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Federal bill takes aim at drug, alcohol-fueled ills of rural Alaska

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
An act introduced by Alaska's U.S. senators gives the state's tribes more authority to combat drug and alcohol abuse and help reduce the rates of suicide, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect, which are staggering in many parts of rural Alaska. phozographer / cc via flickr

A recently introduced act sponsored by Alaska’s senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, aims to combat drug and alcohol abuse in Alaska's rural communities. The Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013 gives Alaska tribes more authority to combat drug and alcohol abuse in their communities and to work to bring down high rates of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.

“I introduced the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act because the status quo just isn’t working,” said Begich in a statement.  “Tribal leaders throughout Alaska desperately need more resources and local control to manage domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide. We must make sure that Alaskans have the tools they need to feel safe in their communities -- especially women and children.”

Murkowski seconded that thought, saying that rates of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in Alaska are too high.

Statistics substantiate her and Begich’s effort. Alcohol-related suicide rates in Alaska’s villages are six times the national average, and Alaska Native women endure the highest rate of rape in the country. As much as half of Alaska Native women experience physical or sexual violence, according to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Add to that the fact that 95 percent of all crimes in rural Alaska are alcohol related, and there is an issue, say the senators.

The bill, introduced this week, encourages the signing of an intergovernmental agreement relating to enforcement and adjudication of state laws in Alaska Native villages and authorizes the U.S. Department of Justice to make grants to tribes for carrying out the agreements, according to a release.

The bill will tie participation in the program with tribes’ ability to demonstrate they have local capacity. The bill also repeals a controversial provision inserted into the Violence Against Women Act that prohibits Alaska tribes from issuing and enforcing domestic violence protective orders against nonmember Alaska Natives and nonNatives.

Under this new bill, tribes in Alaska can further examine the issuance of domestic violence protective orders in rural Alaska.

Several rural Alaska Native leaders applauded the bill this week, saying it promotes collaboration between the federal, state and tribal governments to allow tribal enforcement of state laws.

Murkowski said she still has concerns about the repeal of the Alaska exemption within the Violence Against Women Act, but said she remains committed to ensuring safety in rural communities.

“We must turn the tide of the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in our state,” said Sen. Murkowski in a statement. “It is critical we all work together in partnership to change a difficult reality that we in our state must address.”

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this article first appeared. It is republished here with permission.