The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all — from losing loved ones and feeling isolated to job loss and financial insecurity — devastating effects felt across America. Throughout the pandemic, we saw numerous shelter-at-home orders to help mitigate the spread of the disease. Sheltering at home, though, assumes that your home is a true shelter — a safe place. But imagine being told to “hunker down” in an environment that’s far from safe. For many, sheltering in place meant increased cases of abuse and manipulation, and losing access to critical support systems.
There is an on-going crisis of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska, which is considered to be the most dangerous state in the U.S. for women. We continue to see unacceptable rates of violence in both our rural communities off the road-system, as well as in our urban areas. The compounded stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire. Domestic violence and sexual assault hotline calls have increased by 52% since the beginning of the pandemic. Shelters and service providers are experiencing overwhelming amounts of strain.
Recently, a man from Fairbanks was federally charged with stalking a woman he once dated for months before soliciting her murder. This is just one example of what our service providers are challenged with — the horror of all that can happen if resources aren’t available to individuals in danger. And now, these scenarios are even more daunting as more than 30 key organizations in Alaska face a looming 35% cut to federal Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, funds — funding that keeps shelter doors open and staff paid. I have been speaking with different shelters and providers, who have all shared their concern over the upcoming funding shortfalls set to happen as early as July 1.
VOCA funding is critical to addressing Alaska’s lack of available services for victims. If VOCA is not sustained, victim service providers will lose crucial funds and could be forced to close or reduce services. During a visit to the Kodiak Women’s Resource and Crisis Center, they shared that these cuts could render them unable to support and pay their dedicated staff — the core of providing the best possible care to survivors.
My colleagues and I are leading the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act to amend how the Crime Victims Fund receives its funding. Currently, the VOCA funds released annually have begun to decline because of shrinking deposits and subsequent decreases in the Crimes Victims Fund balance. The long-term solution to these decreasing funds is for Congress to pass this legislation, to ensure Alaskans will not face increasing cuts to their federal VOCA funds.
Alaska Native women are overrepresented as victims of domestic violence by 250%, and rural communities face additional challenges to receiving lifesaving services. Just this past summer, rural Alaska saw five domestic violence homicides in just 10 days. These tragic deaths all occurred in communities that lacked local domestic violence shelters; where services were limited due to the pandemic. I am working to reauthorize the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act, or FVPSA, which would improve the capacity of states, tribes and tribal organizations to support local shelters and programs that provide services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
We have seen the accumulated impact of this longstanding need for institutional reform to address gender-based violence in rural and urban America. Long before the broader awareness about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, or MMIWG, crisis, families and communities in rural Alaska had faced unspeakable loss. My two bills, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, which were signed into law several months ago, will help address the MMIWG crisis, including improving law enforcement coordination. But more must be done to empower local communities. That is why I am engaging in bipartisan discussions on the reauthorization of VAWA. I’m pushing for strong tribal provisions, which would empower Alaska Natives to obtain protection under the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction.
Keeping our communities safe should not be tied up in politics. As we work to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, prioritizing those issues which only worsened over the last year must be a top priority. I will continue to work across party lines to bring resources and attention to support our shelters, providers and survivors. At the end of the day, working together for the safety of Alaskans is always the right thing to do.
Lisa Murkowski represents Alaska in the United States Senate. She is a Republican.
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