allow victims of sexual assault to stay in the Valley for forensic exams, supporters say.

The loss of a local SART for the last six or seven years triggered a drop in reported assaults, Bennice said. "Women have told me they don't want to get put into the back of a state trooper car and taken to Anchorage, so they don't report it."

The State and UAA Justice Center have already released data from Bristol Bay; the City of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough; the Municipality of Anchorage; Kodiak Island Borough; the City and Borough of Sitka; the City and Borough of Juneau; and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The surveys started in 2010 with a statewide analysis. Of 871 adult women participating, 58.6% experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or both, in their lifetimes.

Rosay cautioned against comparing regional results due to statistical fluctuations from place to place. "Bottom line is it's too many, it's too high," he said. "That's really the key message."

Additional releases of data from Kenai and Ketchikan are scheduled this week and next week.

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Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.