Behind Closed Doors
The other day, I was on the phone with the Jan Hill, the mayor of Haines, Alaska.
I was doing a story about domestic abuse in rural areas here.
Hill knew all about that; as a mayor and as a victim.
A gray-haired woman who runs a local bead store here, she had been beaten for by an ex-boyfriend here. Friends helped her escape. Then she went back for a few years of beatings before she finally broke free.
She doesn’t talk much about that part of her life. But she is a big supporter for the domestic violence refuge here I was writing about.
So she talked to me.
In Haines, and rural Alaska, and anywhere in America, college-educated people like Hill are victims of controlling men.
But nobody does domestic and sexual violence like Alaska.
The 49th State is the Rape Capital of the United States.
At 80 rapes per 100,000, Alaska’s rape rate is almost three times the national average, according to the FBI Unified Crime Report. For child sexual assault, its nearly six times the rate in the Lower 48.
Alaskan Native people have even higher rates.
Many people have speculated on why this is so. What makes this state so violent?
Isolations turns people feral. Loners and privacy-seekers flock here. there are more men than there are women.
And there is alcohol; lots of alcohol.
Alaska’s state motto could be: Alcohol Was Involved.
Tom Morphet, the editor and owner of the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, has lived here for more than 30 years.
He says Alaska leads the nation in all kinds of ways you don’t want to be the leader in.
Suicides; alcoholism; divorce; incest; all kinds of social problems.
“People moved here and find it’s cold and dark and it’s hard to make a living. It’s an extreme place,” he said. “It tends to attract extreme personalities who do extreme things.
There are misconceptions about Alaska. Few people here actually hunt for their food. Few actually heat their homes with wood, as the people down under assume after watching all the Alaska Realty TV shows. Many more live on the grid, in the cash-based society.
But this much is true.
Alaska is violent. And we’re not talking the resident grizzlies.
Here’s the story I did for the Chilkat Valley News:
By John M. Glionna
Jackie Mazeikas remembers walking around Haines, questioning people about something nobody here wanted to talk about.
Women were being assaulted and sexually abused by husbands, boyfriends and fathers who lived and worked and shopped here, who walked around smiling and laughing, their friends and neighbors unaware of what went on at home.
The town, she said, needed a domestic violence shelter — and it needed it desperately.
That was five years ago. People looked at her like she was crazy.
“I could see them cringe,” she said. “It took years to chip away the stereotypes and make the community admit we had a problem.”
In 2015, Mazeikas and her team opened Becky’s Place Haven of Hope, a nonprofit shelter with an undisclosed Haines location, where women — as well as men — and their dependents can find respite while Mazeikas looks for a more-permanent domestic solution.
Before the center opened, Mazeikas said, victims were housed in motels and area homes, any safe place that would bring an end to the battering.
Alaska is often called the rape capital of America. At nearly 80 rapes per 100,000, Alaska’s rape rate is almost three times the national average, according to the FBI Unified Crime Report. For child sexual assault, its nearly six times the rate in the Lower 48.
According to a 2015 Alaska Victimization Survey, half of Alaskan women have been the victims of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or both. For the native population, the numbers are even worse: One out of every three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped during her life, and three of four will be physically assaulted.
Since its opening, Mazeikas’ two-bedroom refuge, which has a cozy living room and huge kitchen, has seen regular use, proving Mazeikas’ point that Haines can no longer look the other way when it comes to the community violence that goes on behind closed doors.
In 2014 and 2015, respectively, the Haines center hosted 20 and 22 and women and children. By December of this year, that has already risen to 35.
The shelter is named in honor of Mazeikas’ sister Becky, who for years endured domestic violence in San Francisco without telling anyone in her family. Finally, her boyfriend stabbed her twice in the stomach, sending her to the hospital. A week after she returned home, she was found dead. The boyfriend later took his own life.
“Becky, I’ve always wondered why you went back,” she said. “From then on, I’ve always told myself ‘Let’s not have another Becky.’”
One supporter is Haines Mayor Jan Hill, who serves on the board of Mazeikas’ nonprofit. “We’re finally talking about the elephant in the room,” said Hill. “I’ve lived in Haines all my life. I could give you a list of examples of abuse here but I won’t. This is something that needed to happen.”
Hill said the campaign has not been easy.
“Jackie took the bull by the horns and was determined to get the world out,” she said. “I know she was met with some push back; people looked at her skeptically, saying ‘We just don’t believe that this is going on here in town.’”
But Hill knows that it does.
“I’ve lived through it,” Hill said. For years, a boyfriend physically abused her. She left the relationship, but went back. It took another few years before she finally called it quits with the boyfriend, who no longer lives in Haines.
“When I went through this, there was no one in Haines to help me,” she said. “Now there is.”
Mazeikas, who moved to Haines two decades ago to reunite with her then-estranged father, Archie Dunbar, saw first-hand there was a domestic abuse problem across Southeast Alaska.
Working as a coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), she visited predominantly Native American domestic violence victims in such isolated communities as Angoon, Yakutat, Hoonah, Skagway and Klukwan.
In Haines, she saw that many of the women who sought help with SEARHC were eventually forced to return home because there was nowhere else to go. “I’d go home in tears and I couldn’t even talk to my husband about the confidential cases,” she said. “But the woman had no choice but to return to the abuse. They had no hope, no options.”
At first, though, few wanted to hear her outcry about the need for a year-round refuge. The community was in denial.
So Mazeikas researched the matter. Statistics from Lynn Canal Counseling Services showed that in 2011 there were seven cases of domestic violence 72 sexual assault cases. In 2012, the numbers rose to 14 domestic violence cases and 86 sexual assault cases.
“The numbers just blow your mind,” Mazeikas said.
But the drive to raise awareness and the money to pay for the $700 monthly rent, not to mention food utilizes and other costs, was slow going.
“Domestic violence was considered a family issue,” she said. “Women were ashamed. They were put down if they disclosed it.”
But the community came around. Churches and private donors began coming forth with donations to Mazeikas’ fund drives. Women knitted quits for sue in the center. Recently, 100 people attended a Haines parade against domestic violence.
Her center stays busy. Grandmothers call, looking for a space for their granddaughters. Even some men have stayed there. Often, their wives or girlfriends will wield weapon and they are afraid to protect themselves because they’ll be characterized as the aggressor.
The refuge features surveillance cameras and locked doors. The average stay is three days, a period Mazeikas sues to find a more permanent solution. Whenever a new victim takes residence, Mazeikas moves full-time as a counselor and protector.
When the refuse is occupied, the overhead rises to $1,300 a month. Her maximum occupancy is two families or seven people.
Mazeikas knows this: Haines has come full circle on domestic violence.
Donations alone keep the refuge afloat. Mazeikas does not seek state funding because she believes that faith is an important part of her work and such funding would prohibit any religious affiliation, she said.
But sexual violence remains a problem here.
Mazeikas still hears from victims like the one who said years ago: “I was beat up for years but nobody believed my husband would ever do such a thing. He was a star in the community.”
Such stories help keep Mazeikas vigilant.