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Posts from the ‘Parenting’ Category

Preventing Youth Suicide in Light of “13 Reasons Why”

The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has created a lot of buzz recently around the topic of teen suicide. The show graphically chronicles a fictional teen’s suicide and, in many ways, glamorizes it.13-reasons-why

Suicide among youth is a serious concern for everyone who engages with young people – whether at home, in school, or during out-of-school time. According to the Kids Count Alaska 2013-14 data book, suicides were the second-highest cause of deaths among youth ages 10-17. And in areas outside of Anchorage, the suicide rate among youth is four times higher.

Youth who are exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors are more at-risk for attempting suicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) notes that risks of additional suicides increase when a story explicitly describes the method, uses graphic headlines or images, and glamorizes a death.

Seeing the graphic depictions and the sensationalized story of Hannah Baker brought to life in 13 Reasons Why has become a widespread concern among parents, as well as professionals in mental health, education and afterschool.

This type of glamorization has caused widespread copycat attempts, giving us more of a reason to talk about the reality of what is happening. Silence or ignoring the issue has never made it disappear. If anything, it has provided the right environment for it to grow out of control. ASFP states that we can prevent suicide by being aware and taking action – and that means talking about it.

The National Afterschool Association created the following list with recommendations for afterschool professionals and teachers on how to handle the latest Netflix hit:

  1. Watch 13 Reasons Why.

Rather than trying to get kids to avoid watching the series or talking about it — because they will, with or without permission — watch it so you are prepared to discuss the content when it comes up.

If you hear kids talking about the series, ask how they feel about the content. Watch how they’re reacting to the topic, paying close attention to their emotions.

  1. Watch for warning signs.

AFSP notes there’s no single cause for suicide, which most often occurs “when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems increase the risk for suicide — especially when unaddressed. 13 Reasons Why depicts additional triggers, including sexual assault and bullying. Most people who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. Find a list of warning signs from AFSP here.

  1. If a young person exhibits warning signs, talk to him or her about it.

“Be direct,” says Valencia Agnew, Ph.D. “Don’t be afraid to ask if they’ve thought about suicide, or if someone is hurting them.”

  1. Listen to young people – without judgment.

Get kids to tell their stories while they’re alive — not after they’ve made a permanent decision to what could be a temporary problem.

“Listen to children’s comments without judgment,” Agnew said. “Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.”

If you have concerns, consider reaching out to prominent adults in the young person’s life that you trust. Ask the adults if they’ve noticed anything unusual.

  1. Validate young people’s feelings.

Feelings aren’t always facts, but never downplay a young person’s stress level or emotions. Instead, try to understand and show you care. “Avoid giving advice to fix it,” said Agnew. “Pain isn’t going to kill them. It’s what they do with the pain.”

  1. If needed, get help.

If a young person you know is having thoughts of suicide, reassure him or her that you’ll help —then act. It’s not expected that the typical afterschool professional or teacher has the knowledge and skills to handle this alone. Work with the school and other trusted adults to find local resources available for help. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education offers a number of resources and tools, and is a great place to start.

Afterschool hours continue at home. Share these guidelines for parents and guardians on suicide prevention, in light of the series. Together we can ensure our children live in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.

Alaska CARES: Coming Together to Help Kids Heal After Abuse

By Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES Manager

Bryant Skinner head shot

Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES

According to the Child Welfare League of America, Alaska consistently has one of the top five rates of child abuse in the United States. In Alaska last year, at least 8,000 children were physically or sexually abused, and this represents only reported cases[i].

Adverse childhood experiences like these cause toxic levels of stress that can strain and weaken children’s health and development, and can lead to lifelong social, emotional and cognitive impairments. Often these impairments result in the adoption of high-risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems. In fact, children experiencing trauma are 49 percent more likely as adults to be unemployed and 92 percent more likely to earn less than $20,000 annually. Child trauma contributes to 60 percent experiencing frequent mental distress into adulthood. Additionally, the impacts of repeated adverse experiences can even lead to early death.

The statistics are grim, but we don’t have to let our children become statistics. Studies show that doing just two simple things can help children grow and thrive:

  1. First, we can invest in primary prevention models that reduce children’s exposure to trauma, or sustained, severe adversity.
  2. Second, we can support early intervention that helps children heal when traumas are experienced, and support children developing resiliency through positive, healthy, supportive relationships.

Alaska CARES is one program that specializes in the second strategy. Alaska CARES is a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a comprehensive, child-centered program based in a facility where victim-advocate, law enforcement, child protection, tribal health, forensic medicine, and mental health professionals are co-located and work together in cases of child abuse.

