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We’re relocating our blog!

In a move to consolidate all our wonderful resources to our website, we have relocated our blog to our main Alaska Children’s Trust page. We would love for you to check out our new set up and stay in touch by subscribing to our listserv. Our monthly newsletter will let you know about the most recent blogs and resources to share that protect our children and families.

Subsistence Living Can Help Raise Strong Children

Highlighting the strength, pride, and familial resilience that subsistence activities offer

By Kayla Gilbert

Growing up, I was introduced to subsistence living from infancy in rural Alaska, as a child of the Copper River Valley. Fast forward 30 years and here I am raising my family of 8 in the same way in Tazlina, Alaska.

Subsistence can have many different meanings to people, but in our family, subsistence is the act of maintaining, producing, and supporting our household self-sufficiently and taking from the Earth at a sustainable levelWhether that’s hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening, or preserving, anything that resources very little to nothing from manufacturers or at a mass production level is subsistence to us.

I see so much value in teaching my children to pursue subsistence living. I feel that pursuing a subsistence lifestyle creates unity in our family dynamic and brings us closer together, building trust and confidence, which can be lost arts in our society. 

Hard work. Self sufficiency. Independence. Learning. Teaching. Growing. All these play a huge part in our happiness and are also necessary for survival. I like to teach my children that we work hard and play hard. We turn normal everyday chores and survival needs into entertainment and fun. For example, when we are picking vegetables and berries, I will make a game of it by giving my children a weight and whoever gets the most in weight gets to help bake a dessert or choose the dessert we bake. I know that by working hard and constantly learning how to ‘figure it out’ my kids will also feel more satisfaction and success in the long run.

Show your children that the experiences you create together, learning, growing and doing with a subsistence living mindset is what can help build your healthy family bond. Instead of hushing a child with a smartphone and trying to get their excitement under control with technology, try to get outside together! You’ll be astounded by how spending time in the great outdoors can calm (and exhaust) children and how much pride they will feel when harvesting… and of course, getting to eat some sourdough Alaskan blueberry pancakes that they know they contributed to. The delicious eating part always helps!

Plus, a subsistence lifestyle allows you the time to get to know your children in a deep and meaningful way. Families nowadays can become distant and know more about buttons on a controller than they do about the individuals they live with. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen families gathered for a meal that don’t know how to have good old fashioned dinner table talk! The time you spend outside with your kids helps them open up like a tundra flower, giving them space to be loud, be free, and get the attention and love they deserve and need.

One subsistence story that always stands out in my mind is a time when we were moose hunting and every attempt was a fail. I had just hours before I had to be out of the woods. We made the decision to make one more hopeful attempt….it seemed promising, yet so did every other time. There is a lot that is factored into the pursuit of wild game, especially when it is your food for the next year. With just a few minutes of daylight to spare before needing to head back on the trail, we were successful! I was so proud of the success because I had the opportunity to show my children that despite the failures and seemingly unending road blocks, success is founded in perseverance, a good attitude, and focus. These traits transfer over to all areas of life, not solely subsistence living, and my children had the opportunity to learn how important it is to take pride in what you put your mind and heart into and love the life you lead.  

Subsistence living is so ingrained in me that I don’t really know how to live any other way. While my husband went to college, we were newlyweds living in a tiny apartment in Eugene, OR and I had literally everything ‘easy’, manufactured products were right at my fingertips. Yet, I couldn’t help myself but to go back to my roots. I thrive when I am creating, making, and figuring out how to DIY (Do It Yourself). I would grow my plants in tiny planter pots, preserve, use everything, and make things go as far as I could. Picking wild berries was a favorite of mine because it seemed like such a shame to go buy some from the market when nature was providing an endless bounty right out my backyard AND I got a good dose of Vitamin D while doing it!

Of course, your level of subsistence use can vary greatly, I’m not saying you need to completely isolate yourself from consumerism and kill and grow only the foods in your backyard, but rather that you take opportunities to harvest from the world around you, use your resources, and involve your family by learning together how to do things for yourself and feel successful without spending a dime or worrying if you’ll have WiFi.

