During his trip to Alaska, the U.S. Attorney General has heard a lot about the high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in rural Alaska — but when William Barr travels to Bethel on Friday, he will see the problem first-hand from the victim’s perspective.

The Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC) will be one of Barr’s first stops in Bethel, where he’ll find the shelter operating beyond capacity. TWC serves an area in Southwest Alaska the size of the state of Oregon.

Ina Mae Chaney, who manages cases for the nonprofit says the shelter has 33 beds and is scrambling to make room for more people. A family of five is expected on Friday.

Chaney says the calls are prioritized based on the threat to life and safety.

“In some cases, there’s strangulation, women who come in severely beaten,” Chaney said, as well as sexual assaults.

Many of these calls come from women who live in communities where there is little or no law enforcement and are, at best, hours away from help.

Chaney said sometimes staffers can hear the abusers in the background, along with the cries of children. 

"There's times we're on the phone with the victim and we're on the other line with the troopers," Chaney said. 

To reach Bethel, victims must fly across what seems like an endless sea of tundra — and if the weather is bad, it can be days before they reach the safety of the shelter. 

“They’re still scared. They’re still shaken-up,” Chaney says. “They’re sad. They’re hurting.”

And they’re exhausted. That’s why the shelter steps in to help the women care for their children so they can rest. Chaney says some of the women sleep for days when they arrive — the first time in a long time they feel safe enough to close their eyes.

“It’s hard going through it by yourself. I know what they’re going through,” said Pam Oney, who works as an advocate for women and children at TWC.

She says it wasn’t all that long ago that she turned to the shelter for help. Oney says she lived in a chronically abusive household.

“Got a gun pointed to me,” she said tearing up. “Punched up. Beaten up, pretty bad.”

Oney says violence in small, isolated communities is far more toxic than in cities, because it’s tolerated more — and if it’s ongoing, people come to accept it as normal behavior.

Oney says TWC not only helped her and her children find refuge, but also supported her efforts to find work and become independent. Her boss, Ina Marie Chaney, says it’s hard to see the struggles of those who come to the shelter, especially the kids.

“Seeing the trauma that the family is going through,” Chaney said, “You can’t help but worry where those children are going to end up.”

Some have been sexually assaulted.

Several organizations in the community work to help these children. Thanks to federal funds, there’s a room at the shelter where they can be examined by a doctor or nurse, in a more private setting than the hospital. Law enforcement and social workers also collaborate, so a child is interviewed only once.

Dr. Jennifer Prince, a pediatrician who works for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, handles many of the exams.

Her first priority is to check on the health and wellness of the child. She also collects evidence to be sent to the state crime lab in Anchorage — but says given the delays in travel, it is often too late to gather the necessary evidence.

“It’s a huge issue,” Prince said. “It may have happened last night, but it may be three or four days before we are able to get them in sometimes.” 

And it’s not just children who are affected by the assault.

“Imagine being a mother that had been abused as a child, and then having this happen to her child — or a grandmother that had this happen to her daughter and now to her granddaughter,” said Prince.

Intergenerational trauma is one of the subjects the attorney general will hear about when he visits the shelter.

Staffers say they also want to tell him about some of the local efforts that seem to be working and could be expanded with more funding. They welcome efforts of tribal organizations to become more involved in preventing violence.  

Barr is scheduled to visit staffers at the Association of Village Council Presidents, the regional tribal organization for about 50 villages. Afterward, he’s expected to take a boat trip on the Kuskokwim to Napaskiak, a community a few miles downriver from Bethel, where he will have a chance to learn more about what it’s like to be a victim in place where the only escape from violence is by airplane, boat or snowmachine.

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