On her last day in Bethel, Assistant District Attorney Bailey Woolfstead was too busy to attend her own goodbye party. She was only free to speak with KYUK after work while walking her dog, a black-spotted sweetheart named Wyatt, and fielding last minute text messages. They were leaving town in about two hours and Woolfstead didn't want Wyatt to get nervous on the plane.
Woolfstead is used to being busy. Over the past four years she's worked on thousands of cases. Like other Assistant District Attorneys in Bethel she wrangled 150 to 200 of them at any given time, but over 95 percent of her cases involved domestic violence. Woolfstead recently moved to Southeast for a job in Juneau’s District Attorney’s Office and took a few minutes to speak with KYUK before she did.
Woolfstead moved to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for its tight-knit communities. After living in cities, she wanted a place where people all knew each other. She felt incredibly welcome in Bethel, but she says that the intimacy that makes YK Delta communities strong can occasionally turn against them.
"The smaller a community we are, the more likely we are to sweep things under the rug," said Woolfstead. "Because we know people."
In Alaska, the sexual assault rate is almost three times the national average and Western Alaska has one of the highest rates in the state. "It's just so pervasive out here," said Woolfstead. "It was really incredible to me."
Working in the courts, Woolfstead confronted a series of common misunderstandings that surround abusive relationships. She said that people don’t understand why women stay with violent boyfriends or husbands, but it can be very dangerous for women to escape an abusive partner and, according to Woolfstead, it is also financially difficult. In villages where families rely on subsistence, women struggle to hunt, fish, and run their household entirely on their own.
Woolfstead said that women sometimes asked the court to release their abusive partners just so they could help fill the family’s smokehouses. "To watch the kids, to get wood, to haul water," she remembered women telling her. "I can’t do all of these things that I need to do on my own."
Then there’s the psychological toll that women endure in abusive relationships, which can make it almost impossible to leave. Woolfstead brought up trauma bonding as an example, a process by which a victim and an abuser bond over their shared experiences.
The cycle is familiar, she said. A woman is beaten by her boyfriend. She’s devastated, scared, or furious. He says he feels horrible about what he’s done, but he asks her, “Do you think I deserve this much time in jail? I mean yes, I did this to you, but do you really think I deserve 10 years?” And slowly, Woolfstead said, the girlfriend starts to sympathize with him.
"'Everybody’s telling me that I should leave you,'" said Woolfstead, describing the girlfriend's thought process. "'But I still love you and nobody understands us.' It really becomes you and me against the world."
Another thing that most people don’t understand about domestic violence? Exactly how dangerous it is. Woolfstead said that some abusers prefer to strangle their partners.
"When you hit someone you’re telling them you can hurt them," said Woolfstead. "When you burn someone you’re almost branding them; you’re telling them that you own them. When you strangle someone, you are telling them that you can kill them at any moment."
She said that half the time, strangling doesn't leave any marks and it’s quick. The victim could pass out within five to 10 seconds. Within 30 seconds, their brain could be permanently damaged. In 50 seconds? The victim could be dead.
"It takes very, very little pressure to kill someone," said Woolfstead. "Less pressure than it takes to open a Coke can."
What can communities do about this? According to Woolfstead, speak out and don’t make excuses.
"This is not accepted, she said. "This is not accepted in this community. We all see the bruises, we all know what’s going on, but nobody says anything."
When she worked in the YK Delta, Woolfstead said that she saw people do terrible, horrible things to the people they loved. She also said she saw acts of heroism. Like Tribal Police Officers who walked unarmed into a house and took a loaded gun from a man’s hands, or victims of violence who spoke out at trial.
At their core, she said, the communities here truly care about each other. It’s something she’s going to miss.