By Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES Manager
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:
- First, we can invest in primary prevention models that reduce children’s exposure to trauma, or sustained, severe adversity.
- 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.
It 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” 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.
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.