My favorite season in Alaska is fall, it is a special time here and, for rural Alaskans, extremely important for preparation. There is something special about gathering your harvest. About going out and storing up for the cold dark winter. Harvest season in Alaska is abundant and can overfill your freezer several times over if pursued correctly. Just think, eating meat that you sought out, worked hard to shoot, field dress, and prepare for the coming days. Think about the endless berries and herbs that you know have been nurtured and grown free of chemical sprays, dollar signs and quantity limits- goods not shipped up from the lower 48 or countries far away. Goods that go right from nature to your dinner plate or your canner to prepare for later in the year. In winter, you’ll have the security of knowing all is well AND I bet you and your children won’t take for granted what now stuffs your freezers because your sweat was poured out for it, your diligence persevered it and your goals were successfully met. Think of the powerful effect it will have not only on you but on your children and their children. The act of feeding your family from the land connects you not only with the land itself, but also with each other. You’re able to step back and see (and eat!) your handiwork and have memories to bond over with your children for years to come.

I grew up knowing many other kids with a similar lifestyle to me and I have not met a single person that doesn’t talk about their experiences without at least a little pride and satisfaction. It’s amazing what we can accomplish and succeed in when we use the resources that nature provides. The memories I have growing up in a subsistence living family provided me with the stamina to pursue life with a perspective that I can do anything I put my heart and mind to, and I know the same is the case for my own children. It has also helped create a beautiful harmony of living life together as a strong and confident family.


*** Alaska Children’s Trust acknowledges the critical role subsistence activities take in Alaska Native culture as a means of gathering food as well as a deep and powerful tie to the land and to family and ancestors. We are always encouraging new voices in our blog, and encourage you to contact us at kidsfirst@alaskachildrenstrust.org if you have a blog topic you’d like to write about or a topic request you’d love to read about. You can also comment below!


Kayla Gilbert was born and raised in rural Alaska. When she turned 20, she began to travel to see what there was beyond the tundra life. It wasn’t long before the deep love for the Alaska lifestyle brought her back to her roots where she now lives. She is a full time Traveling Photographer and business owner of ZAG Photography. When she is not traveling to capture weddings, couples and new places she is a full time mom to her 6 crazy cool kids. Kayla and her husband, Justin, have been married for 10 years; they love adventure, nature and raising their family to appreciate what life has to offer. They have one son in heaven, Zimeon Arrow Gilbert. While he isn’t with them physically his legacy lives on through his family by being their drive to live every day to the fullest with gratitude for all those around them and to treasure the close-knit family unit. Kayla’s heart in life is to be inspired by others while also inspiring others to have incredible joy for everything in this crazy journey called life. It’s not always an easy path but it is so much fuller when we choose to have joy and positivity as we embrace each new and crazy situation. She loves meeting new people and connecting with them!  Feel free to follow her journey as a photographer-mom on her social media platforms: Website: www.zagphotography.com  Facebook: ZAG Photography Instagram: @zagphotographer 

Choosing the Right Babysitter in a COVID-19 World

By Ethan King, Summer Intern at Alaska Children’s Trust

These days, more and more families are having to seek alternative methods for childcare. With COVID-19 limiting childcare and afterschool programs, and amid concerns of children being exposed to the virus, more families are relying on individuals within their safety bubble to babysit.  

If you are considering hiring a babysitter, here are some basic items to consider to ensure the safety of your children:

  • How old is your child/children? The younger the child, the older and more experienced the babysitter should be.
  • How many children do you have? It is important to consider the number of children an individual will need to supervise. Again, the more children the babysitter needs to care for, the older and more experienced they should be.
  • Does your child have any special needs like medical care or behavioral challenges?
  • What additional duties do you want the babysitter to accomplish, such as preparing meals or helping with schoolwork?
  • What schedule do you want the babysitter to follow while watching your child?
  • What training do you want the babysitter to have, such as CPR/first aid training or Red Cross babysitting course?