In the old model of care, kids making a report of harm would have to go to several adult-centered locations to tell their story over and over, which was counterproductive to the child’s healing. The benefit of the CAC model is that it brings all those services together under one roof in a secure environment, designed for the privacy and dignity of young patients. Together, the multi-disciplinary team at Alaska CARES makes sure children feel safe and supported as they come forward to courageously tell their story.

One such child, we’ll call her Kimi, literally illustrates the healing power of early intervention.

Kimi was just 8 years old when she was the victim of sexual abuse by her neighbor. At the time she experienced the abuse she knew something was wrong and worked up the courage to tell the perpetrator “NO,” and then left the room. But her little sister was left with the offender. She found the courage to tell someone about the abuse and an appointment was set for her to be evaluated at Alaska CARES.

angerIt was determined during her visit that seeing a mental health therapist at Alaska CARES would be essential to starting the healing process. The first picture Kimi created (right) was completed during the first two weeks of her therapy. “Anger, Hurt, Sad, Guilt, Nervous, Scared” were the words Kimi used for this painting. She used all of the colors that she didn’t like as she began to process the trauma she experienced. 

guilt

“Guilt” was how Kimi described her painting after six months of therapy (left). Yet, her therapist noted that she was much more present in her session and no longer withdrawn! Although these colors look dark, they were colors that she actually liked and she placed an X to represent “Danger” or “Do not enter,” similar to a poison bottle. She labeled this drawing “Guilt,” which was significant in her progress toward being able to identify and resolve the more specific emotion relating to leaving her sister behind with the abuser.

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After one year of care at Alaska CARES, “Peace” was what Kimi called this painting (right). Kimi, her sister and her family were able to work through many emotions and develop tools to manage their feelings and build resiliency. Because Kimi was brave and disclosed the incident, her offender was held accountable for his actions. The care she received in her healing journey helped change the trajectory of Kimi’s life, her sister’s life and the health and resiliency of their entire family.

The issue of child abuse is a moral, social and human issue that impacts our entire community. The earlier the intervention, the better the intervention, and the more likely it is that we can help kids like Kimi as they grow up into adulthood. Alaska CARES demonstrates what is possible when professionals, community members and government agencies work together to support children.

If you would like more information about Alaska CARES, or if you know someone who might be helped by the services of Alaska CARES, visit their website.

[i] http://alaska.providence.org/locations/c/cares/abusefacts

 

 

 

 

Empowering Moms for Breastfeeding Success

By Jennifer Willeford

ACT.PCG.FB.coverimageNew life begins in the middle of the night and in the early hours of the morning. Mothers are created when a child enters the life of a woman. Birth is a humbling and empowering experience. All the worries and preparation subside during labor and delivery and complete calm arrives when the beautiful gift is placed into a mother’s arms. There is nothing more life affirming than holding a newborn. Nothing else matters anymore and a new journey begins.

Breastfeeding is driven by the bonding relationship of the mother and baby. It’s in the first hours, days, and weeks that a breastfeeding dyad is born. Practice makes progress and is necessary for success. Those sweet moments are fleeting and the connection needs to be guarded and protected. Mothers need to be prepared to set ground rules and the support systems need to be able to offer help that contributes to the mother’s goals. All the focus should be placed on the mother and infant. Family and friends begin to pour in and the spotlight quickly shifts to the baby. It’s hard not to be swept up in the joy and love with a sweet, soft bundle that is irresistible to hold. It is very easy to forget about mom and her needs could get lost in the shuffle.

Everyone wants to help a new mom and feeding the baby has become the coveted position. Moms are overjoyed and excited to share this beautiful gift and can have a hard time declining offers. They don’t want to deprive people the opportunity to share the experience. Breastfeeding is a chance for an infant to be at the breast and provides the opportunity to practice and learn the skills they need. Milk supply is dependent on the frequent emptying and stimulation that nursing offers. Every feeding missed at the breast can contribute to decreased supply. Every intervention creates a roadblock and potential hazard especially during the first few weeks. Mothers deserve to be stingy and set boundaries. No bottle rules can help reinforce mom’s wishes.

Having jobs and chores lined up and ready for eager helpers can prevent conflict. Emphasize that feeding is reserved for mom. People feel that “helping” after baby is born means taking care of baby but true assistance comes in the form of “supporting” the family as a new bond is formed. Mom needs to find her voice and feel confident even though she is scared and exhausted. Remind her that it’s ok that all the dishes aren’t done and the laundry is not folded. Visit her with a cup of tea or coffee in hand and offer a non-judgmental ear. In vulnerable moments mom needs guidance, a calm presence, empathy and a gentle reminder that she is doing an amazing job.

