On remote Alaska islands, victims of domestic violence rely on informal network of safe homes

Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014.
Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by James Brooks)

Jennifer Bates has spent decades helping people escape domestic violence. Literally escape. She’d hole up in a clandestine apartment with a woman – or man – to keep them away from their abusive partner.

“When we did that kind of stuff, I didn’t sleep a wink. I was up for the whole 24 hours because it scared the daylights out of me,” Bates says.

She’s worked all over Alaska. On the Kenai Peninsula and in small the Southeast town of Wrangell. The client’s fear was her fear during those sleepless nights.

“We actually ended up carrying a personal gun on us, just to be safe,” she says.

Domestic violence exists everywhere in Alaska, but many small communities have no designated shelter.

“Unfortunately Wrangell doesn’t have an active shelter here,” says Jessica Whitaker. She’s a part of BRAVE, Wrangell’s fledgling domestic violence support network.

The island community for decades has built an informal network of safe homes instead. These are the personal homes of folks, mostly church-goers, willing to put up a survivor for a night or two.

“So there’s other resources that can become available if needed … but they’re not advertised resources. Because if people were to know where these safe homes are, then that kind of defeats the purpose of them being safe homes,” Whitaker says.

The setup is hush-hush. There’s no hotline or office to call. Referrals are word-of-mouth. It’s often through a church, hospital or the local police department.

“Fortunately, most of the domestic violence in Wrangell is relatively minor,” says Wrangell Police Lt. Bruce Smith. He has seen a lot of these cases. Some are drunken arguments. Others have been serious assaults — even murder.”

“I’ve responded to cases of strangulation. So serious cases of domestic violence do exist even in our small community,” Smith says.

Survivors of domestic violence have a right to be fearful. Studies show that violence often escalates. Researchers looked at reports of strangulation and found it’s often the prelude to murder.

By the numbers, the town of 2,500 logged 20 plus calls in 2019. Police made 10 arrests. But suspects often make bail and are back in the small fish bowl community.

“It’s like playing hide and go seek in a one bedroom house. There’s not that many places to hide,” says Pastor Kem Haggard. He is part of Wrangell’s safe home network, though he doesn’t house the clients himself.

The protocol looks like this: the police or someone escorts the client to the home. Once they’re there they can’t leave. No cellphones. No social media. They don’t let anyone know where they are for their own safety and the safety of those helping them.

“And so now all of a sudden my life, because I’m the victim, has changed. And I have to watch everything that I say and do and I can’t go out,” says Haggard.

But the isolation is just temporary. Haggard says about half of the women — and they’re almost always women — will find a family member to stay with, or end up reconciling with their partner. But others will travel on to larger communities with domestic violence shelters. These formal shelters, like Women in Safe Homes in Ketchikan, provide round-the-clock personnel who monitor a secured facility. Shelters aren’t secret, so clients can come and go without blowing some cover.

But leaving town is often not realistic.

“A lot of people have kids and pets and jobs and things that they just don’t really have the option of leaving behind,” says Maleah Wenzel, an advocate for BRAVE.

The local group and even WISH looked at potentially forming their own safe homes to meet Wrangell’s need. But the advocacy groups says that model is too risky for volunteers.

“Every single person who is in the home providing help to the victim can be in danger if it’s not done right. And we don’t have the capability to do it right, right now,” Wenzel says.

Nearby in Petersburg, WAVE or Working Against Violence for Everyone used to operate safe homes. Now, it doesn’t. But director Annette Wooten says liability wasn’t the pitfall. She says the strict lock-down keeps homes safe, but it keeps clients from living their lives.

“You can’t go to work. Kids can’t go to school, and there’s definitely reasons for that. But it really impacts a lot of people from being able to utilize that service,” Wooten says.

There haven’t been any reported attacks on safe home volunteers in Wrangell. But Haggard says the possibility is real, and no one lets their guard down.

“They know that that’s a risk. Because let’s just be honest, it’s a risk to love. It’s a risk to care. A lot of times, it’s a risk to stand up to a bully,” Haggard says.

Until small communities like Wrangell have designated shelters for survivors of domestic violence, the informal network is all there is.

This report is part of CoastAlaska’s Shelter series which examines short and long-term housing issues across Southeast Alaska.

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