Alaskans must do a better job of understanding this severity

by Carmen Lowry and Dr. Tracey Wiese

On September 6, a little girl, Ashley Johnson-Barr, played at her local park in Kotzebue. She will never return to play there again. Her body was found on September 14. The autopsy conducted by the State Medical Examiner’s Office revealed “signs of trauma that include strangulation and sexual abuse,” according to a statement released by the Department of Law. The same autopsy reported “distinct ligature marks” around her neck, facial injuries and “large amounts of mud/debris” on her body. According to Richard Harruff, Chief Medical Examiner of the Seattle-King County Medical Examiner’s office, ligature marks are visual results of strangulation. Dr. Harruff outlines two types of strangulation – manual and ligature. Manual is where a person uses their hands to compress the neck. Ligature strangulation refers to “neck compression produced by an object that can be used for tying, such as a rope, cord, belt, shoelace, wire or electrical cable.” Ashley Johnson-Barr, like the victim in the recent Schneider case, experienced strangulation. These victims were not choked; they were strangled. Strangulation is a violent and effective tactic that is misunderstood, deadly, and consistently downplayed.
Strangulation results in cerebral hypoxia – meaning there is not enough oxygen delivered to the brain to maintain its function resulting in a loss of consciousness. A victim who is being strangled may lose consciousness in as little as 10 seconds – 10 seconds often filled with confusion, disorientation, and disbelief. If strangulation stops oxygen for a longer period of time – say four minutes – they could die. If victims consistently experience non-fatal strangulation and areas of the brain don’t get enough oxygen or neurological input, they may experience diminished brain functioning, memory loss, and small strokes. Strangulation victims can be strangled with no physical signs or symptoms on their body. Without physical injuries, victims themselves, family members, health care providers, and other first responders may assume that there is little danger or injury. However, a victim who has been strangled can continue to develop symptoms such as swollen airways and difficulty breathing for up to three days. Even without physical marks, a victim who has been strangled can die three to four days later.
Alaskans must do a better job of understanding the severity of strangulation, in order to protect victims. One way is to learn how tactics work, and to use the correct terms when describing them. Victims who are strangled are not ‘choked’ and do not ‘pass out’, even though it is often described that way. Victims lose consciousness because there is an intentional act to cut off oxygen flow to their brains. Strangulation is linked to an increased risk of homicide. Dr. Nancy Glass reported in 2008 that non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide in domestic violence victims. When victims report that their partners have “choked” them – even if there are no marks – those victims are at higher risk of being murdered by their partner. Strangulation is deadly and it should never be taken lightly.
Alaskans must collectively do more to support victims, listen to their experiences, and provide relevant and timely services. Acknowledging what we know to be true is a good place to start. The recently released 2016 Felony Level Sex Offense Crime in Alaska Supplemental Report highlights the following:
The most common victim is a 14 year old female.
The most common suspect is a 19 year old male.
The most common space where the assault occurs is in the home.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country and is especially dangerous for Alaska Native women and girls who continue to experience the highest rates of sex offence victimization across all age groups. The dangers that women and girls currently face in our communities is profound.
Now is the time to act. Contact your local domestic violence and sexual assault program in your community and ask what you can do. Contact the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to learn more about sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and intervention efforts in our state.
As Alaskans we can lift each other up, hold each other accountable, and protect the most vulnerable. It is our collective responsibility.
Carmen Lowry, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault. Dr. Tracey Wiese, APRN, FNP-BC, PMHNP-BC is an Advanced Nurse Practitioner certified in both Family Practice and Psychiatric Mental Health.
•Statewide Crisis Line: 800-478-8999
•The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA) (907) 586-3650, [email protected]
•Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC) (907) 543-3456, Toll Free: 1-800-478-7799