If you are visiting and unsure what to do with spare time, prepare freezer meals for the months ahead. Folding laundry and doing dishes may not seem like great jobs but they are beyond helpful. Make mom a lunch. Fill a cooler so when she sits down to breastfeed she can stay well hydrated and nourished. Bring mom a bag of healthy snacks or play a game with an older sibling. Start a meal train for the family or bring paper plates to reduce chores. Ideal opportunities to hold baby is when mom is taking a shower or sneaking a much-needed nap.

Alaska is wonderful place to raise a family. It is true that it takes a village to raise a child. It’s the responsibility of the community to give emotional support, loving guidance and create a space where families can thrive. Breastfeeding success relies heavily on empowering mothers. The most important tool a woman can have when entering the breastfeeding journey is to know there are resources, tools and people who can help. Most moms will experience a few hiccups along the way. Breastfeeding is a learning experience for both mom and baby. Finding knowledgeable professionals who can aid through the challenges and find solutions to the momentary dilemmas can make all the difference.

Every woman deserves support. Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) and designated breastfeeding helpers can be found in many local organizations and agencies including the WIC office at the Resource Center for Parents and Children, The Women’s Center at the Hospital and Regional Public Health Offices. Help and support is always just a phone call or visit away. Encourage, inspire and uplift the new mothers and lend a hand so they can reach their breastfeeding goals.

headshot articleJennifer Willeford is an IBCLC and works for the Resource Center for Parents and Children. She is also a trained Doula. This spring she will graduate with Bachelors of Science in Crisis Counseling, Healthcare Administration and Health Sciences. Jennifer is the mother of two little boys and is familiar with the challenges of breastfeeding after she breastfeed both boys for a total of five years. Jennifer grew up in Fairbanks and completed her A.A.S in Certified Medical Assisting and Medical Coding at UAF and is active in the community with many local groups including Fairbanks Breastfeeding Coalition, 4H and Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association.

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

By Mary Johnson and Natalie Norberg

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

This is the vision statement for a five-year strategic plan created to address the disparities that Alaska Native children experience in the child welfare system. Today over 3,000 children are in the Alaska foster care system. More than half of these children are Alaska Native. This disparity is unacceptable.

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Recognizing that no one government agency or Tribal entity can solve this problem alone, the “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” was created as the result of a passionate and collaborative process which included numerous Tribal, state and community partners over many months. Participants talked openly and frankly about how to solve problems, reduce barriers and promote children being served closest to home within the context of their Tribe and culture whenever possible.

A personal account from a non-native foster parent:

With her little hand in mine, the two of us slowly walk down the ferry ramp into the bowels of the Le Conte, one of the oldest and smallest vessels that make up the fleet of inter-island ferries of Southeast Alaska’s Marine Highway. We are blasted by that familiar smell of salt water, marine diesel and car exhaust that permeates the parking level of the ferry before we ascend the several flights of stairs to the passenger level of the ferry. I feel weighted down as I struggle to carry the squirming child along with the numerous other packs and totes I am lugging that contain snacks and toys to keep an active toddler occupied for the four hour ferry trip. For Susie this is simply another day of her short life, where every day brings some kind of wonderment. When you are 2 years old, nothing is mundane; an ordinary walk to the park is a delight. For me, however, this day, this trip, feels far from joyful. In fact my mood feels like the dense heavy, gray clouds that press down on the forested islands we pass, layers and layers of suffocating gray.

Susie is 2.3 years old, a beautiful Alaska Native child with healthy rosy cheeks that are just beginning to shed their baby fat. She has soft, long, jet black shiny hair. Susie has been in state foster care since she was 11 months old. I am her 3rd foster home. Susie and I bonded quickly. I couldn’t wait for my work day to end and to pick her up from preschool. Although I did not ever encourage her to call me mommy, she quickly learned from her peers, to reach up her arms for me and call me mama. Susie loves to be read to, loves “Dora the Explorer”, and bubble baths. She is smart, perceptive and talkative. Susie could easily be that little girl I have always wanted as my own. But she doesn’t belong to me or my white culture. She comes from her own rich heritage, of which she must do her part to revitalize and pass-on.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed 40 years ago by congress as a measure to attempt to stem the tide of a disproportionate number of American Indian/Alaskan Native children entering state foster care systems and being adopted by white families; these children would forever be lost to their families, Tribes, communities, and culture. Today, both nationally and in Alaska, racial disproportionality continues to exist at alarmingly high rates. In 2016, while comprising less than 20% of the population, Alaskan Native children comprise over 55% of the children in foster care in Alaska.

While it is easy to place blame on the child welfare system for the years it has taken to implement ICWA as it was intended; data shows widespread disparities of Alaska Native/American Indian people involved in all service sectors of society.  In order to follow the vision Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe, there remains a need to balance both a recognition of the impact of historical trauma as well as the strengths of families we serve. Many professionals who have the responsibility to help vulnerable families may have unconscious bias about Alaska Native culture. These professionals are in positions to make life changing decisions for the family. Yet, without thoughtful and continuous self-evaluation, it is human nature to fall into systemic racism and follow the practice of favoring white, non-relatives over Alaskan Native relatives.

