State’s leader on domestic violence forced out

Lauree Morton, Executive Director of the Council on Domestic Violence at the Alaska Department of Public Safety, welcomes people to the One Billion Rising for Justice event at the State Office Building's atrium on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014.

Lauree Morton ended her 30-year career fighting sexual assault and domestic violence after a Nov. 18 meeting with Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.

“I was told that (he and the governor) wanted to go in a different direction and the preference would be for me to resign,” said Morton, who, until last Thursday, was the executive director of the state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

The council’s mission is to promote the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault, and to provide safety for victims. The council is part of the Department of Public Safety.

By statute, the nine-member council, as a whole, hires an executive director. The statute does not address firing one.

Monegan, one of the council’s members, met Morton without notifying the council.

“We need to change the paradigm on what we do. We need to get more preventative, we need to get more awareness built, we need a lot of things, and we’re looking for somebody who can carry the banner higher and faster,” Monegan said by phone last week. “Domestic violence and sexual assault are issues that we’ve been infamously too long at No. 1 and we need to fix that.”

Alaska leads the nation with 122 rapes per 100,000 residents, according to 2015 FBI statistics. The national average is 38.6.

Monegan said he and the governor want CDVSA to go in a “different direction” instead of “business as usual.”

The governor’s office didn’t comment on the issue, but press secretary Katie Marquette wrote in an email Tuesday that Monegan “speaks on behalf of the administration.”

On the “different direction,” Monegan said CDVSA should be collaborating more. For example, he’d like to see CDVSA partnerships with the Village Public Safety Officer Program, tribal courts, Native nonprofit health corporations, Alaska Federation of Natives and “anybody else that has a dog in this fight.”

The executive director, he said, should be coordinating that.

“We want to find a leader who can be everywhere at once finding partners, working with the legislators, working with the feds, working with tribal orgs,” Monegan said.

He also had issues with Morton’s management style, which contributed to the decision to let her go.

“I need someone with fresher ideas and a lot more energy to champion a cause that all of us are plagued by. We need someone who’s aggressive and thinks outside the box,” he continued.

Monegan’s thoughts were news to council chairwoman Patricia Owen.

“I had talked to different board members and they weren’t aware with any issues with Lauree or Lauree’s position,” she said last Thursday.

Owen said Morton’s resignation is a “huge loss” to the council. She described Morton as an effective leader, specifically noting “her ability to collaborate with other organizations and agencies across the state, her relationships with other organizations as well as policy makers.”

She called Morton a “stabilizing factor” during budget reductions, staff cuts and council turnover. In an email, Owen elaborated: “She is recognized and respected nationally and throughout the state for her leadership and expertise in the area of domestic violence and sexual assault prevention, intervention and treatment … Under her direction, we have started to bend the curve in the high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska.”

 

Morton has firsthand knowledge of the anti-rape and battered women’s movement. She was raped in 1984.

“I was going to college and had a group of people over to my house,” Morton recounted. “Everybody left except for one young man and he forced himself on me.”

She felt violated, hurt and disillusioned.

“It never should’ve happened and it wasn’t my fault, and it’s not any other person’s fault who survives that crime being perpetrated against them,” Morton said.

“It can define part of who you are, but not all of who you are. So, there is hope. It doesn’t end your life and it doesn’t have to be something that keeps you from finding your way. I think you can go on and live a fulfilled life and you can be happy and strong,” she continued.

Morton, 54, turned the traumatic experience into a career in sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy.

“My very first job was in 1984 in Texas. I was hired as the night and weekend advocate in a rural shelter that served nine counties. I worked 4 to midnight and every other weekend and got $400 a month and was really, really happy,” she said, laughing.

She moved to Bethel in 1989 to work for the Tundra Women’s Coalition. In 1994, Morton became the executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Juneau and led the nonprofit for 10 years. She started working for CDVSA in 2007 before becoming its executive director in 2011.

