Scott Ogan: Rural sexual assault and the politics of good intentions

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Rep. Sarah Vance

By SCOTT OGAN

There are those who posture and talk about societal ills, and then there are those who do something about them. 

When it comes to rural physical and sexual assault and human trafficking, Rep. Sarah Vance  of District 6 Homer is among those trying to affect real change. 

Vance recently apologized for making the following statement in the State House Tribal Affairs Committee following testimony from Alaska Native justice advocates:

“What I hear in this committee is that Alaska Native women feel that it’s exclusive to your experience. Because it sounds exactly like what I have heard of white women in my community, it’s the same thing.” She went on to add, “But what I continue to hear in this committee over and over again as if you’re the only one. And I know that’s not your heart.” 

It’s clear Rep. Vance cares passionately about this issue and is an ally in the fight against every form of physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking. What is equally revealing is the relentless effort by the extreme left, inspired by their prophet Rahm Emanuel, to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” 

Their criticism of Rep. Vance’s comments speaks to the larger issue of Alaska’s dismal progress on this issue and the need to come together with focus on solutions.  

Rep. Vance has been a stalwart defender against human trafficking and against violence, particularly in rural Alaska. She spearheaded getting stickers made that are placed in public restrooms across the state to give trafficked women a phone number to call for help.  She has also sponsored several bills on this subject.

Looking for Solutions

I suggest Vance should leverage her Judiciary Committee chair position and appoint a subcommittee on missing and murdered indigenous women, as well as human trafficking, to focus on the root causes of how Native women in Alaska fall victim at such high rates.

There are a few elephants in this “rural sexual assault” room, the largest of which is accountability for progress.

A few days after Rep. Vance made her comment, Department  of Public Safety Commissioner James Cockerell stated it is shameful rural Alaska had received disproportionately less law enforcement resources since statehood  

“We’ve closed our eyes and allowed rural Alaska to be seriously victimized,” Cockerell said.

This is a curious confession from the head of Public Safety, who has been in a position to implement policy decisions on the topic of rural law enforcement, serving as the head of the Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Department of Public Safety under more than one governor. I respect the commissioner, but who is the “we” he refers to? Who does he believe is accountable for this current state of crisis?  

Alaska has a long  history of violence against women and children. In 2020, Alaska was ranked the 21st worst state in terms of homicides. That rose 67% by 2022, from 6.7 per 100,000 to 10.3 per 100,000, placing Alaska in 5th place. 

Compare that to the national average of 6.5 per 100,000.  These are statewide statistics that do not take into account the higher percentage of “missing” women who were likely murdered. 

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that recidivism among Alaska Natives and American Indians is four times higher for men compared to the national average and six times higher for women. Think of what this means about the rates of crime in rural Alaska and the cycle of despair. 

An FBI report in 2016 paints an even bleaker image of sexual violence across the United States and highlights a very concerning data point: If a child suffers sexual abuse, he or she is  23% more likely to commit sexual violence against another person. If a child suffers physical abuse, he or she is 24% more likely to commit sexual violence against another person. 

When we discuss the rates of sexual violence in our communities, we need to understand that physical violence is a root cause. Imagine what this does to a child who is the victim of both sexual and physical abuse.

Violence is violence, regardless of who the victims or perpetrators are. However, violence among the Alaska Native and American Indian populations is occurring at far higher rates per capita than among other populations. Our politicians need to focus less on discrediting their opponents and take more time to inform and collaborate. We need to have a sense of urgency to handle this problem now, but we can’t lose our patience, dignity, and respect. 

Most Native Alaskans understand Rep. Vance is not the problem in this fight, but rather a staunch ally. The need to break the chain of violence is undeniable, but partisan attacks against Vance are not helpful.

Vance’s debacle calls to mind the phrase, “No good deed goes unpunished.” What is in our heart matters, but it’s what we actually do that changes the world. Vance’s work is helping our brothers and sisters in rural Alaska to find their voice by speaking out about sexual predation and physical abuse, both of which contribute to the highest rates of suicide in the nation. 

Choose Respect

Gov. Sean Parnell started a “Choose Respect” campaign with great promise and intentions. It produced regular marches and rallies across Alaska. The Choose Respect movement was mainly a public awareness effort with few systemic changes or actions. In fact, during this time, thousands of sexual assault kits from across Alaska went unprocessed for years.

In 2013, activists showed up at one such Choose Respect rally to bring attention to the high number of indigenous women who were victims. The rallygoers interrupted Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s speech and received significant media attention. The interruptions took on the appearance of partisanship, but their main point — that little progress was being made — resonated. Alaskans need to refrain from political grandstanding and find ways to solve this problem together.