The ferry takes us to her island village, to her mother’s family, where she will be permanently placed with her maternal uncle and his family; a home, where she fits and belongs. Her hair and skin color matches theirs. She will be cuddled, loved and called “baby.” Their home is different than mine. It smells different, and is smaller, more crowded. Instead of having her own bedroom, as she did at my house, Susie will share a room with her brother who sometimes lives in the house and her teen-aged cousin. There is a chest freezer in the living room. Susie is terrified. She clings to me and won’t let go.  

Not too long ago, I feel confident that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) would have let me keep Susie forever. The caseworker and I could have come up with many different “reasons” for why Susie should be adopted by me; and the white judge, white attorneys and white guardian ad litems, who make such decisions, would have nodded and agreed. Times have changed. And this is a good thing. Having been a social worker first, and a foster parent second, my head has known this long before my heart; but my heart is getting there. The spirit and intent of ICWA maybe, just maybe, are beginning to be embraced.

The privilege of working in the field of child welfare is having the honor of being a part of a family’s path to healing. In the example above Susie is in a home where she is learning how to live in her Alaska Native culture and it will be one less battle she will have as she grows up, a child from a traumatic beginning, as she pieces together her identity.

A year later I go back to her village and visit Susie. She is happy and thriving. She is now three years old and doesn’t remember me at all. Somewhere deep in her mind, seeing me may trigger a vague sense of familiarity – a sense of knowing she was well cared for, nurtured on her journey to get back to her family’s people. And that is truly what matters – that I was a vehicle to help her return, intact, healthy and able to rejoin her people. My heart truly believes this.  

Find the full “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” report on the OCS website at http://dhss.alaska.gov/ocs/Documents/Publications/pdf/AK-Transforming-Child-Welfare-Outcomes_StrategicPlan.pdf.

About the authors:

Mary Johnson is the Child Protection Program Manager with the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks.

Natalie Norberg is currently employed by the State of Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services; she is a former OCS case worker and foster parent.

Vaccinating on Time Protects Against Serious Diseases

By Rosalyn Singleton, MD MPH

Parents agree that feeding and sleep schedules are important to help keep their children healthy. The same goes for childhood immunizations. Vaccinating children on time is the best way to protect them against 14 serious and potentially deadly diseases before their second birthday.topskillscna

Vaccines have transformed medicine. Before vaccines, polio would paralyze 10,000 children each year, and rubella (German measles) would cause birth defects and mental disability in 20,000 newborns. Measles would infect 4 million people per year, and diphtheria would be one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children. Haemophilus influenzae (Hib) meningitis would affect 15,000, leaving one-third with brain damage or deafness. Whooping cough would kill thousands of infants.

Before vaccines, there was a lot of fear in communities about outbreaks of diseases like polio, measles or Spanish Flu. Many parents kept their children away from community pools in the summer for fear of polio. The last U.S. polio case was in 1979. Now that routine vaccination has led to disappearance of some of these diseases, some parents question the necessity of vaccines.

Vaccines have had a tremendous impact on health of Alaskans. Before vaccines, there were up to 80 cases of Hib meningitis and sepsis every year – now cases are rare. Alaska had massive outbreaks of Hepatitis A (infectious hepatitis) – now the only hepatitis A cases are brought in by travelers. Measles outbreaks contributed to high infant death rates in parts of the state – after vaccine, there were no measles cases between 2000 and 2014. Before vaccines, Alaska Native children had one of the highest rates of meningitis (brain infection) caused by the Hib bacteria – now Hib infections are rare.

Public health experts and physicians base their vaccine recommendations on many factors. They study information about diseases and vaccines very carefully to decide which vaccines kids should get and when they should get them for best protection.

People often ask pediatricians about getting their shots late or spreading them out for their children, but there is no scientific evidence that really supports doing that. Pediatricians agree that getting shots late puts children at risk for getting the disease the shot protects against. It hasn’t been shown to be beneficial for the kids to get the shots spread out.

Although the number of vaccines a child needs in the first two years may seem like a lot, the number of proteins in today’s vaccines are fewer than in the past. A healthy baby’s immune system can handle getting all vaccines when they are recommended. Pediatricians caution against parents delaying vaccination. Most of the time, doing the shots in multiple clinic visits is actually more stressful than doing them all at once.