“It’s my vocation. It’s not a job; it’s a calling. It’s what I know to do and what I think can be my contribution to most help make a better, just society,” Morton said.

Before the Nov. 18 meeting with Monegan, Morton had no plans to leave CDVSA.

“I was very satisfied and still excited about the directions we were going,” she said by phone on Dec. 15, her last day of work.

“With the increased focus on primary prevention, really focusing at the community level, particularly with youth and then the partnerships between adults mentoring youth, we’re changing social norms, and I think that’s the way to actually end domestic violence and sexual assault,” Morton said.

The focus on prevention started in 2009 when the Alaska Legislature appropriated more than $150,000 toward the effort. Since then, the council has strengthened prevention services and programs — like Green Dot Alaska, the Fourth R, Coaching Boys into Men, and Girls on the Run — and brought them to communities across the state.

“That led us to do research, the first Alaska Victimization Survey in 2010, so we could have a baseline of real hard data about women’s experiences with these crimes in our state and then from that, looking at what we can do to keep it form happening,” Morton said.

Since 2010, Alaska’s rates of sexual assault and domestic violence have substantially declined, according to André Rosay, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, which conducts the victimization survey for the council.

Data from the survey show that from 2010 to 2015, the percentage of adult women in Alaska who experienced intimate partner violence or sexual violence dropped by 31 percent, Rosay explained in a Dec. 14 My Turn for the Juneau Empire. The column was entitled, “Lauree Morton has made Alaska a safer place.”

Alcohol- or drug-involved sexual violence dropped by 44 percent. In 2015, there were 8,055 fewer victims of domestic violence and sexual assault than in 2010.

“These are impressive declines that have substantially improved the health and safety of women in Alaska,” Rosay wrote.

Morton said the council’s focus on prevention certainly played a role in the declines.

“If you look at the offender accountability, the victim services and the prevention, the new thing that was within those five years, from 2010 to 2015, was the focus on prevention and bringing those different programs and services into the state,” Morton explained.

Morton said she wished she could’ve stayed with CDVSA to see the results of the 2020 victimization survey.

 

Carmen Lowry, executive director of the Alaska Network of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, was shocked when she found out Morton was asked to resign.

“Why is this happening right now?” Lowry thought.

“In these times when there’s so much unknown, I don’t understand the rationale with continuing to do things that would destabilize,” she said on the phone Tuesday.

The council and the network have historically had a close relationship.

“I’ve worked with Morton consistently. She’s really been critical in helping me understand state government and helping me understand ways that the network and the council can work together to ensure there’s greater access for victims, that more victims get service, that we really educate people and we get funding that supports the programs,” Lowry said.

She said she’s worried about Monegan’s “different direction.” She said several people who were present at the council’s special meeting on Dec. 12 expressed similar sentiments.

“We reiterated and said, ‘Wait, what is this new direction? We’re happy to bring new strategies in, but nobody knows what it is and no one knows how it was informed.’ And these are the experts at the table. If you don’t talk to your experts then where’s this coming from? We just don’t understand it. We want to learn more so we can help support, but until we see the data that’s informing it or the stories that’s informing it, we just don’t know,” Lowry said.

She wonders how the different direction fits in with regulations, public safety, and what it means for communities and victims.

“There are just a lot of questions,” Lowry said. “When it comes down to it, it’s really about supporting victims, and if these actions are being taken, they’re being taken on behalf of victims and survivors, and they shouldn’t have to bear the brunt and they shouldn’t have to pay the price for any kind of decision; they should benefit from decisions.”

At the Dec. 12 special meeting, the council established a hiring subcommittee that includes Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. The council holds another special meeting today from noon to 2 p.m. to hear the subcommittee’s recommendations on the hiring process.

Morton’s last day with the council was Dec. 15. She started her new job as legislative liaison with the Division of Behavioral Health the next day.

 

Contact reporter Lisa Phu at lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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