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Survivors in Remote Alaska Face Unique Challenges

How to get help when geography poses barriers

Survivors in Remote Alaska Face Unique Challenges

We know there are at least 50 barriers to leaving a domestic abuser—and they’re only intensified when you live in a remote area like much of Alaska. 

“Our state is about a fifth of the size of the U.S. in terms in land mass, but we don’t even have 1 million folks that live here,” says Ariel Herman, training project director for Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “We have a lot of remote communities that are only accessible by boat, plane or snow machine; the bulk of our communities are not connected by roads. It’s hard physically, geographically. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s definitely harder than it might be down states.”

About 40 percent of women who reside in Alaska will experience intimate partner violence in their life, higher than the national average of 37 percent, and many advocates will say that these numbers reflect only a percentage of victims since domestic violence is vastly underreported. Regardless, the higher rate in Alaska is no doubt at least partially attributable to the unique barriers to leaving that Alaskans face:

1. Lack of Local Resources

        With a population so spread out, few communities have domestic violence advocates and even fewer have shelters. In fact, there are 24 programs in 20 cities in Alaska and in some areas around 1,000 or more miles exists between programs.

        “Some of our communities do have informal safe homes,” says Tami Truett Jerue, executive director at Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center. “They’re simply homes in villages that will take families in for shelter for the basic reason they need help and there’s nowhere else for them to be. But it’s kind of a guessing game.”

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        That doesn’t mean resources aren’t available though.

        “There are many communities in Alaska that are hub communities like Bethel,” Truett Jerue says. “Bethel has a state-run domestic violence shelter that many surrounding villages they serve have access to.”

        Because sitting down with an advocate isn’t always possible, Herman says a lot of safety planning is done remotely.

        “All of our programs have crisis lines and folks can call and talk with an advocate,” she says. “We can do safety planning and access to resources over the phone and fax machine. I know it sounds archaic, but we really do still rely on fax.”

        2. Far-Away Law Enforcement

          Imagine being in a life-threatening situation and having to wait hours for police to arrive. That’s the reality for many Alaskans. 

          “Not every community has local law enforcement. Every community is covered somewhere, whether by a nearby jurisdiction or Alaska State Troopers, but to make a report, people might have to wait an hour to a couple of days for a trooper to arrive,” Herman says. “That also means that 911 does not work in many of our communities, so you need to know the number for your local law enforcement. Or you may call 911, but they may not have 24-hour dispatch.” 

          This means locals often look to each other for protection.

          “Local people oftentimes are the first responders—a family member or a tribal council member with no advocacy training,” Truett Jerue says.

          Even when law enforcement responds and an abuser is arrested, Alaska prosecutors are having difficulty keeping up with caseloads amidst deep budget cuts and severe understaffing. Still, Herman encourages survivors to reach out in any manner they’re comfortable. 

          “We believe there’s no wrong door,” she says, “whether reporting to law enforcement, talking to the health aide in their community or reaching out to an advocate.”

          3. Spotty Communication

            Part of the issue in spreading awareness and getting help is spotty access to the Internet.

            “Internet is slow, unreliable and very expensive, so we don’t rely on it to get information out there,” Herman says. Instead, advocacy programs use radio and word of mouth to educate Alaskans on the resources available. 

            4. Cost 

              It can be costly for a survivor to leave, particularly if flights are needed to escape.

              “There are services in hub communities, but a one-way ticket could be $600 or $700 for a woman and four children,” Truett Jerue says.

              But Herman advises survivors not to let cost or any other factors deter them from leaving or getting help.

              “Advocates are aware of a lot of resources, like Angel Flight, that survivors may not think about,” she says. “While there are a lot of barriers, they can work with an advocate to make that happen. Also, if they want to stay in their community or in that relationship, advocates can work with them to make decisions for what’s safest.” 

              Are other factors keeping you from reaching out for help? Check out “Calling a Hotline When There Are Barriers in Your Way” for advice on how to deal with them.