Evangelicals and social conservatives have embraced McCain's vice presidential pick for what they call her "pro-family," "pro-woman" values. But in Alaska, critics say Gov. Sarah Palin has not addressed the rampant sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and murder that make her state one of the most dangerous places in the country for women and children.
Alaska leads the nation in reported forcible rapes per capita, according to the FBI, with a rate two and a half times the national average – a ranking it has held for many years. Children are no safer: Public safety experts believe that the prevalence of rape and sexual assault of minors in Alaska makes the state's record one of the worst in the U.S. And while solid statistics on domestic violence are hard to come by, most – including Gov. Palin – agree it is an "epidemic."
Despite the governor's pro-family image, public safety experts and advocates for women and children struggled when asked to explain how Palin's leadership has helped address the crisis. And current and former officials from Palin's administration confirmed that an ambitious plan to tackle the crisis has apparently sunk into doldrums after arriving at the governor's office.
"She's really done a lot of work on oil and gas, but when it comes to violence against women and children. . . we haven't been on her radar as a priority," said Peggy Brown, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. The Juneau-based group is an umbrella organization for shelters and anti-violence programs around the state.
State troopers respond to most domestic violence calls outside of Alaska's major cities, but they're too short-staffed and under-funded to do it well, according to Robert Claus, a recently retired trooper.
"The training says you always respond to domestic violence with two people, [but] for most of my career that hasn't been possible," said Claus, who lives on the remote island he patrolled for 15 years. "So how do you go down the list and do what you're supposed to do – separate the people, transport one person while taking care of the kids and victim? You have to pick and choose. We haven't seen the money to do that."
In an interview Wed. arranged by the McCain-Palin campaign, former Palin aide Meg Stapleton defended her old boss' record. "One of the governor's number one priorities since taking office has always been to tackle domestic violence in the state of Alaska," said Stapleton.
Several victims' advocates noted that Palin did agree to a two percent increase in funding for victim assistance this year. But a March study by a state task force found that level of funding only covered the cost of helping women and children hurt by the epidemic of sexual violence. It was not enough to try to prevent assaults from happening – or to ensure "accountability of offenders," as the panel phrased it.
In a press release Thurs., the director of an Anchorage women's shelter defended Palin's leadership on the issue. In addition to approving the funding increase, Gov. Palin boosted anti-violence efforts by "publicly speaking out against domestic violence," noted Judy Cordell, director of Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC). The state legislature also passed a tough anti-strangulation law while Palin has been in office, Cordell said.
Some members of Palin's administration were focused on the issue of sexual violence. Officials in the Department of Public Safety were devising an ambitious, multi-million-dollar initiative to seriously tackle sex crimes in the state, but Palin's office put the plan on hold in July.
Days later, Palin fired its chief proponent, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, after he declined to dismiss a state trooper Palin accused of threatening her own family members. Palin has said she fired Monegan because she wanted to move his department in a "new direction," and he was not being "a team player on budgeting issues." The dismissal is now at the center of a hotly-contested investigation by the state legislature.
The status of the plan, which would have "fast-tracked" sex crime cases via a dedicated group that included specially-trained investigators, judges and prosecutors, is unknown. "I'd ask the governor," said one official with knowledge of the plan. Numerous inquiries to Palin's campaign spokeswoman went unreturned.
Coincidentally, Palin had praised Monegan -- and specifically his work on domestic violence -- just months before she fired him.
"An indication of our commitment is the participation here of my, our, department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan's participation here and all of his hard work, and I want to publicly thank him," Palin said in remarks at an April 28 conference on domestic violence. "I want to publicly thank Walt for having his heart in the right place and his efforts too."