The presence of COVID-19 in our communities requires families to consider additional factors to reduce exposure to the virus. For example:

  • Start by exploring options within your existing safety bubble (people who you are already in your social circle).
  • If no one is available in your safety bubble, extend that circle to circles of your friends. They may have connections outside of your safety bubble that could be potential sitters. 
  • When interviewing a potential sitter, it is important to communicate your expectations related to exposure levels and ask about their expectations. Develop an agreed-upon plan for your family and your babysitter with regards to COVID precautions so that everyone is on the same page. Outline expectations related to mask wearing for them and the child, hand washing, and social contact. This will help both your family and your babysitter feel more comfortable sharing space.
  • If the sitter or anyone in your family becomes sick, have a well-established communication plan. Let the sitter know they should not come to work until they receive a negative COVID test result or complete a 14-day quarantine.
  • Prior to the babysitter entering your home, you are encouraged to clean, with a focus on high-touch surfaces like counters, door handles, light switches, etc.  

Families who do not feel comfortable having a babysitter in their home can consider other options for temporary childcare. For example, Zoom is not just for work anymore! It is also being utilized for “electronic babysitting.” Electronic babysitting is usually short term (15 to 30 minutes) and for children of at least preschool age (3+).

During an electronic babysitting session, the child uses Zoom or another video conferencing app to call and interact (i.e. play Simon says or talk about their day) with a babysitter. This is a simple option when you need to make a quick call or need some time to focus on a project without being disturbed. During an electronic babysitting session, it is important that you remain somewhere in the house, in case of emergency. It is also important to consider how your child would handle a 15- to 30-minute video call because only you can determine if they would enjoy or be able act responsibly.

Another option is for your child to go to the sitter’s home. In this case, questions to consider are:

  • Does your babysitter live by themselves or with other people?
  • How comfortable is your babysitter with taking your child into their house?
  • How much will transportation cost?
  • Does the babysitter want to be paid more for having your child at their house?
  • How long would your child spend at the babysitter’s house?
  • Is your babysitter’s home adequately childproofed?
  • What games and activities do they have to entertain your child?

With so many people working from home due to COVID-19, there is an increased need to find balance between work productivity, family time, time for self-care, and time together with your partner. Babysitting can be a safe solution in this era of COVID-19 by asking the right questions, developing solid plans, following health precautions and being open in your communication with your babysitter.

Need more information on babysitting and coronavirus? Continue your research with these additional articles:  

Do you have suggestions of your own for navigating this difficult topic? We’d love to read your ideas and stories. Feel free to comment them below.

Ethan King, author of this blog and summer intern at Alaska Children’s Trust

Summer – your opportunity to strengthen your family

It’s summer vacation! While summertime schedules can pose challenges, summer also provides lots of wonderful opportunities for families to focus on building stronger connections.

Strengthening Alaska’s families is what Alaska Children’s Trust is all about, so we’re pleased to share these national and local resources that can help your family not just survive, but thrive, this summer!

Keep learning. Did you know that children can lose up to two months of essential math and reading skills during the summer months? Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can support learning during summer vacation. Mark your calendar for National Summer Learning Week, July 8 – 13. This week is all about keeping kids learning, safe and healthy during the summer, ensuring they return to school in the fall ready to succeed. Check out the family toolkit for tips and resources, like:

Go to camp. From math and sports to gardening and entrepreneurship, there is a summer camp for nearly every age and interest! Explore the possibilities with your child in the Alaska Parent Summer Camps and Programs Resource Guide and the Anchorage Daily News Summer Camp Guide.

Eat healthy. According to The Children’s Lunchbox, a program of Bean’s Café, there are approximately 21,000 children in the Anchorage area who don’t have enough healthy food to eat. This problem becomes even more severe in the summer for children who rely on school lunch programs. Families who need help can connect with numerous programs that offer free meals to children during the summer, including:

Find quality child care. thread is Alaska’s Child Care Resource and Referral Network, offering services to families, early childhood educators, early childhood education programs, and communities statewide. If you need help finding or choosing quality child care, or are looking for child care financial assistance, thread is a great place to start.

Get some fresh ideas. Best Beginnings is a public-private partnership that mobilizes people and resources to ensure all Alaska children begin school ready to succeed. Their website has great resources on growing readers, building strong families and engaging community around the importance of a child’s early years.