Choose Respect rallies are a thing of the past, and there has been little statistical progress made on the issues of missing murdered indigenous women or sexual assaults in rural Alaska. However, it brought people together on the issue from across the political aisle for a short time. Ten years later, Alaska is still among the worst states in national statistics measuring crimes where violence against women and children are present, and more alarming is that statistics that isolate Alaska’s indigenous population are much higher.

The Need for Results

In 2018, Sen. Mike Shower’s office proposed to dramatically reform Alaska’s rural policing model from top to bottom by creating a full-time, rural police force comprised of officers policing the villages where they live. We worked with a broad-based group of rural legislators, regional Alaska Native organizations, Village Public Safety Officers, and law enforcement experts to design a comprehensive model to change the face of how we protect the people of rural Alaska. Sen. Shower held a Native Alaska tribal summit to listen to the concerns of rural residents. The plan was later considered by a legislative working group led by then-Senate President Cathy Giessel and then-Speaker of the House Representative Bryce Edgmon.

The idea was summarily dismissed by the Department of Public Safety. Why?  One aspect of Shower’s plan challenged the status quo, the current “hub and spoke” model of rural State Trooper law enforcement, claiming that it is ineffective. This current model pays to house mostly non-native Troopers in a hub community and deploy them into communities only when an incident occurs.  

Imagine if the Anchorage Police Department worked like this: When a Hillside resident calls 911, it rings a dispatcher in Seattle who takes your information and informs you that they will send an officer as quickly as possible once they can secure a flight to Anchorage, depending on the weather.  This is an unacceptable policing model and needs to be re-examined in light of our current statistics. 

One highlight of Shower’s plan proposed to utilize the high number of fully funded but perennially vacant Trooper positions statewide as a permanent, culturally relevant and localized rural police force who already live in Alaska’s villages. Sen. Shower believes his plan is fiscally more sound.  

In contrast, the Department of Public Safety bristles at the suggestion that it uses the funding otherwise assigned to the many unfilled Trooper positions as a rural duty “overtime” slush fund. Is our Legislature smart enough to run these numbers and expose the fiscal truth of the matter? The health and welfare of rural Alaska demands that we do just this. 

Let’s take a close look at the net savings of funding a model that activates a competent, culturally integrated, full-time, entirely local, rural police department into our villages to disrupt the status quo.  

Recommendation: The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee should conduct an audit of DPS funding available for rural law enforcement. It should conduct a fiscal impact analysis comparing the status quo to Sen. Shower’s proposed re-structure. At the same time, the committee should inquire of the DPS commissioner: “Who is the ‘we’ you refer to and exactly who is accountable for the current situation?” 

In conclusion, it is time to move beyond the status quo, beyond the politics of good intentions and do something about this tragedy. When we focus on the victims and those suffering, we cease vilifying champions of change, like Rep. Vance, and work toward solutions. Every opportunity lost for bipartisan reconciliation is a life lost.

Scott Ogan served as a legislator in the Alaska House and Senate and writes for Must Read Alaska.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Vance should have never apologized. She should have challenged her critics to show where she’s wrong.

    If she must apologize, apologize for them not being able to deal with reality.

    This state has quietly allowed a culture of sexual abuse for generations because 1) most don’t care, it’s not them and 2) it’s natives. It’s what “they do”.

    • Why in some remote, isolated communities in the world is sexual predation taboo with severe penalties attached. And then in others it is a rampant and generally unpunished crime?

      Why is it the way it is here?

  2. I agree Vance is good people with good intentions fighting evil people with no intentions. We live in a time where if you even suggest anything about another race of people you are automatically a racist. Well I got news for these people, my people left starvation and misery to find a job so they could feed their families. They were all hard working very simple people who didn’t believe in handouts. They made their own way. They never had any slaves. Opportunities still are abundant for everyone in America yet they won’t be for long if the insanity continues. The corrupt media, corrupt politicians, and an ignorant society will destroy us simple as that. And once we are a pile or rubble there is no going back. Cuba is a perfect example of what I don’t want.

  3. ‘it is time to move beyond the status quo” Yet all your talk of “sustainable” budgets. The State has been “sustaining” waste, fraud, and abuse for years.
    sustain /sə-stān′/
    transitive verb
    To keep in existence; maintain, continue, or prolong.
    “sustain an effort.”
    To keep up (a joke or assumed role, for example) competently.

