March 15, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 11

Domestic violence group in gear

Friday march, letter to DA among upcoming efforts

Besides a march Friday on Main Street, the Domestic Violence Task Force in Haines is creating a moving display to bring attention to the issue and lobbying the state to ramp up prosecution in abuse cases.

The march starts 11:30 a.m. Friday, March 16 at the Haines bank and ends at the library with speeches and Native dancing, said Jackie Mazeikas, hired last fall as domestic violence health educator by Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

The march was inaugurated last year. “It’s more visual. It seemed to open the doors to get people sharing stories. We had a lot of men involved last year and they were very supportive. We’re hoping to get a really good mix this year,” Mazeikas said.

The task force last month sent a letter to the state district attorney’s office, seeking more follow-through on abuse cases.

“Several cases from our community that have gone to court have been dropped… We feel some of these cases may be falling through the cracks,” the letter said. “We want to ensure that people are not re-victimized,” said the letter, signed by members of the eight-member task force.

It’s a problem if domestic assault charges are pled down to lesser charges like disorderly conduct, said Mazeikas.

Often it takes all of a victim’s courage to turn in an abuser, so it’s important prosecutors don’t back down, she said.

“(A reduced charge) is like a slap on the wrist. The (DA) doesn’t understand that abuse escalates to the point of injury or death. It’s important that (prosecutors) take that first offense seriously, otherwise an abuser can use that as leverage and say, ‘Go ahead and turn me in. You see what happened last time.’”

Task force member and Haines Borough Police Chief Gary Lowe said part of the problem is the lag time between an abuse incident and prosecution, particularly with misdemeanor assault charges.

“Often times by the time it gets to court, victims change the way they feel. They start feeling sorry for their abuser, and if they won’t testify, the charges are dismissed. That’s not the way the law is supposed to work,” Lowe said.

An already heavy workload for district attorneys may be part of the equation, Lowe said. Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny recently told a crowd in Petersburg concerned about lax prosecution there that each of three prosecutors responsible for northern Southeast have a caseload of more than 300 at any given time.

State law requires police to make an arrest if there’s any sign an assault has occurred, Lowe said. “Six months later, if the victim doesn’t want to testify and the DA is swamped by 299 other cases… Legislators take a position that they’re going to take a hard stance on this, but then the court system can’t keep up with that.”

Lowe said he hopes the letter results in fewer plea bargains. “We want the DA to know that, as a community, domestic violence is not acceptable to us. We want prosecution of these crimes.”

SEARHC’s Mazeikas, who lost a sister to abuse, said she understands the shame and embarrassment that has helped camouflage abuse. “It’s a hush-hush subject. We’re in a state of denial. Right now we’re just taking baby steps and letting people know there’s hope and choices, and they don’t have to deal with it on their own.”

Mazeikas recently created radio spots and made presentations in the school and in Skagway. Toward exposing the issue, she’s asking victims of abuse to tell their stories on T-shirts that will be hung as a clothesline around town. Victims need not attach their names on the shirts, she said.

“They’re all personal stories. There’s such healing in just telling the story. It’s remarkable. It’s very impactful,” she said.

People suffering abuse, or those just seeking answers to questions, can call her at 766-6382, or reach a counselor any time of day, toll-free at 1-877-294-0074. Mazeikas’ office is upstairs in the Gateway Building, #27.