 Have resources to add? Please share with us on Facebook or Twitter

Be Safe on the Water this Summer: Safe Boating Practices for Families

By the Alaska Office of Boating Safety

The Alaska Office of Boating Safety strives to help Alaskans avoid dangerous situations on the water and use safe boating practices. One of our programs, the Kids Don’t Float program, is a statewide injury prevention effort developed to address Alaska’s high youth drowning rate. This program educates participants about the effects of cold water immersion and provides life jackets through the Kids Don’t Float life jacket loaner board component.

While we focus on teaching children throughout Alaska why it’s important to wear a life jacket, we also want the adults in their lives to have the same understanding. Wearing a life jacket is a vital part of safe boating for everyone, not just for children.

Generally accepted by researchers to be water temperatures below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, cold water is virtually all water in Alaska, and it has a physical effect on everyone, regardless of age, swimming ability, or boating experience. Cold water immersion plays a significant role in many of Alaska’s boating fatalities. During each stage of cold water immersion, a life jacket can greatly improve a person’s chances of survival by increasing the distance between their airway and the water, assisting with rescues and self-rescues, keeping a person floating even when disabled or unconscious, and providing protection in the event of an ejection.

In Alaska, anyone under the age of 13 is required by law to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when on an open boat, on the deck of a boat, or when being towed. Along with making sure your children are wearing safe and serviceable life jackets, you can set a good example, not to mention taking a step to ensure you’re around for their future, by wearing yours.

Consider a situation in which you are unable to help during an emergency (perhaps you experience a medical issue or fall out of the boat). Will your family know what to do? Empower passengers, including children, to be safe and responsible boat passengers by educating them on what to do in the event of an emergency. Make sure they know how to handle the boat, location of emergency equipment, how to call for help, and how to assist in a rescue.

Because nearly all boating-related mishaps involve operator controllable risk factors, most are both predictable and preventable. Effective risk management is the key to safe and enjoyable boating. To keep yourself and your children safe while boating, follow these safe boating practices:

  • Always wear a life jacket
  • Carry emergency communication and distress signaling (alert and locate) devices on your person
  • Attach the engine cut-off device when underway (powerboaters)
  • Equip the boat with at least one means of re-boarding
  • Complete a pre-departure check
  • File a float plan
  • Brief all passengers on the location and operation of emergency equipment and how to stop, start, and steer the boat
  • Check the weather and dress appropriately

BSlogo Idea OneTo learn more about what we do, visit alaskaboatingsafety.org or find us on social media. You can contact us at officeofboatingsafety@alaska.gov with questions or comments, or to schedule a Kids Don’t Float presentation at your school or organization.

Painting the stories of trauma and resilience

Steve Gordon found himself in the midst of the conversation about childhood trauma and resilience “quite by accident.” One year ago, the renowned artist and University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) art instructor tasked his students with a mural-painting project that explored issues of contemporary interest. The topic: the headline-topping opioid epidemic. But instead of having his students just read articles on the issue, Steve invited several “recovery advocates” to come to his class and share their life stories.

“You can talk about the epidemic generically but when you hear a personal story, you have more compassion for the struggle and the heroic effort it takes to get into recovery,” Steve shares. “Many of these people had childhood trauma and that made their addiction more understandable. It got me interested in the correlation between ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and addiction.”

For the next series of murals, Steve decided to have his class focus on ACEs, and the Resilience After Trauma: An ACEs Mural Project was born. Adverse childhood experiences are when children are exposed to toxic stress like child abuse, domestic violence, an incarcerated parent or intergenerational trauma. These types of experiences can impair the development of a child’s brain and body so profoundly that the negative effects increase their risk of experiencing many of the physical, social and behavioral ills our communities face today, like substance abuse, homelessness or mental illness. However, there is hope – by learning healthy coping techniques and establishing supportive relationships, children and adults can develop resilience, which minimizes the impact of ACEs on their lives.

“Here we saw what can happen if a child undergoes trauma and doesn’t get any help or learn any resilience strategies,” Steve explains. “If children don’t get resources on the front end, you could be paying to put them in prison on the other end. It’s tragic.”

