Opinions

We can change Alaska’s culture of abuse

We have many social problems in our state. But I count domestic violence and sexual abuse to be the most destructive. Women make up roughly half of our state, and the statistics show that more than half of them have been abused. That’s a quarter of our state. Such abuse saps our creativity and our energy. It leaves deep, permanent scars across generations. We will never realize our potential as a state if we don’t work together to stop this.

There are no simple solutions to combat this issue, but experts agree that securing a lawyer for survivors is the best way to get them out their situation, the cycle of violence that often confronts them, and to get them shelter, housing and medical care. The problem is many victims and survivors can’t afford a lawyer and don’t know where to go to get help. That’s where Alaska’s attorneys come in. This Tuesday, at the Hotel Captain Cook at 11:00 a.m., I will be joining leaders from the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, volunteer attorneys, and survivors to kick off the inaugural Alaska event mandated by the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act, a bill that I authored that was signed by President Donald Trump last September. This important call to action will take place as part of the 2019 Federal Bar Association Alaska Chapter Conference. We’re hoping for a big turnout of attorneys and others who want to help in this worthy cause.

When I was Alaska’s attorney general 10 years ago, we made ending the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault a top priority. We launched the Choose Respect initiative, and soon, posters were being taped on school walls, marches were being held, people began to talk more openly about the issue and, importantly, we held summits to enlist lawyers to provide services for victims and survivors, free of charge. 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.

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 violence and abuse. 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.

When I got to Washington, D.C., one of my priorities was to take our Alaska Choose Respect ideas to the national level. Across the nation, just as in Alaska, the statistics are too horrific to ignore. It is estimated that roughly 25% of American women will be 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 socioeconomic status — one way or another, abuse affects us all.

The POWER Act mandates that each year, for four years, the chief judge of each federal judicial district across the country hold at least one event promoting pro bono legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The law also requires that events be held in areas with high numbers of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, with a focus on addressing these issues among Native populations.

At Alaska’s first pro bono event for the Federal District Court of Alaska on Tuesday, at the Hotel Captain Cook, Chief Judge Timothy Burgess and I will be speaking about the importance of pro bono participation. Several victim advocacy groups and legal service providers will be in attendance to sign up interested attorneys. Our hope is to make Alaska’s first POWER Act event a successful one, with a large turnout of attorneys, and a model for the rest of the country. The larger goal of the POWER Act is to create an army of lawyers – thousands across the country – who can assist and defend survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

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I hope that all who are interested will join me at the Captain Cook for the first POWER Act summit.

Working as Alaskans, united in a cause that transcends politics or ideology, we can change the culture of abuse, change lives, and strengthen our families, our communities, and our state.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, elected in 2014, is Alaska’s junior U.S. senator.

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Dan Sullivan

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