When parents choose not to vaccinate or to follow a delayed schedule, children are left unprotected against diseases that still circulate in this country, like measles and whooping cough. Measles was eliminated in the United States in 2000; however, pockets of unvaccinated people still lead to measles outbreaks. In 2014, the U.S. experienced the largest number of cases since measles was eliminated. Alaska was free of measles from 2000 to 2014, but in 2015 there was a case of measles in a traveler to Alaska. Staying on track with the immunization schedule ensures that children have the best protection against diseases like these.

Parents can work with their child’s healthcare provider to keep their children protected against these harmful diseases. Immunization is a shared responsibility. Families, healthcare professionals, public health officials and the media can all work together to help protect the entire community.

Naturally, we all want to protect our children. We don’t want them to have the illnesses that they can be exposed to without vaccines. While it’s true that vaccines are not without risk, most vaccine side effects are mild, and the risk of disease far outweighs the risk of vaccine.

If you have questions about the childhood immunization schedule, talk with your child’s healthcare provider or nurse. For more information about vaccines, go to roswww.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents or http://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center.

Rosalyn Singleton, MD MPH, is a pediatrician and research physician with the Alaska Native Health Tribal Consortium.

 

 

What is the Role of the Office of Children’s Services?

By Christy Lawton, Director, Office of Children’s Services

christylawton5The Office of Children’s Services, or OCS, is often one of the most misunderstood organizations in state government. Formerly known as the Division of Family and Youth Services, after Gov. Frank Murkowski changed the name in 2003, the agency’s purpose was further muddled by the removal of the word “family,” leaving the emphasis solely on “children.”

The reality is that the focus is on the family as a whole. The OCS serves families whose children have been determined to be unsafe or at high risk of maltreatment by their parent or caregiver.

Services to families should always be done in the least restrictive, least intrusive manner possible. Decisions regarding needed interventions with families are based on thorough information collection that guides the initial and ongoing assessment of safety and risk.

After an investigation is completed on a report of child abuse, interventions with a family may fall along a continuum, from simple referrals to services; to services offered in the home, while the children remain in the home; to the children being removed and services provided to the entire family.

Because of our statutory duty, the agency and its staff often find themselves in situations where no matter what they do, it’s viewed as wrong by the public. Because of confidentiality, it is most often not known to the public how a decision was made or why. If a child gets hurt, people think we didn’t do our job. If a child is removed short of anything less than serious injuries or near death, some may say we acted too aggressively or were too intrusive in a family’s private matters.

What does all of this mean from a day-to-day perspective? It confirms that child protection workers have very difficult and often misunderstood roles. Keeping kids safe once we know there is a problem is the easier aspect of the job. Knowing when parents have really changed enough to ensure their child can be safe in the care is the most difficult and stressful.

OCS’s primary objective is to ensure the safety of the child and to reduce any further incidents of child maltreatment. Secondary to that, but equally important, is the hardest aspect of agency’s role, which is to work in partnership with the parent(s) to help them remedy the conditions or issues that resulted in the abuse or neglect that brought the family to our attention.

OCS works under a myriad of federal and state statutes that governs 99.9 percent of what we do. These laws ensure that parents are afforded due process to ensure their rights are protected and access to the courts system for judicial review of decisions made by the agency that help to ensure the agency decisions are sound and founded in law. It also seeks to ensure children don’t languish in foster care by limiting the amount of time a parent has to make the kind of meaningful change that would allow for a safe return of their child.

Funding for OCS services comes primarily from state general funds and federal funds at a ratio of about 70/30. Contrary to some theories, neither funding stream incentivizes the removal or the adoption of children we serve. When adoption is the goal, after having proven reunification is not viable, the federal government does provide incentive dollars for states that demonstrate that adoptions are finalized in a timely fashion.

Individual child welfare professionals within the OCS are not paid with respect to the number of families served, children removed, and/or children adopted or children reunified. They are paid to assess child safety, address strengths and deficits in parents’ protective factors, and to work to keep families intact whenever possible.

The 533 dedicated and skilled professionals who make up the Office of Children’s Services are providing a public safety service focused on Alaska’s most vulnerable residents, our children. Staff receive more than 15,000 reports a year and investigate over 9,000 individual reports. In addition, they work to provide effective case management and support to over 3,000 foster children, their parents, their relatives, and foster parents. They also partner with Tribes and work with numerous providers and legal partners.

OCS staff, like law enforcement officers, EMTs and many other safety-related professionals, provide this service often at a sacrifice to themselves and their own families. Unlike these professions that are typically well regarded and publicly supported, the professionals at OCS are sometimes minimized and criticized for doing the job they are legally obligated to do.

Despite these very real and significant challenges, OCS reunites more than half of the children that enter foster care successfully every year and very few of these children reenter the system later.

So, as we look forward to continuing our efforts to ensure a safe, healthy and thriving Alaska for all, I encourage you to look at ways you can ensure children in your community are safe by reporting all suspected abuse or neglect. I also encourage you to look for ways to ensure that the professionals who protect those children are supported, respected and appreciated for the work they do every day to ensure child safety.