For the ACEs mural project, Steve invited another group of recovery advocates to speak to the students, who asked questions, took notes and photographed the speakers. “To hear what happened to them as kids, and how they are fiercely working to help others now, it was inspiring. It was impactful for me and everyone involved,” Steve says.IMG_7080

Then came the hard part – figuring out how to visually convey the stories of trauma and resilience in a 6-foot by 10-foot mural. Students worked together in teams to create three murals, and Steve invited four professional local artists to create pieces as well. Two local organizations – Alaska Children’s Trust and Alaska Native Medical Center Auxiliary – provided grants that helped with the cost of supplies.

We were pleased to be able to support Steve and his students in this unique and collaborative effort to raise awareness of adverse childhood experiences and the power of resilience,” says Trevor Storrs, president/CEO of Alaska Children’s Trust. “That’s exactly what our community investment grants were created for. By working together, we can create real change and turn the tides on child abuse and neglect in Alaska.”

Once the murals were completed, the class invited the speakers back for an unveiling of their work. Each group shared how they visually depicted the life-impacting moments – both negative and positive – into the mural.

The students also wrote artists’ statements explaining how the process impacted them personally and how they incorporated the stories into the paintings. “Working on this mural together, holding these images and words from Tarah’s life has had a profound effect on all of us and we are grateful to her for what she shared with us,” wrote the team of students who painted Tarah’s story. “She is the inspiration behind every layer of paint.”IMG_7156

Each mural is accompanied with the artists’ statements, along with information about ACEs and resilience, making it possible for viewers to understand the project without any introduction. “Most of the general population hasn’t heard about ACEs. I hope the murals with information on ACEs and resilience help people to be more aware,” Steve says. “ACEs are real and they have a lasting, lifelong impact on the development of kids’ brains. But you can proactively give children the tools to deal with stress and become resilient. The people in these murals are evidence of that. They provide hope to others.”

The murals will make their public debut February 7 at the Church of Love in Anchorage during a reception hosted by Alaska Children’s Trust and UAA with support from Alaska Native Medical Center Auxiliary and REAL About Addiction.

The February 7 reception is just the first stop for the freestanding artwork, which are designed to be highly transportable and easily displayed in public areas, including outdoors. From February 8 – March 8, the murals will be on display at the Anchorage Downtown Bus Depot. On March 8 – 9, they move to the Dena’ina Center for the Bean’s Café Empty Bowl Project. During the rest of March, the murals will tour the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Throughout April, they can be seen at the Loussac Public Library, and in May, they will be featured at the Mat-Su Health Foundation. All displays are free and open to the public.

Steve continues to seek opportunities to share the murals – and the messages they contain. “It’s exciting that art is helping to make a difference,” he says. “Art inspires change by shining a spotlight on the issue of ACEs and offering hope.”

Unraveling the stories of sex trafficking in Alaska

By Eileen Wright, trafficking case manager, Covenant House Alaska

In April 2017, Covenant House released a groundbreaking study that shed new light on the link between youth homelessness and human trafficking. It was the largest study ever of human trafficking among homeless young people, conducted in 10 cities nationwide, including Covenant House Alaska in Anchorage. The results were staggering. Of the 10 cities studied, Anchorage had the highest reported prevalence of trafficking. 28 percent of the youth surveyed at Covenant House Alaska were found to be survivors of human trafficking – more than a quarter of youth at the shelter, compared to 19 percent in the survey nationally. Eileen Wright, trafficking case manager at Covenant House Alaska, relates her experiences about the work done at the youth shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.

Not too long ago, a teenage girl arrived at our shelter at Covenant House from a small village in rural Alaska. Like most our youth, she had experienced some kind of trauma and was looking for a safe place to spend the night off the streets. Little by little, we began to unravel her story. The girl had been locked inside a boarded-up room and held against her will, armed men outside barring her escape. Her boyfriend – the trafficker – had brought customers into the room to sexually assault her as he profited from her abuse. She had come to Anchorage from the village to escape a dangerous home life. She now found herself trapped in the nightmare of sex trafficking, with no place to go.