  4. Stop writing corporate bylaws which are customarily always disobeyed anyways. Finish the budget and close it up. Out of there in 90 days to save the people’s trust funds. It’s not a government camp idyll.

  5. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be convened to look at the historic abuses that have been foisted upon the Native communities in Alaska.

    Since this blog only serves to whip of foment and resentment toward the Native communities, this is probably not the forum to address this elephant in the room.

    I commend Mr Ogan for attempting to take a more wholistic approach to solving this vexing problem.

    Why are Alaska Natives incarcerated at a higher rate than the general population ?
    Until you solve that, nothing else is getting fixed. Cutting funding to head start and early education programs, cutting funding for WIC and other public assistance programs for low income families isn’t helping either.

    Until you fix what’s wrong at the root, you’ll never get the tree to blossom.

    • You want the white man to “fix” natives? Didn’t we already try that? White man’s welfare is poison to natives. Heal thyself, shaman. Take some of that valuable indigenous knowledge and put it to good use outside the welfare bribery system.

      • Your ignorance is profound, Jay.

        You’re never had your culture, your identity, your songs and your prayers taken from you by force, have you, Jay ?

        They never took your children away from you and forced them into a residential school ?

        Yeah, I didn’t think so.

        Until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, Jay, you will simply never understand what it’s like to be oppressed by a foreign entity.

        May God have mercy on your soul

        • With the greatest respect, you demand a reconciliation committee, but from your words, I do not think you are ready for that. True and lasting reconciliation requires both parties to set aside their grievances and find a path forward together. Since you still refer to your state of being as “oppressed by a foreign entity” I can not see that happening. May be you should consider walking a mile in Jay’s shoes…

          Jay does have a point. While you complain about oppression, you demand more tools to keep you in a state of dependency by your perceived “oppressor” . That seems counterproductive.

          Rehashing the past isn’t helping young women and children, who are victims of sexual abuse and assault today. At some point we all need to be in this together and stand against the abusers regardless of who they are.

  6. I think if my patient safety fellowship a the alaska tribal health compact, Caring Ambassadors and HHS had been respected the patients at Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium would not have been sexually assaulted in the tribal health compact facilities. I also believe the children assaulted and verbally abused at Southcentral Foundation would not have been assaulted. It’s interesting what we would like people to believe. I emailed all that to the GOP oversight committee and the office of violence against women including the house tribal affairs. Unbelievable. They applied for a 5 million dollar patient centered outcome research grant using my name, history, medical records, likeness, image and story making me think I would be going back to work then they defrauded me; it was planned, the never told me the truth about how long the knew. I think it’s time to force the tribal leaders to respect others constitutional rights, including non-native rape victims and victims of their employees such as the physicians and other healthcare professionals credentialed through them. Their illegal interlocking directorate needs to be called out and they need to be replaced with people willing to create a more cohesive legal system and framework.

  7. Representative Vance should have never apologized for speaking the truth! Once again we see the militant representation that some in AK have decided to elect. Thank you, Rep. Vance for standing strong against violence against women!

  8. Very little discipline is part Eskimo culture. If you want to change their behavior, make the kids mind/behave the first time. When you say something to kids and they don’t respond, go after them. Until they do it, they will continue with all the current problems they do have. Nome and the Kotzebue areas have the highest sexual assault rates in the world. Athabaskans don’t have near the problems as they are much quicker to address problems with their kids. I’ve met kids from Barrow and was quite impressed. They were smart and well behaved for the most part. Japanese kids spend most of their first 4 years in school learning how to be a good person and to have good manners. It has has a profound effect on their culture, almost zero crime in Japan.

    • I’d address the tropes, walk in others’ shoes, etc before throwing all this questionable information out here, because summarizing childrearing issues in one paragraph and comparing kids in Nome, Kotzebue, Utqiaġvik, and Japan is inherently woefully limited to understanding the cultural upbringing of any and all the children.