Lullaby Project Brings Mothers in Prison Closer to their Children

By Shirley M. Springer Staten

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Shirley Mae Springer Staten spearheaded the Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project of 2016. ACT supported the project with a $10,000 grant.

The Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project of 2016 paired incarcerated women with Alaska musicians to create beautiful and personal lullabies for their children at home. The effort began in June of 2015, beginning as the mission of a single committed Anchorage woman. Happily, she did not work alone for long.

The result? On September 24, 2016, a packed audience of 250 supporters gathered in the prison gymnasium at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center to witness a powerful testament of love and connection. Sixteen mothers and 16 musicians performed lullabies before a heart-warmed public audience. In most cases, the tender lullaby recipients, small children, stood onstage with their moms – proudly or shyly – to hear her sing directly to them. Tears flowed, both on stage and in the audience. This event was healing made visible.

mothers-mg_2654How did the Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project happen? It is a genuine story of compassion that sprang from chance circumstances.

Shirley Mae Springer Staten likes to lounge in bed on Saturday mornings, listening to public radio. Listening to “This American Life” on NPR, Staten heard a woman say, “I can do some things for my children, even from prison.” The story was about women prisoners in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex for 10,000 prisoners – literally on an island in the East River. The radio story told of a project by the Carnegie Hall Music Weill Institute to bring mothers in prison closer to their children, using lullabies to strengthen their bond.

All Staten could think about was women prisoners at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. She knows its women because she has participated in many programs delivering hope and inspiration there since 1986. She wanted this musical opportunity for Hiland’s mothers and their children.

Staten made a cold call to the Carnegie Institute to ask about the project. Manuel Bagorro, program manager for Carnegie, called back a month later. He wanted to know – who was this woman in Alaska proposing to start a Lullaby Project in Alaska? How did she think she could accomplish it? Why was she qualified to lead it? Was she all talk, or could she really pull it off?

Bagorro didn’t wonder for long. He said he could hear the energy and commitment in Staten’s voice. He soon believed she could do it, and invited her to New York City for training. Staten had the opportunity there to witness a Lullaby Project in action.

She watched as women from a homeless shelter joined with local musicians to write lullabies. She remembers the women as amazing, even as they expressed little self-worth. Invited to write lyrics, they would often say, “I don’t know how to write a song!” But at the end of a five-hour workshop, they had indeed successfully composed choruses for their individual lullabies. They danced for joy, Staten said.

Back in Anchorage and on fire to launch a local project, Staten faced big hurdles. Where would the money come from, and how would she earn institutional approval?

The first step was gaining Hiland Mountain Superintendent Gloria Johnson’s support. She and her staff emphasize empowering women and reducing recidivism. This program, aimed at bonding prison mothers with their children, seemed like a good fit. They gave an emphatic green light, and the project was on. Of 25 lullaby projects around the United States, only two – Hiland Mountain and Rikers – happen in prison.

Staten attributes the project’s success to what she calls the “Yes factor.” That’s when armies of supporters say, “Yes!” and step up to help. Together, she and her co-conspirators found a nonprofit to host the project and raise necessary funds. Alaska Children’s Trust awarded a $10,000 grant to support the project.

Her next steps were recruiting musicians, providing training through Carnegie staff and matching musicians with inmate songwriters. The mothers tackled their lyric writing using the “Carnegie Lullaby Workbook.” In it, they sketched their dreams and hopes for their children. Together, mothers and musician “coaches” worked to translate those ideas into the language of song, and musicians wrote the tunes. A “listening party,” where mothers could approve final versions, was an emotional experience. For many of the mothers, this was the first time they were able to hear their own words set to music.

Finally, the project culminated in that September public performance, with each mother receiving a CD copy of her lullaby. It was an afternoon of soulful solidarity as fellow citizens stood with these incarcerated women and shared their love and affection for their beautiful children.

“It made me want to be a mother again,” one Hiland mother said.

 

A Letter to Those Living in a Marijuana Decriminalized State

By Mishelle Nace, MD

cookiesDear Those Living in a Marijuana Decriminalized State,

Now that I am legal in Alaska, it’s going to be a lot easier for children to come in contact with me. For some kids it won’t be a problem; they may not even notice me. For others I could have a much bigger impact and I could lead them to a place they had not planned on going. It is not my intent to harm anyone, so I figure if I want to keep kids safe, it’s best to clarify a few things.