Sex trafficking is an insidious crime, where predators target the most vulnerable of society. And in Alaska, we have one of the most vulnerable populations in the entire country: our children. Alaska sadly has the highest statistics of child molestation and abuse in the nation, and the highest rates of sexual assault and child neglect. These children are particularly at risk to sexual exploitation and chronic homelessness later on – they’ve already been “normalized” to a life of abuse and so are easy prey. There are criminals out there, looking to make a profit. Homeless youth are the targets.

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Traffickers groom young people through manipulation, through coercion and lies. It usually starts out with a relationship with a youth who is already vulnerable, who has no sense of value or self-worth. The trafficker lies to them, telling them they are loved, they are appreciated and will be cared for. For many at-risk youth, this is the first time anybody has lavished them with such praise and affection. A young girl soon cannot imagine their life without this person; in their minds, they are the only ones who have ever truly cared for them.

Then comes the abuse. Their boyfriends, the pimps, tell them, “If you really love me, then you will do this favor for me.” Resistance meets with beatings and threats. Girls will often be tied down and injected with meth or heroin, igniting painful addictions. And thus the cycle of trafficking begins.

When we found out the results of the study – that 28 percent of our youth at Covenant House Alaska were survivors of human trafficking – none of us here were surprised. If anything, we felt that it was underreported. We were also not surprised to learn that Alaska experiences the most heinous cases of sex trafficking in the nation. The researcher, Dr. Laura Murphy of Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project, told us that from among all the Covenant House sites across the country, ours had the most brutal cases of sex trafficking – worse than the big, crime-filled cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and even New York. And it’s true. When youth finally do open up to us, their stories are horrific. It is absolutely soul-crushing.

I love these young people. All of us here at Covenant House truly do. And I believe that the most important thing we can do for youth who are being trafficked – for all our youth who experience abuse and homelessness – is to show them unconditional love and respect. We build trusting relationships with them and always accept them for who they are. We make it so that Covenant House is a safe place that they can always come back to. The more times they come back here when they’re in trouble, the more likely they are to open up to us. And we become that relationship of unconditional love that they thought they had, which unlocks the ability for them to share the abuse they’ve suffered. Burdens are easier to carry when someone else is supporting you.

We all must do something to end this epidemic of sex trafficking in Alaska. It can start with our most precious resource: our children. Our mission at Covenant House is to “serve the suffering children of the street and to protect and safeguard all children.” If more Alaskans took that mission to heart, then perhaps we could begin to tackle the underlying trauma that brings youth to the streets – and ultimately to sex trafficking – in the first place.

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Eileen Wright, trafficking case manager, Covenant House Alaska

Covenant House Alaska is the state’s largest shelter serving youth ages 13 – 21 experiencing homelessness, abuse and trafficking. It provides safe shelter and warm meals, as well as medical, counseling, education and employment services. Since 1988, CHA has served over 25,000 at-risk youth in Alaska. To read the Covenant House study on human trafficking, go to https://covenanthousestudy.org/landing/trafficking/. For more information on how you can join Anchorage’s movement to end youth homelessness, please contact Covenant House Alaska’s volunteer specialist at 907.339.4261 or volunteer@covenanthouseak.org.

Superhero Dreams to Statewide Network: My Story of the Alaska Resilience Initiative

By Laura Norton-Cruz, Alaska Resilience Initiative Program Director

Beginnings

When I was eight years old, I determined that I was going to work to end child abuse. At the time, I imagined myself more in a cape getting rid of bad guys than in business attire facilitating a statewide network, but in some form or another, that’s where my particular journey to the Alaska Resilience Initiative began.

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Me, age 7. As it turns out, working for the safety and well-being of children ends up being less the job of a superhero and more the job of a collaborative host and facilitator.

A few decades later, working for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium on child trauma and violence-related issues, I found that I was involved with and aware of a number of tribal health organizations and nonprofits who were doing great work on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), intergenerational and systemic trauma, resilience – but I wasn’t sure if they were all aware of and working with each other. A need that I and others in the field kept noting was for some entity who could coordinate between all of the organizations doing work to address ACEs, reduce trauma, and support healing and resilience. I kept thinking, “We would be so much more powerful if we knew what others were doing, if we could spend less time re-inventing the wheel and more time learning from each other, if we had some statewide messaging and systems change work to amplify our efforts. Which organization could take that on? Which individual coordinator could facilitate that?”

