Sen. Sullivan: Empowering victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse

The twin scourges of sexual abuse and domestic violence violate every accepted principle of American life. And when I became Alaska's attorney general, I set out immediately to do all in my power to eradicate these scourges from our state, where they were routinely destroying lives, stealing futures and wreaking havoc in our communities and our families. The numbers were staggering. According to a 2010 survey, 48 percent of Alaska women reported being victims of domestic violence and 37 percent of sexual assault. The numbers for sexual abuse of our children were similarly horrifying.

Where others had been silent on the issue, we in Gov. Sean Parnell's administration decided to tackle it head on. I worked to spearhead the "Choose Respect" initiative which included grants to communities, educational materials, and a significant increase in the number of investigators and public safety officers across the state. We significantly beefed up penalties for perpetrators, increased prosecutions and provided much needed support to victims. Gov. Bill Walker's administration is continuing to focus on these issues.

We also organized pro bono legal summits throughout the state, where we encouraged lawyers to volunteer their time to help victims of abuse. By 2014, 107 cases were handled by volunteer attorneys, providing thousands of hours of volunteer legal assistance to victims who couldn't pay for them.

As a U.S. senator, I've taken my passion to fight the scourge of sexual abuse and domestic violence to Washington D.C. Across the nation, just as in Alaska, the statistics are too horrific to ignore. It is estimated that roughly 25 percent of American women will be the victims of domestic assault in their lifetimes. And nearly one in five women will be sexually assaulted. These assaults happen in small towns and big cities, on college campuses and in back alleys. The issue transcends political affiliation, race and socio-economic status. Young, old, rich, poor, one way or another, abuse affects us all.

A few weeks ago, I met with a variety of Alaska leaders in Anchorage who have dedicated their lives to fighting this abuse. I wanted to hear their views and give them an update on what my office is doing to help them continue the battle against domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The first amendment that I was able to pass as a U.S. senator was part of a larger human trafficking bill. The amendment mandates that federal prosecutors work with state officials to prosecute violations of the Mann Act, the federal law making it a criminal offense to transport someone between states for the purpose of prostitution and human trafficking. My amendment was co-sponsored by Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Heidi Heitkamp, along with Republican Sen.r Kelly Ayotte and Alaska's senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski. It's been signed by the president and is now law.

This springs from a high-profile case when I was the state's attorney general involving a prominent Alaska businessman who was allegedly abusing underage girls. My department petitioned the federal government to prosecute the case under the Mann Act, but officials at the U.S. Justice Department refused. Had they not, an important chapter in Alaska's history might well have been written differently. Now, as the result of this new law, Alaska's current attorney general can prosecute the alleged offender and bring the perpetrator to justice. If the federal government again denies our state prosecutors from bringing this case, then under this new law the U.S. attorney general will have to provide Alaskans with a detailed written explanation of why she is blocking justice.

I've also introduced a bill that requires the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a program protecting the agency's employees from sexual harassment and assault while out at sea. This follows allegations of sexual assault involving NOAA staff and contractors and is a big problem for women -- many of whom work for NOAA in Alaska -- trying to do important work at sea or on ships while relatively isolated.

And I'm pleased to say that my first stand-alone bill to pass in the Senate was modeled after the pro bono summits we held throughout Alaska. The Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act was co-sponsored by Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp and Patrick Leahy, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.

My colleagues in the Senate voted for it unanimously. A companion bill is moving in the House.

The POWER Act mandates that each year, the U.S.attorney in every judicial district across the country hold at least one event promoting pro bono legal services as a critical way to empower survivors of domestic violence, engage citizens, and help lift victims out of the cycle of violence.

The bill also requires many U.S. attorneys to plan and hold events with a focus on addressing these crimes in Indian Country and among Native populations.

The need for victims to have representation is urgent. The National Network to End Domestic Violence estimated that over the course of one day in September 2014, up to 10,000 requests for services by abused women, including legal representation, weren't met because of lack of resources.

Studies have shown that when abused victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically. For example, one study found that 83 percent of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order compared to just 32 percent of victims without an attorney.

Without adding to the federal debt, the POWER Act will help create an army of lawyers -- my hope is thousands across the country -- to defend victims of abuse. And I'm confident that Alaska's lawyers will continue to do outstanding work representing victims.

Providing effective lawyers for those who have been abused also helps break the culture of silence. As many Alaskans know, when dealing with these issues, silence can be deadly, and one of the best outcomes of "Choose Respect" is that people all across the state began to speak out against domestic violence.

My hope is that all across the country, high school kids speak about it in their classrooms. I hope that victims everywhere find the courage to seek the help they need, and importantly, that men talk about what they can do to help stem the scourge.

Make no mistake: men can also be victims of abuse, but the statistics are clear that domestic violence and sexual abuse are predominately perpetrated by men against women. This is something that men need to face up to and deal with. And one way for men to do that is to talk openly and honestly about violence and abuse and take concrete actions to eliminate it.

I'll continue our fight in the Senate. Working as Alaskans, united in a cause that transcends politics or ideologies, we can change the culture of abuse, change lives, strengthen our families, our communities, and our state.

Sen. Dan Sullivan was elected in 2014 as a Republican to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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