Just because I am legal, it does not mean I am safe for all. To be clear, although the law states I am legal for adults, that does not stand true for those under 21. There are reasons for that distinction:

Some studies show concerning things about me, and how I might affect developing minds. Teenagers’ brains are not fully developed until closer to their mid 20s, and experimenting with a mind-altering substance during this crucial growth period can lead to a less desirable path of maturity. Studies have also shown that adolescents that use me regularly have a more challenging time with school work and have a higher risk of not completing high school. Who wants that outcome? And addiction? Yep, that can happen too. People who start using me at a younger age are more likely to have an addiction problem than people who wait until adulthood to use me.

gummi-bearsSometimes, I make people not care as much as they should. If an adolescent is facing a problem, they may decide in that moment they don’t want to deal with it. If I am accessible, they might opt to use me to escape the problem instead of figuring out a better or longer-lasting solution. Although that might feel better to them in that moment, over time, that can really be a disservice to their developing brain. And if they choose to use me repeatedly during this crucial time of emotional maturing, they very well could miss out on effectively learning how to deal with complex issues that pop up on all of us throughout life. That is not an easy path to fix or rewire once you are in adulthood.

And it is no secret that when I am onboard, I make people approach things differently than they may have otherwise. Teenagers already tend to be bigger risk-takers than adults, in general. When I enter the equation, I can further impact risk-taking behavior. Things that may have been processed as “a bad idea” when sober now have fewer common sense barriers to keep them from being put into action. Things like driving under the influence when reflexes are not as quick, having relationships not in one’s best interest or failing to do something crucial that got overlooked while under the influence.

candyHere are a few things from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ website that you can do to help keep your kids safe:

  • Set clear rules and expectations regarding use.
  • Make it a part of your life to be a part of your children’s social life at home and school by talking with them regularly.
  • Start conversations about marijuana early, even while they are still in elementary school and don’t yet know the dangers.
  • When they do talk, listen carefully and respond without judgment.
  • Coach them on how to say no to marijuana and other drugs.
  • Monitor your own attitude and actions regarding me as this may affect their approach and decisions about me as well.

Want more tips on how parents can help prevent underage marijuana use? Check out this in-depth article from Seattle Children’s Hospital.

I do have to add one more significant concern about me before I sign off – the danger of young children accidentally consuming me because I look like candy or a sweet treat. With my legalization, you’ll find me in new, varied product forms, including edible products of all sorts, and the packaging can be very deceiving, or non-existent even. For example I can be disguised in a brownie, cookie, gummy bear, bread and many other forms.

To help avoid unintended ingestions by children, the State of Alaska website recommends the following regarding safe storage:

  • Out of sight
  • Out of reach
  • Clearly labeled
  • Stored in a child-resistant container
  • Kept in a locked cabinet or box (helps the adolescents not get to me too)

If you are concerned a child has consumed me by accident, call Poison Control immediately (1-800-222-1222).

Now that I am going to be around more, there are many great resources to help families keep safe and make healthy choices for their families including this Alaskan website.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I feel it is my duty to help make you aware of some of my concerns.

Regards,

Marijuana

mishelle_nace_md-2013-smallMishelle Nace, MD, is the pediatric medical director at Tanana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Teaching about ACEs

An Interview with Master Resilience Trainer Deborah Bock, MSW, LCSW

The Alaska Children’s Trust Resilience Trainer Program began in the summer of 2014. Twenty-six individuals from six Alaska communities (Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks, Juneau, Cordova and Homer) were selected to attend a two-day workshop given by Dr. Robert Anda and Laura Porter of ACE Interface, and supported by Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and Alaska Children’s Trust.

Participants learned about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on lifelong health and well-being, the effects of toxic stress on brain development, and promising approaches to reducing and reversing the impact of childhood trauma and building resilience in children, families and communities. Participants were given resources and guidance on how to teach about ACEs and resilience. In turn, they made a commitment to share this information with their community by giving presentations free of charge.

We sat down with one of the trainers, Deborah Bock, who is based in Anchorage, and asked about her experiences as a resilience trainer.

Q: Why did you want to be a resilience trainer?

R: In 2014 I jumped at the opportunity to join a community of people working to educate our state about the damaging effects of child abuse and neglect. Eight years earlier I had read about the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, and it made a powerful impression on me. The ACE Study provided scientific confirmation for what I had observed in my work and in my family, that someone who has a stressful childhood is at increased risk for both emotional and physical health problems later in life.

Q: How would you describe your experiences as a resilience trainer with Alaska Children’s Trust?

R: I find it extremely rewarding. I’ve been invited to present to professional groups, including social workers, public health nurses, domestic violence advocates, addiction treatment counselors, and nursing students at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Because of my background in school social work, I feel at home among teachers and school counselors. I have presented to teachers ranging from preschool to college. My favorite audience is Head Start parents; many of them survived a very difficult childhood themselves, and they want better for their children.