Trevor Storrs, the executive director of Alaska Children’s Trust (ACT), was asking those same questions with the small group of advisors he had assembled informally and named the “Alaska Resilience Initiative.” This group took on a few initial projects towards this goal, from training ACEs and resilience trainers to surveying and mapping who was doing trauma-informed work. In 2015, this group, led by ACT, Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and First Alaskans Institute, and in partnership with the Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP) coalition in Homer, applied for and received a grant from the Health Federation of Philadelphia to be able to take on this statewide coordinating and movement-building role. When I heard that a program director would be hired for this work, it sounded like a dream come true – a childhood dream, at that! (Albeit a mature, updated version.) Despite being reticent to leave the tribal health system and the work I loved, I was thrilled when I was hired to join Alaska Children’s Trust and direct this initiative, beginning February 2016.

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Building an Equitable Movement

As one of 14 Health Federation of Philadelphia-funded Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) grantees throughout the country focused on movement-building around trauma and resilience, we (the Alaska Resilience Initiative and our partner coalitions in the Southern Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Valley) have had the spotlight on us to pilot network building and trauma-informed change. While the regional coalitions had already formed over the past few years, the statewide Alaska Resilience Initiative (ARI)’s relatively nascent status meant a considerable amount of work to expand and diversify the network, to form the planning and decision-making bodies needed to move the work forward, and – in order to make sure we were doing the work in a way that was equitable, effective and non-traumatizing – to listen. Especially to listen to Alaska Native people.

Alaska Native people comprise nearly one-fifth of the state’s population, and Alaska Native children represent over half of the children in the foster care system, and yet historically their voices have not been well-included in decision-making about social services, education and behavioral health. That’s why one of the very first things I did on the job was to team up with First Alaskans Institute and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council to host a gathering, held in May 2016, that put Native perspectives, customs, history and hopes at the center.

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A May 2016 gathering of Alaska Native and Native American people working on trauma and resilience issues around the state led to a number of principles for guiding trauma and resilience work. These included the importance of addressing collective forms of trauma, holding up ancestral knowledge about resilience, and partnering meaningfully with Native communities for solutions.

That gathering of about 30 people set a tone for the whole state that the voices and decision-making of Alaska Native people matter in this process. The goal was to seek input that could guide the Alaska Resilience Initiative, shape the curriculum for ACE/resilience trainers and frame a more inclusive and equitable approach to the work.

This initial gathering helped shape an inclusive approach to all the work that followed, from the large June 2016 gathering of organizations, tribes, schools and state departments from across Alaska to the building of ARI’s structure and processes, and the crafting of the “common agenda,” or shared goal of all ARI members, which is:image 1.5_ACT blog ARINow, in June of 2017, ARI receives its guidance from three active workgroups as well as a 23-member steering committee. The steering committee features a wide range of perspectives and connections, with representatives from social services, health care, behavioral health, community development, K-12 education, universities, early childhood education, philanthropy, government, law enforcement, business, faith-based and tribal organizations.

We also strive for equity by creating group norms that allow for all people to be heard, and by being intentional about diverse representation. The steering committee is still predominately white (69 percent), but both co-chairs are Alaska Native women, representing different regions, and members represent other ethnic and racial groups as well. This isn’t perfect, but it’s more diverse than many boards and leadership councils in Alaska.

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Lisa Wade, a co-chair of the steering committee, is Ahtna Athabascan and is a Nay’dini’aa Na’ / Chickaloon Village Traditional Council member, tribal court judge, and the Director of Education, Health, and Social Services for the tribe. Chickaloon is exemplary in its implementation of trauma-informed practices throughout the school, tribe and clinic. (The other ARI steering committee co-chair is Liz Medicine Crow, Tlingit and Haida from Ḵéex̱/Kake, Alaska, who is CEO of First Alaskans Institute.)

