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10/17/2013
Violence survey alarms

By ANDREW SHEELER

Daily News Staff Writer

At least half the adult women in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough have experienced intimate-partner violence or rape at least once in their life, according to the latest Alaska Victimization Survey released Tuesday by the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.

The council’s Lauree Morton and the center’s André Rosay revealed the surveys findings to a packed room at the Ketchikan Public Library.

That survey states that nearly 43 percent of women living in the borough have been physically abused by a partner, while a third have experienced sexual violence.

Katie TePas, special assistant to Gov. Sean Parnell on matters of domestic and sexual violence, opened the presentation with a governor’s proclamation before telling the audience that by the time the presentation was done, "I’m sure you’ll be a believer" that there’s a problem.

The regional survey was one of three released in October — the others being in the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula regions — as part of the council and center’s efforts to document domestic and sexual violence rates in Alaska. The groups contracted the North Carolina-based surveying firm RTI International to conduct a series of phone surveys of Ketchikan women over the course of this past spring and summer.

There were strict rules governing the surveys.

Survey responders had to be female, adult, live in a residence and speak English. If at any time during the survey — which took more than a half hour — the responder was unable to proceed because of the graphic nature of the questions, the survey was terminated. The fact that the survey was done over the phone meant, of course, that the woman had to have access to a landline or cell phone. Finally, the questions asked whether women experienced violence, but not how often they had experienced it.

Because of those caveats, and the fact that it excluded homeless women, incarcerated women, minors and women without access to a phone, survey organizer Rosay said "the estimates you are about to see are very conservative."

The end result: 648 adult women within the Ketchikan Gateway Borough responded to the confidential survey.

"This is a large sample," Rosay said.

As for the survey itself, women were asked a number of questions inquiring whether they had been victims of intimate-partner or sexual violence in their lifetime as well as in the past year.

The questions were worded to avoid re-victimizing the women by placing the blame on them. Rosay said interviewers asked explicit questions of the responders in order to prevent confusion. Those questions included asking responders whether their intimate partner had punched, kicked, beaten, choked, intentionally burned, stabbed or shot them.

"Sadly, this is not an exhaustive list," Rosay said, adding that there was no way to measure "every possible form of violence."

The questions about sexual violence were equally explicit.

Rosay said it was important to avoid ambiguity in the survey questions in order to maintain the highest quality survey findings. He cited some more findings that he found disturbing.

Of those surveyed, 365 women reported experiencing physical violence from their partners within the past year. That’s one woman being physically abused every day, Rosay said. Another 235 women reported being raped in the past year. Finally, 440 women reported experiencing physical violence, sexual violence or both within the past year.

"If anyone is out there doubting (Alaska’s high rate of violence against women), hopefully these numbers can move us beyond that conversation," Rosay said. "I hate to come with bad news, but this is bad news."

Again, Rosay stressed that as high as the survey numbers were, they likely are lower than the actual number. Many women were left out of the survey pool, and for many more, there is "a continuing stigma" attached to reporting such assaults.

Rosay said the state’s plan is to finish its regional surveys next year — with the Aleutian Islands, the North Slope and Northwest Alaska — and then conduct the first statewide survey since 2010. He added that a second Ketchikan area survey is planned for 2018. The five-year gap is to allow time to see whether any domestic or sexual violence response programs have had an effect.

Asked whether anything in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough findings surprised him, Rosay said no.

"I think at this point, I’ve almost learned to accept that rates are going to be high everywhere (in Alaska)," he said.

Rosay added that he had hoped a region in Alaska would have low rates, so state officials could study what has been effective there.

The survey was so grim Tuesday that Morton, who serves as executive director of the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, thanked the audience in advance "for being willing to hear the numbers you’re about to hear."

Morton called the survey a step beyond the law enforcement Uniform Crime Report, whereby the FBI tracks incidents of reported crime. That report is incomplete, as it relies both on a victim’s willingness to press charges and a police department’s willingness to provide the numbers to the bureau. Morton said the council’s study allows women to speak for themselves.

Alan Bengaard, chief of the Ketchikan Police Department, said he was surprised by how high the violence rate was.

"It was going to be high," Bengaard said. "I wasn’t expecting anything quite so high."

The number of reported incidents of violence far exceeded anything seen by Bengaard, or his counterpart Tony April of the Alaska State Troopers. A large number of reports of domestic and sexual violence come in to police third-hand, Bengaard said. Without a victim willing to testify and press charges, it can be hard to get the probable cause needed to make an arrest. However, Bengaard added that if police have probable cause to make an arrest they do so.

April said he was glad the state was able to present the figures "and show this is an epidemic."

The word "epidemic" was used many times that night.

"I think you’ve got to open up a serious dialogue," he said, including members of state and community agencies, as well as individuals. "It’s out front. It’s not hidden anymore."

There are many options available for women who are experiencing domestic or sexual violence in the Ketchikan area.

Women In Safe Homes is a nonprofit organization that operates a shelter as well as a 24-hour toll-free hotline. More information is available at www.wishak.org. Victims of rape or domestic violence also can contact the Alaska State Troopers or Ketchikan Police and file a report.