One recent night, a woman and her child hid in the closet while her abusive husband stampeded around their home threatening to kill them. The woman was on the phone with a social worker and the state troopers seeking help.
It’s not, unfortunately, an unusual story for caregivers who work with domestic violence victims.
However, the woman lived in a small village in rural Alaska. There were no law enforcement officers available for hundreds of miles, and a bad storm that night made it impossible for state troopers to make the trip (they would usually come by helicopter).
According to Elizabeth Williams, the social worker on the receiving end of that call, the huge distances and remoteness of America’s 49th state pose special problems for at-risk women.
Williams, speaking Monday at a panel organized by 49th Rising, an Alaska non-profit aimed against ending sexual violence, said many Alaskan communities lack sufficient law enforcement.
“Alaska is a very unique state,” she said at the panel co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Mission to the United Nations. “We have a lot of hub communities and villages where law enforcement have to fly planes over difficult terrain to get there.”
Williams, who works out of Anchorage, Alaska, added that many indigenous communities, where sexual assault and domestic violence rates are the highest, only have one or two village safety officers.
Notably, the officers are unarmed and their numbers are steadily decreasing.
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual violence and domestic violence in the country, according to Williams, citing statistics showing one in two Alaska women have been victims. Therefore, the chances of being a victim or knowing someone who is a victim are almost 100 percent, Williams continued.
Jessica Wilson, an Alaska Native, is living proof.
Wilson, a victim of sexual assault, lost her best friend, who was sexually assaulted as well, to suicide. Wilson attempted suicide herself 16 times.
She said at the panel that one of the most traumatizing moments was when she told a boy at her school about being raped, and he responded, “You weren’t raped, everyone knows native girls are sluts.”
Wilson did not pursue the case in criminal court because the police told her she would get “torn down” by the prosecution.
“I’m an alcoholic with a previous criminal record (no felonies),” she said. “Who in Alaska is going to listen to me?
“And I could not handle sitting in front of these people with their likely biases against Alaska native women (and women in general), so I didn’t do it.”
Alaska also has the highest rate of alcoholism, suicide and child abuse in the country, which Williams believes stems from the epidemic of violence against vulnerable children and women.
“The state is spending a lot of money on health resources, but we should focus on the violence,” she said.
Barbra Johnson, the founder of 49th Rising, agreed.
“In Alaska we have marches and a sexual violence month, but it’s not working… we need more resources and more action,” she told the panel.
She suggested allocating more resources to the state troopers.
“In Fairbanks (the largest city in Alaska), state troopers have a highly trained team and they do amazing work but they’re lacking resources and just burnt out.”
Additional reading: See The Crime Report’s resource page on Domestic Violence
Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report.