At the end of every presentation I invite participants to complete a feedback form. In response to the question, “How will you use this information in your work and in your life,” I have received comments such as, “I will be more compassionate toward homeless people,” “I will be more compassionate toward my students,” and “I will be more compassionate toward myself.” When I read comments like that, it makes it all worthwhile.

Q: You are clearly passionate about this work. Where does that passion come from?

R: After I graduated from college I worked in a group home for teenage girls in San Francisco. During the two years that I worked there, I can’t remember a day when all nine girls went to school. The girls missed a tremendous amount of school due to illness. They had migraine headaches and asthma attacks. When a girl caught a cold, it dragged on and on. It often led to an ear infection or bronchitis. I remember thinking to myself, “I guess if you don’t get enough love as a child, you don’t develop a normal immune system.” Twenty-five years later, I came across an article about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which confirmed my hunch.

The ACE Study demonstrated that chronic childhood trauma increases the risk for headaches, asthma, high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and cancer, and much more. ACEs also increase the risk for school failure, teen pregnancy, homelessness, divorce, mental illness, suicide, and many other personal and social problems. It confirmed what many of us have suspected for a long time, that our homeless shelters, prisons, juvenile halls and mental hospitals are largely filled with people who have a history of child abuse and neglect.

Q: What types of adversity were included in the ACE Study?

R: The original ACE Study was a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente in San Diego and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers asked over 17,000 adults about stressful experiences they had before the age of 18. The researchers then divided the responses into 10 forms of adversity: three forms of abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), two forms of neglect (physical and emotional), and five forms of household dysfunction (parental divorce/separation, growing up with someone who abused alcohol or drugs, growing up with someone who was mentally ill, or having a household member go to prison). From this they developed an ACE Score (0-10), which is a measure of the cumulative toxic stress of a person’s childhood.

Awareness of the impact of ACEs has developed into what is being referred to as the trauma-informed movement. Trauma-sensitive practices are being instituted in medical settings, addiction treatment programs, homeless shelters, police departments and courts, juvenile and adult corrections facilities, preschools, K-12 schools, universities and so on. At this point it seems like the sky’s the limit.

Q: Do other adversities, like bullying or historical trauma, that were included from the study have the same impact on a child?

R: At present, ACEs data has been collected on almost half a million people. The original ACE Study was conducted almost 20 years ago; since then the study has been replicated many times in many places, including in Alaska. This has led to a growing recognition that events that occur outside of the home and even trauma experienced by a child’s parents and grandparents can have direct and lasting impact on a child’s development.

Being the victim of bullying and growing up in a violent community have emerged as significant stressors. The intergenerational transmission of suffering, shame and grief (also known as historical trauma) is beginning to be understood, including how trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next by way of epigenetic programming of the DNA in our cells.

Research continues to expand. Researchers in Washington state are measuring levels of adversity among young children. The World Health Organization is developing the ACEs International Questionnaire, which will include questions about witnessing war, being a child bride, or being recruited as a child soldier.

Q: What has been the greatest challenge for you as a resilience trainer?

R: Talking about trauma can be a “downer.” I want people to walk away feeling hopeful, and inspired to take action. In every presentation I share information about trauma-informed practices that are making a difference in schools, prisons, clinics and social service programs. I want people to know that the presence of a caring, competent adult in a child’s life can make all the difference. The resilience researcher Dr. Ann Masten calls it “ordinary magic.” We all have the opportunity to be magicians, by spending quality time with a child.

Q: What do you want your audiences to remember after a training?

R: I want audiences to remember that ACEs are common, and that there is a “dose-response relationship” between childhood adversity and later physical, social and behavioral health problems. That understanding provides a clear and urgent call for us to prevent childhood adversity, heal trauma, and build resilience in children, families and communities. It takes a lot of work, but we can break the intergenerational cycle of child abuse and neglect.

Interested in becoming a resilience trainer or scheduling a training for your organization? Contact Laura Avellaneda-Cruz at 907-248-7676 or lavellanedacruz@alaskachildrenstrust.org!

You can support efforts like these and make a positive statewide impACT for Alaska’s children and families when you Pick. Click. Give. to Alaska Children’s Trust!

deb2

Deborah Bock, MSW, LCSW, lives in Anchorage for the past 18 years. She has worked as a bilingual (Spanish-English) school social worker and as a university Spanish instructor. Deborah is a self-proclaimed “ACEs fanatic.” She says that is it dangerous to get seated next to her on an airplane; if you put down your book you are probably going to get an earful about ACEs.

Pulling Together: A Forum for Faith Leaders

The Alaska Governor’s Office, Alaska Children’s Trust and the Alaska Resilience Initiative present “Pulling Together: A Forum for Faith Leaders.” The free event takes place Tuesday, January 24 from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. at the Cuddy Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage Campus. faith-forum-flyer-white-bg