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Alaska communities could lose programs due to 'Choose Respect' cuts

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 10, 2015

The Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault has re-evaluated the growth of its prevention programs after money from former Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" campaign was halved in the ongoing budget crunch.

Behind an overhaul of the state's oil taxes, Choose Respect was perhaps the hallmark initiative of the Parnell administration. But with a new governor in office, and an increasingly dire budget situation in the face of low oil prices, Choose Respect is among the programs and services that are likely to see cuts when a new budget is finalized for fiscal year 2016.

"We've heard from the Legislature that they're committed to reducing the numbers" of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska, said CDVSA executive director Lauree Morton. "But it's difficult to fund our services at the levels to which we've become accustomed."

"I hope the money comes back," she said.

State officials said $2.35 million of the Choose Respect campaign's $3 million in total funding for the current fiscal year went to CDVSA.

Smaller amounts of the Choose Respect funds went to other departments, including education, health and social services and law, according to Kelly O'Sullivan, chief budget analyst for Gov. Bill Walker.

For the state's fiscal year 2016, the current Choose Respect proposal calls for a one-time $1.5 million appropriation directly to the council, O'Sullivan said.

Office of Budget Management director Pat Pitney noted that CDVSA's overall funding for the upcoming fiscal year is $18.2 million.

Morton said the Choose Respect money helped expand violence prevention and sexual assault awareness programs to 10 communities statewide. Now, four to six communities will receive program funding.

"The council's going to lose communities, and we won't be able to add any," Morton said.

That's disheartening, she said, as one program that teaches kids about healthy relationships has been shown to decrease acceptance of physical aggression, among other findings. Fewer communities will now teach the Alaska "Fourth R" Evaluation Project's curriculum, school lessons aimed at identifying and reducing risky behavior.

Morton said the program made a difference, as many Alaska youth suffer from adverse childhood experiences, which stunts development.

Other programs include Stand Up Speak Out, a media campaign aimed primarily at teens; Coaching Boys Into Men, which trains athletic coaches to "promote respectful behavior among their players and help prevent relationship abuse, harassment, and sexual assault"; and Green Dot, intervention with the goal of preparing organizations and communities to measurably reduce violence by getting potential bystanders educated and engaged.

"Those are the programs we've been piloting in the state," Morton said. "We've been slowly adding communities, and we've seen that these are best practices and have positive impacts. With the reduction in funds we won't stop, but it will slow down our efforts."

Data gathering could be affected, too. With the reduction in funds, CDVSA cannot fully support the Alaska Victimization Survey. The survey is conducted annually and provides estimates of intimate partner and sexual violence experienced by Alaska women.

The first statewide survey was conducted five years ago. This year, the same will happen, Morton said. She said officials would be looking for emerging trends over the past half-decade.

When surveyors finished collecting data in 2010, regional officials asked what the findings meant for their areas. The way the data was collected didn't allow for regional breakdowns of the results, Morton said.

So regional surveys began with the intention of conducting five-year reviews, similar to what's happening statewide. Data for the Nome census area were recently released. But the budget cuts will likely limit the CDVSA's ability to conduct the more localized surveys.

"In April will be releasing our results from the North Slope, but moving forward we hope regional entities, whether it's through nonprofits or health corporations, support the surveys," Morton said.

The Department of Law planned to use its smaller portion of Choose Respect money for fiscal year 2016 to hire specialized paralegals for its offices in Juneau, Palmer, Fairbanks and Bethel.

The "victim witness paralegals" are staff frequently in contact with victims and witnesses, establishing relationships during cases.

"These types of cases are very difficult to prosecute without the support of the victim and gaining their trust and support is paramount to a successful prosecution. The addition of a victim witness paralegal to this district will enable the attorneys to better prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault cases," according to an Office of Management and Budget document.

"This position was to be funded by the Governor's Office Choose Respect Initiative under the previous administration. The funding from the Governor's Office is no longer available, therefore … the position is being deleted," the amended budget reads.

John Skidmore, director of the criminal division for the law department, said the offices already have paralegals, including some victim witness paralegals. The additional positions would have benefited the department, he said, but they are not currently feasible.

"In times of shrinking resources and the downturn in oil prices, the fact of the matter is you can't have everything you'd like to have," Skidmore said.

"If oil prices were flush again, I would want to evaluate where the department is at that time," he said. "In other words, what are the needs given the cuts we've been through?"

There are a few steps left in the budget process. Pitney said Alaska House subcommittees have met and supported the one-time $1.5 million allocation of Choose Respect funds.

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