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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.

Nominate a Champion for Kids by July 14

We are looking to celebrate the great work being done in Southcentral Alaska! Nominations due Friday, July 14.

Champ for kidsThe Champion for Kids Award, presented by Alaska Children’s Trust (ACT), recognizes individuals from different regions of Alaska who have demonstrated a dedication and commitment in working towards preventing child abuse and neglect. These individuals have committed their time and resources to helping children have a safe place to live, learn, and grow, whether it is through their professional employment, volunteer work, community activities, or actively working with children.

Currently, ACT is looking to honor a Champion for Kids in Southcentral Alaska, which includes the Anchorage, Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula, Valdez and Cordova communities.

All across Southcentral Alaska, there are extraordinary individuals who are ensuring our children live in safe, stable, and nurturing communities. If you know one of these extraordinary individuals, ACT invites you to recognize them by nominating them for our 2017 Alaska Champion for Kids Award.

To nominate someone in your life, please fill out the Champion for Kids Award Application. Applications are due Friday, July 14, 2017. See past recipients.  

For additional information about past award recipients, the current Champion for Kids, and the application process, please visit Alaska Children’s Trust’s website.

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.

image 0_ACT blog ARI

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.

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.

 

image 1_ACT blog ARI

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.

image 2 _ ACT blog ARI

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.

image 3 _ ACT blog ARI

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.

image 3.5 ACT blog ARI
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.

image 4 ACT blog ARI

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 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.

peace

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

 

 

 

 

Local Nonprofits Grant $82,000 to Support Suicide Prevention in Alaska

The Alaska Community Foundation (ACF) and Alaska Children’s Trust (ACT) are proud to announce the 2017 recipients of grants to support youth suicide prevention in Alaska.

In April, the Teen Suicide Prevention Grant Program awarded 17 grants totaling $81,928 across the state. Applicants were encouraged to align projects with strategies from the Alaska State Suicide Prevention Plan.

This grant program, now in its sixth year, is supported by many funders both within Alaska and outside. In addition to support from ACF and the State of Alaska, the program also receives critical funding from Rasmuson Foundation, Wells Fargo, and, for the first time this past year, WalMart Foundation. The program also received a grant from the Caroline Christen Torgerson Memorial Fund, an unrestricted fund at ACF.

Katie St. John, director of programs and grants at ACF, says, “We were thrilled to be able to award such a large number of grants this year to so many worthy organizations across the state, many of them rural communities providing critical services to their residents. From Metlakatla to Paimiut to Kiana and Hooper Bay, organizations throughout Alaska are working closely with their communities to provide help, hope, and healing to those suffering from the effects of suicide or struggling with it themselves.”

See a complete list of grant awards on the ACT website. For more information about suicide prevention efforts and resources in Alaska, please visit StopSuicideAlaska.org.

 

 

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.

blueberry boy
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.

You’re Invited: May 9 Evidence-based Policy & Practice Lecture

lectureAs a precursor to the National Citizen Review Panel conference being held in Anchorage this month, Debra Schilling Wolfe will be speaking about Evidence-based Policy and Practice: Role of Research in Child Protection Enterprise. The presentation will be held Tuesday, May 9 at 7 p.m. in Rasmuson Hall on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

Schilling Wolfe is the executive director of The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

More information can be found in the Debra Schilling Wolfe Public Lecture Announcement flyer and on the Alaska Citizen Review Panel website.

 

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.

 

 

“I think that might be child abuse. What do I do?”

4 things you can do to help prevent abuse and neglect

By Trevor Storrs, Executive Director, Alaska Children’s Trust

Most of us have observed an interaction between a child and a parent that leaves an uneasy feeling in your stomach. It was on the line of being potentially abusive. I was faced with such a situation not that long ago. I was at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon when I witnessed a dad at his wits end and his son who was struggling. The situation was escalating and I was getting that uneasy feeling in my stomach. What do you do?

Each year, thousands of Alaska children experience or are at risk of experiencing child abuse and neglect. It cannot simply be removed with one swift action or policy. Rather, it is the accumulation of individual decisions, moments, and actions that can truly prevent child abuse and neglect.

As a witness of these potentially negative interactions between a child and a parent, we have the opportunity to be an active – versus passive – bystander. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that it is not our business, nor our responsibility, to intervene between a parent and their child. Many times, this culture is correct. But when we witness both the parent and the child struggling, and when this struggle seems to be leading to potential abuse or neglect, it is our responsibility to extend a helping hand – just as we would offer assistance when witnessing an accident.

In recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, here are four ways you can be an active bystander and help prevent child abuse and neglect.

  1. One of the easiest things you can do is distract. In general, no parent wants to abuse or neglect his or her child. Usually, several stressors have mounted over time and the current situation is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” A distraction could be asking the adult in the store if they know where a product is located. Or compliment the parent on how cute his or her child is. Or do something silly that gets both parent and child to smile at you.
  1. Another technique is to delegate. Find others, such as a friend, staff member or other witness, who could help you intervene in the situation. You could speak to the parent as the other individual checks on the child. The more people intervening, the greater the impact.
  1. Sometimes you must delay your intervention. For many reasons, you may not be able to do something right in the moment. You may feel unsafe or you are unsure whether or not the situation requires intervention. You may just want to check in with the child later, if possible, or monitor from a far.
  1. The next technique is direct intervention. This involves stepping in and addressing the situation directly. Deciding when to intervene in a public space requires a quick calculation on the degree of risk. If safe, directly address the situation without being confrontational. This is important because most people become defensive when confronted. Instead, validate the parent’s stress and just offer them some help. You could say something like, “Kids can be really difficult. Is there anything I can do to help?”

No matter which intervention technique you utilize, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect. It can vary depending on the type of abuse or neglect. Check out www.reportchildabuse.alaska.gov for more information. And finally, if you suspect child abuse and neglect, call local authorities or make a report to the Office of Children’s Services (OCS).

That day in the grocery store, I realized my uneasiness was not just caused by what I was witnessing but it was also the natural fear of being an active bystander. Then I remembered a quote by Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Being an active bystander usually only takes a quick moment of one’s time and is a responsibility we all have as community members. So, I reached for an item that was next to the dad and commented on how cute his son was and how fun it can be to have kids – all done with a smile. The father and I shared a little laughter and you could feel the mood change in the air. If more of us become active bystanders, together we can prevent child abuse and neglect.