By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

Advocates say more funding needed to stop cycle of domestic violence


December 20, 2023

When Kara Carlson experienced sexual assault as a teenager, she said it was traumatic but not shocking: “I was the last of my friends to experience sexual violence,” she said. “We live in this world where you have to prepare women for surviving trauma.”

She now runs the women’s emergency shelter in Fairbanks, the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, where she has worked for nearly two decades. She has seen domestic and sexual violence affect generations of Alaskans.

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen moms come in, I’ve seen their kids come in. I’ve seen their kids in CourtView as perpetrators. We’ve served their kids as victims,” she said, adding that she has seen up to three generations pass through the center’s doors. “The cycle keeps repeating because nothing — nothing’s changed.”

Without prevention services, Carlson said, the shelter cannot reduce violence: “We will operate like this forever and ever, with no change in numbers, because the shelter is a Band-Aid, the place people come after something has happened.”

Despite the millions the state of Alaska spends on domestic violence programming, its families still experience some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the nation. Experts and advocates agree that significant increases in prevention work and community level support are necessary to slow the rate of domestic violence.

Studies show that children who are exposed to violence are more likely to perpetrate it. They are also more prone to struggle academically or have negative mental and physical health outcomes.

Diane Casto, former director of the state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse, said that while government funding runs the nonprofits and agencies that tend to domestic violence, only social change can stamp it out. And, from where she sits, the route to social change is community-level prevention work.

Prevention, in the context of domestic violence, is usually education around healthy relationships. It can be aimed at youth, at adults in relationships, or even people who have caused harm.

“My goal since I started here in 2017 was to bring prevention up, bring services to those who harm up,” she said. Funding for prevention has increased slightly since she started, but ultimately, Casto said it is where the state has failed in its fight against domestic violence.

“We have a lot of grant money,” Casto said. Yearly, the council distributes more than $20 million in grants statewide.

But she said there is an imbalance that thwarts their goal of ending violence: “Ninety percent of our grant dollars go to victim services, 8% go to prevention, and 2% go to batterer intervention programs,” she said.

Most of the state’s investment in domestic violence goes to helping people after the violence happens. Casto said to end domestic violence, she needs prevention to be funded at the same rate as victim services. But she said that’s a tough ask because prevention work is time consuming and it is hard to demonstrate success.

“Prevention takes years — generations — to change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. And if you don’t give it that time, you’re not going to see change. And I think that’s where we have really failed in domestic violence,” she said.

Casto said she asks the Legislature each year for more funding because the need for victim services is so great. “The reality is: If we keep turning our head, if we don’t take responsibility, then it isn’t going to end,” she said.

There was a time when the state invested more heavily in prevention and domestic violence awareness, said Brenda Stanfill, who runs the state’s coalition of domestic violence shelters, called the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Stanfill said former Gov. Sean Parnell’s Choose Respect campaign and his investment in domestic violence prevention programs jump-started the movement to increase awareness and reduce domestic violence.

“In 2010 to 2015, we did a lot of things. We started talking about it very openly,” she said. “Prevention started in those five years. That was the first time we started doing prevention — violence prevention awareness and violence prevention activities out in villages and communities and urban hubs.”

She said kids did projects in school where they learned about healthy conflict resolution — and brought their new knowledge home to their parents.

She said children’s observations could be a wake-up call for people who didn’t recognize their own damaging behavior: “If you have kids talking about what is respect, and how do we treat one another, and then maybe pointing out at home, ‘That’s not what I learned at school’ kind of thing — that works. It puts pressure,” she said.

That era was also the birth of what are called “batterer intervention programs,” a name Stanfill now regrets because of the way it labels perpetrators. The programs are for people who have perpetrated domestic violence, and they are aimed at teaching them nonviolent methods for resolving conflict.

Stanfill and other experts in the field have said those programs work if the offender is open to change, and she has seen how the classes can be effective.

She recalled one session, where men were asked about conflict at home when they were growing up. One man said his family did not have that experience: if his mom got upset, his father would slap her, and the conflict would end. “Truly, to him, that was no conflict,” she said. “There’s no conflict in his mind, so he’s got no other skills.” The coursework provided him with nonviolent alternatives.

In 2009, Parnell pledged to end domestic violence in the state within a decade. The Alaska Victimization Survey showed that then, between 2010 and 2015, there was a decrease in domestic violence. The latest survey, from 2015 to 2020, shows the rate has crept back up and is higher than it has been in the past decade.

Stanfill said the prevention movement was important because it got people talking about a subject that was once taboo. Now, she said nonviolence advocates need to take the next step.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization: This article was produced as a project for the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.


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