Has the Bethel liquor store fueled an increase in domestic violence in the region? That is one of the questions at the heart of the tribal meeting held in Bethel this week. The answer is not clear-cut.
There seems to be a deep divide. On one side are those keepers of statistics who do not see any real change, like administrators of the Bethel Office of Children Services and the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation's outpatient services and sobriety center. On the other side are tribal representatives of the surrounding villages who say they've seen a near catastrophic increase in alcohol related accidents and violence.
Dianna St Vincent, a supervisor at the state's Bethel Office of Children Services, says her review of the numbers indicates no change in the approximately 1,200 reports of abuse annually from communities throughout the region. Danielle Shawgo, Director of Outpatient Behavioral Health with YKHC, says there has not been an increase in the number of people looking for help to sober up, and the numbers of visits to the emergency room associated with alcohol may actually be declining a bit.
But that is not the picture presented by Eileen Arnold, Executive Director of the Tundra Women's Coalition, who told the Bethel City Council that the numbers of women and children seeking help in the wake of sexual assault and domestic violence coming to their shelter are rising, and that the fiscal year is not yet over.
"In FY15, before the liquor store opened," said Arnold, "TWC assisted 39 people who reported sexual assault. In FY16, which is the year the liquor store opened, it was 57 people. And in FY17, which is not yet completed, we’ve assisted 42 people so far. There's four months left to go, and I expect us to surpass the FY16 numbers. And it’s important to note that sexual assault is underreported."
Arnold addressed the Council at the end of February.
It remains to be seen how the numbers will play out during the coming year. It is clear that the YK Delta had persistently high rates of domestic violence and inebriation during the four previous decades when alcohol was not available at Bethel stores.
Across the state, the picture is significantly different. KYUK earlier reported on a statewide dip in the rate of sexual assault and domestic violence documented in a study released this year by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.