Lisa Wade, one of the steering committee’s two co-chairs, commented that the opportunity to lead and shape efforts of a statewide resilience effort is not simply having a seat at the table, but an open and inclusive process that creates equity:

“As a Tribal representative, one of the really positive things about participating on the Alaska Resilience Initiative has been the opportunity to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with coalition partners early on in the process. Our cultural perspective and values have been welcomed into the planning and decision-making process. For instance, our coalition adopted a consensus model of decision-making so that each voice at the table has equal importance. This alone has built equity and justice into our work and begun the creation of a model of compassion-informed community work. This is an exciting time where our collective Alaska Native voices are recognized as valuable and integral to identifying the unique challenges facing our communities and for developing culturally significant strategies that make sense for our children, our families, our communities, and our state.”

As the ARI program director, I recognize frequently that although collaborative, participatory work and the building of a collective structure takes a considerable investment of time, an individualistic, superhero approach or leadership from only one sector, organization or demographic of leaders would not allow us to be effective. Likewise, we have a long ways to go yet in order to really meaningfully include rural voices and all regions and demographics in the state, and to grow our network into a self-sustaining movement. This is one of the ongoing tasks before us that we are eager to embrace.

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I sketched out the above illustration to demonstrate the Alaska Resilience Initiative (ARI) network’s structure. The internal part is the backbone agency, Alaska Children’s Trust (with — part-time backbone staff signified by partial bodies and full-time staff by a full body) surrounded by ARI’s Steering Committee and supported by three workgroups: Communication, Policy, and Trauma-Informed Systems. Crowns symbolize leadership or organizer/facilitator roles. Overlapping with the ARI Network, we also have the regional trauma and resilience coalitions whose work intersects with our own. The little circles represent people — those currently within the network and those not yet involved. The wider ARI’s network and the more engaged its many members, the more we can accomplish.

What’s Happening Now

Over the last few months, in addition to building the initiative’s structure and decision-making processes, the Alaska Resilience Initiative has been working towards revising the ACE training curriculum; giving presentations across Alaska; supporting trauma-informed schools work in the Anchorage School District; developing relationships with policymakers; and pursuing immediate policy objectives such as a sustainable fiscal plan to resolve the state’s budget crisis without cutting early childhood and other funding for children and families.

Another exciting recent development is that the ARI steering committee gathered for an all-day think-tank on May 16, 2017 with a few Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) grant managers in order to ground ourselves in the beliefs, values, and goals that guide us, and to create focus areas for future work. We acknowledged that trauma and resilience work spans vastly, touching issues such as incarceration, historical and ongoing systemic trauma, and addictions. Committee members agreed that it is important to understand the broader societal, historical, economic and institutional contexts in which families and children experience trauma and toxic stress and their effects.

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May 16, 2017 think-tank gathering

Additionally, we acknowledge the importance of our intersections with other coalitions and movements, being thoughtful about how we overlap with and complement their work while maintaining our focus on a child development approach, the NEAR sciences (neurobiology, epigenetics, adverse childhood experiences, and resilience), data, and ancestral understandings of trauma and resilience. In all things, we are guided by equity and an awareness of the importance of early life experiences.

While advocating, networking and educating, ARI members commit to listening, learning and engaging in critical self-reflection. We all agree to be honest and open, and to foster a commitment to authentic relationships. Our actions will be compassionate and kind, with attention to our own wellness. Above all, we plan to value and create space for diverse voices and perspectives. Because this is not the work of superheroes, but rather of a movement. None of us can “save” Alaskan families; only by working together strategically can we create the real shifts in our state that are needed to end child maltreatment, intergenerational and systemic trauma, and to support resilient and healthy children, families, and communities.

To learn more about ARI, please visit our brand new website, www.akresilience.org.

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To read about some of the fantastic trauma and resilience work happening around the state, including with our partner coalitions, Raising Our Children with Kindness (R.O.C.K.) Mat-Su and the Southern Kenai Peninsula Resilience Coalition, please visit the Alaska Resilience Initiative’s blog and/or Facebook page – and look at the album called “site visits.”

“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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.