  9. Then there’s the case of Thomas Jack, locked up 14 years into a life stretch for sexual assault, which fine upstanding Native people insist he never did.
    .
    “Jurors from a different race and place rejected the consistent testimony of Alaska Native witnesses from a village and the mountain of reasonable doubt they generated.”
    (‘https://poweredbyjustice.com/injustice/)
    (‘https://poweredbyjustice.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/summary-of-a-wrongful-conviction.pdf)
    .
    Hoonah Tribal Council passed a resolution last year, said let Thomas Jack out, at least retry him before a jury of his Native peers.
    (‘https://alaskagrandjurorsassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/HIA-Resolution-2023.pdf)
    .
    He’s still inside.
    .
    Thomas Jack gets railroaded on a false sexual assault conviction
    .
    …while Sarah’s evidence of real, verifiable assault and human trafficking against Native women gets lost in ad hominem attacks against her.
    .
    What the hell’s wrong with this picture?
    .
    Regard current events for a minute… judges bagged for perjury… grand juries told what they can and can’t investigate… village cops reluctant to investigate because they have to live there… state cops reluctant to investigate because they don’t have to live there… people tried by juries of -not- their peers… best of all, fresh-faced young non-profit grant writers whose forte is turning chaos into cash.
    .
    No mystery then why Thomas rots in jail and Sarah gets yelled at. Two sides of the same coin, no? Fixing their problems might mean ending careers of, or more importantly, ending the flow of grant money to, the rotten bas…(oops!) who profit from the misfortune of Alaska Native women and Thomas Jack.
    .
    Suppose we’re fighting the wrong battle?
    .
    How can Sarah Vance’s issues and Thomas Jack’s problem ever be fixed if the tool to fix them, Alaska’s state justice system, is actually as FUBAR’d toward Natives as the Deep South’s justice system was toward Blacks back in the bad old days?
    .
    How about a different tool? Took massive federal intervention, among other incentives, to get anything near a reasonable handle on the old South’s “justice” system.
    .
    Get the feds to start a grand jury investigation into State mishandling of assaults committed against Alaska Native women, and civil-rights violations committed against Thomas Jack, ask Alaska’s congressional delegation to add their gravitas, who knows what might happen?

  10. I heard Governor Dunleavy say Alaska needs judicial reform in one of his speeches before being re-elected. I agree with the Governor on judicial reform.

    Chief Justice Bolger and Justices Winfree, Maassen and Carney know that the courts need to do better. Before restorative justice, there needs to be justice for all. Solution: Judges follow the laws. Justice should never be obstructed for anyone within the great State of Alaska.
    ‘https://courts.alaska.gov/media/docs/sc-2020-stmt.pdf

    How do we-the-people remedy a wrong that has happened to us, our family or community (villages included)? SCO 1993 severed our remedy.

    May 24, 2021 I wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland because evidence did warrant a federal special grand jury investigation and that our constitutional rights were being denied. Petitions have been circulating for years for a special grand jury investigation based on the truth and documents.

    Where is lady justice in Alaska? The last letter I received was 2/23/2024 the writer said the proper investigating office for my request was in Washington, D.C. Obviously the writer doesn’t realize that I’ve been there, done that, and there is no proper investigating office in D.C.

    I’ve been addressing injustices that have happened to Alaskans for over 20 years, and I still haven’t found that crystal clear roadmap that will ensure truth and justice for all. I’m not going to stop until the miracle happens – the crystal clear roadmap in Alaska that results in truth and justice for all Alaskans. Our children and grandchildren need us to show up and speak up. Alaska is a mandatory P.L. 280 State and there is concurrent jurisdiction throughout the State.

    Representative Vance is trying her best to do the next right thing to protect all Alaskans. As an Alaska Native woman I know that she is speaking and working on behalf of all the people of Alaska.

    Contact Governor Dunleavy, your Senators and Representatives.

    Alaska Constitution Article III Section 16 – The governor shall be responsible for the faithful execution of the laws.

    Representative Vance has been working for all women in Alaska.
    HB 68 Human and Sex Trafficking
    ‘https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Text/33?Hsid=HB0068B

    Senator Shower sponsored SB 14 and the bill died in Finance.
    Senator Shower sponsored SB 31 SB 31 Testimony Starts are 04:30:06 PM
    ‘https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Meeting/Detail?Meeting=SSTA%202023-02-23%2015:30:00
    SB 31 Selection and Review of Judges
    ‘https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Detail/33?Root=SB%20%2031

    Call or write Representative Rauscher and support HB 82
    ‘https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Detail/33?Root=HB%20%2082

  11. When the Natives want something, they want the white folks to pony up. When the white folks note that the Natives have high rates of sexual abuse and drug abuse and alcohol abuse, the white folks are racist and need to shut up. Do we not already fund the Native Hospitals? Do we not already fund the safety officers in the villages? Do we not already have lots of programs for detox (not at the Native Hospital–not there but at “white” facilities)? Here’s a thought, Natives. Teach your children to not drink and abuse people. Quit drinking and doing drugs during pregnancies and foisting all sorts of ills on the babies you have both in and out of wedlock. As a white woman, I hate the rate of sexual abuse in this state, but if you take out the numbers from the villages, those numbers end up pretty darned small. But naturally, that’s racist.

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