SAD STATISTICS: 18 communities march to raise awareness of the high sexual assault, abuse rates in Alaska

JUNEAU -- Alaskans took to the streets Wednesday, holding rallies and marches to draw attention to the blight of domestic violence and sexual assault in the state.

In Juneau, Gov. Sean Parnell led dozens of lawmakers, victims' advocates and others from the steps of the Capitol to a city park, where he signed legislation allowing judges to issue protective orders in cases involving sexual assault.

In Anchorage, female onlookers spontaneously joined about 200 marchers, some toting signs with slogans like "Being loved shouldn't hurt." In Unalaska, a community potluck and peace march were planned.

In all, Parnell's office said at least 18 communities were holding events. The governor dispatched department officials to many, hoping to shine a light on what he calls an epidemic of violence and his administration's goal of ending it in 10 years.

"Giving people permission to talk about it, like we are here today, that will prevent domestic violence and sexual assault in the future," he said.

The statistics cited were stark, with the state a leader in rates of rape, child sexual assault, and men killing women.

Much of that is attributed to the remoteness, and tightness, of many Alaska communities and to a lack of services to help battered women and children. Other issues include problems with substance abuse and access to mental health services.

"Behind each of these statistics is a ruined life, a ruined family," Attorney General Dan Sullivan told marchers in Anchorage. He called domestic violence and sexual assault a "dark cloud that has been hanging over our state for way, way, way too long."

"We have to come together to begin to change this," he said.

Parnell has a lot invested in the issue. Personally, he's been open about a grandfather who was abusive and alcoholic, and uses his father as an example of how the cycle of violence in a family can be broken. Politically, Parnell has made cracking down on domestic violence and sexual assault a focal point since inheriting the governor's office from Sarah Palin last summer.

His administration is pushing four bills related to DNA testing, stricter sentencing and construction of a new crime lab. All are still before the Legislature, and he's taken heat for what some have called "cops and cages" bills. But he's optimistic about their chances this session and has been willing to work with lawmakers interested in building on his proposal -- or taking advantage of the renewed focus on the issues -- to push for greater prevention, outreach or other programs.

The lead sponsor of the bill Parnell signed Wednesday was Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage; a host of other legislators also added their names, in support. Republicans and Democrats participated in the events in Juneau, including longtime advocates for victims and women's and children's issues.

Desa Jacobsson, a self-described "ordinary citizen" who handed out a press release saying she is running for governor, criticized the initiative as "carelessly planned and carelessly put together for political purposes."

Peggy Brown, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, saw things another way.

"Today, I'm like, finally. Thank God, some leadership on the executive level in this state," she said.

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