By Carey Restino
The council charged with making sure Alaska’s crisis intervention services meet as many needs as possible gathered last week in Homer to discuss a myriad of challenges, as well as celebrate in the successes seen through community and agency collaboration.
While the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault addressed many statewide issues, it also heard reports from Homer-based agencies, including the Children’s Alliance, which runs a child advocacy center that serves as the hub for services across the Kenai Peninsula.
Jessica Lawmaster, executive director of South Peninsula Haven House, explained the center to the council, describing how staff are able to help children who are victims of physical or sexual assault and other trauma by providing them a safe environment in which to testify about their experiences.
Before the center was established, Lawmaster said children were often interviewed by as many as a dozen times by different people from different agencies; many knew nothing about how youth respond to trauma.
“It was retraumatizing to the child,” Lawmaster said. “Now we have forensic interviews to prevent duplicating interviews.”
But the center goes far beyond that. It provides a defensible environment in which the child can tell that story, for example, without toys or imagination-inducing artwork that might be used to discredit testimony in a trial. Interviewers are trained in how children report; with youth, often pieces of a story may come out over time, which could be construed as providing an inconsistent story. Lawmaster said it is just the way children report trauma.
“Sometimes children wait years to report,” she said.
No one – not even a parent who appears to be safe – are allowed in the interview room. That’s because, even if the children aren’t afraid of the parent, they might be worried they are going to burden the parent with the testimony, Lawmaster said. Interviews can take as long as three hours, but are generally done in a single session. The interview is videotaped and then provided to all agencies that need to review the case, such as law officials, health care providers and lawyers.
Lawmaster said services provided at the center go beyond the youth interview facility. Caregivers are also supported with help finding resources and navigating the complicated legal world. In addition, the center’s advocates help families understand how best to respond to their child as he or she works through the trauma.
“Children often have a lot of needs as a result of the abuse,” Lawmaster said.
Children come to the center only through referrals from state agencies and law enforcement. Lawmaster said the center serves as a hub for child advocacy on the Kenai Peninsula, with Kenai and Seward offices operating as satellite offices under Homer’s facility.
While the facility is a huge improvement over the old way of interviewing children and providing support for family and the community on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, there is still significant room for improvement, Lawmaster reported. Statistics point to as few as 10 percent of children ever reporting their abuse, she said, and few cohesive programs exist to provide primary prevention against perpetrators or children who act out sex crimes against other kids.
“We know we are missing a lot by missing those cases,” she said.
Lawmaster said 90 percent of child victims know their perpetrator, and 60 percent are abused by someone they know and trust, debunking the concept of “stranger danger.” She added that abuse occurs in all socioeconomic sectors as well.
“It’s a problem that transcends all demographics,” she said.
Programs like the Child Advocacy Center, however, provide support and coordinated effort between agencies so everyone acting on the behalf of the child and his or her family can move forward in unison.
Statistics still grim
Domestic violence and sexual assault affects a distressing number of Alaskans, with 9.4 percent reporting physical abuse from an intimate partner in a 2010 survey. That same year, 4.3 percent of Alaska women reported experiencing sexual violence.
The council heard a report stating that the rate of reported elder abuse or neglect rose 16 percent between 2010 and 2012, while the reported cases of abuse of vulnerable adults fell 5 percent.
Data was also available for the rates of adults using domestic violence services, which dropped slightly in 2012, but has remained between 80-90 individuals per 10,000 adults for the past three years. Between 72 and 78 children used the same services per 10,000 children.
The rate of youth using services for domestic violence rose 34 percent between 2010 and 2013, while sexual assault services were used by 29 percent fewer youth in the same time period, state figures showed.
Parents as partners in prevention
The issue of abuse among teens in Alaska came into the spotlight during the council’s meeting last week in Homer. National brain trauma expert Linda Chamberlain presented information to the council about the role parents can have in preventing physical and sexual abuse among teens.
According to Chamberlain’s report, Alaska teens experience dating relationship abuse at alarmingly high rates. According to a 2011 study, 23 percent of Alaska youth were bullied, 15 percent were cyberbullied, 12 percent were hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend and 9.2 percent were forced to have unwanted sexual intercourse.
Teenage girls surveyed said 66 percent had never had a conversation with their parents about dating abuse. The vast majority of parents, however, said they thought they could recognize the signs.
Chamberlain’s report suggested that if parents were guided in how to have those conversations with their teens, they could go a long way in raising awareness of teen dating violence and sexual assault and help young people establish individual values and beliefs to make healthy choices.
“I’m a huge fan of early intervention programs,” Chamberlain said. “Social emotional learning starts in preschool.”
In community conversations across the state, parents said while they knew there were benefits to having such conversations with their teens, they were held back by the fact that they had never had conversations on these topics with their own parents.
Parents, especially in rural areas, said these subjects were not typically addressed.
“Alaska Native respondents shared that in their local communities there was little discussion around dating and sex, but also around sexual assault or abuse,” the report noted.
The fourth R – Relationships
On a similar note, the council watched videos put together in connection with The Fourth R program, an effort to promote healthy relationships among youth. Topics covered by the program include bullying, personal relationships, peer and dating violence and substance abuse behaviors.
Councilmember Patty Owen, who is the Health and Safety Program Coordinator with the state Department of Education and Early Development, presented the videos, said some schools that have worked on these issues have seen significant changes in the overall climate of the school.
The videos, which feature Alaska Native actors as well as subjects common in rural communities, help students learn how to navigate difficult situations.
“One of the ways to strengthen the Fourth R is in role playing and skill building,” Owen said. “These videos show how to get out of sticky situations and peer pressure.”
The videos show several different approaches to dealing with peer pressure and bullying, and students can assess the effectiveness of passive, aggressive and neutral techniques. After watching the videos, youth spend time practicing the skills.
Donna Erickson, a board member from Unalakleet said the program was needed in her region, noting that suicide and other issues continue to be devastating to rural Alaska communities.
“We really need this in our region,” she said, adding that youth need to learn how to communicate. “It’s really important.”
Owen said districts in the state have control over what curriculum they do in their schools, and there is at least one statewide training each year for the program. Currently 18 districts are trained and the program is in more than 50 schools.
Council reaches out to faith community
Richard Irwin, an Anchorage-based pastor and council member, reported to the council on his efforts to reach out to faith-based organizations to train them in how to help and support victims of domestic violence who may wind up reporting to clergy.
“We want to have something to give them, rather than to say, ‘Go out there and give spiritual guidance,’” Irwin said, adding that he was working on training and focus groups to address the issue. “We want to be supporting them because we know a lot of victims go to their faith leaders and it’s not all the time a helpful interaction.”
Irwin said helping those suffering from abuse has been a challenge for church leaders, who often had little to know idea how to provide advise. Reports of clergy suggesting that victims of domestic violence go seek counseling with their spouse, for example, have been prevalent.
“They simply did not know how to come alongside someone who is suffering and be part of the healing process,” he said. “We can’t do this by ourselves. It’s a big job, but we are getting traction. The church should be the safest place in the state.”
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