Sen. Dan Sullivan told a room full of Alaska lawyers Tuesday he envisions an army of attorneys to help fight domestic violence in the U.S.

Sullivan spoke at the Captain Cook Hotel as part of the POWER Act, a bill he sponsored, signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. The act requires yearly events promoting pro bono legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

He told members of the crowd that having legal representation can make a big difference for people who are trying to break the cycle of violence and get out of an abusive relationship, citing a study that found 83% of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order compared to 32% of victims who were granted protection and didn’t have an attorney. 

The senator urged members of the Alaska Bar Association to sign up for pro bono work, but the request comes at the same time Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed significant cuts to agencies that support domestic violence survivors.

Alaska Legal Services Head Nikole Nelson said budget cuts are hurting their ability to serve domestic violence clients

“Currently we're so underfunded that we turn away one person for every [person] that we accept and that includes, unfortunately, survivors of domestic violence,” said Nikole Nelson, executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to low-income Alaskans.

Nelson said she would be grateful for more pro bono help, but she didn’t think volunteers will be able to do the job on their own.

“Our experience has been over the last 50 years that there will not be enough, solely enough volunteers, to meet the unmet need,” she said.

In the meantime, Sullivan said he is working on new laws and more federal funding to provide legal help, including a number of bills he hopes to add into the Violence Against Women Act which is up for re-authorization this year.

One bill, cosponsored with California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, would require attorneys to be provided for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. The same bill increases the federal funding level in a nationwide grant program to pay for legal services up to $80 million.

Victims who need legal help can also reach out to resources within the state. The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is one resource. Assistance is also available from the Alaska Legal Services Corporation.

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