Nome recognizes Child Abuse Prevention Month
Nome Eskimo Community held a tomcod derby, Kawerak held an art contest, Norton Sound Health Corporation held an open house. While none of these events would appear to be connected, they all supported a common goal. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, marking 30 days dedicated to helping address what is often a taboo subject. Since abuse can be a cyclical process —victims of abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves — it is an important issue for future as well as current generations, and an important cycle to break.
Colleen Deighton works at the Kawerak Child Advocacy Center and helped to coordinate this month’s activities in Nome. Deighton pointed out that, though April used to be called Child Abuse Awareness Month, it is now about prevention. “Because let’s be honest, we all know it happens,” she said. The 30 days are dedicated to stopping maltreatment before it happens, or at least before it goes too far.
Deighton said the goal of the month is to provide safe, family friendly activities to help parents have positive interactions with their children. “I would like to see families do things with each other,” Deighton said. The activities are easy, inexpensive, don’t need planning and are available all year long.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of child abuse per capita in the nation, according to the Alaska Children's Trust. In addition, a report by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services showed that Alaska consistently has one of the highest rates of repeat child maltreatment in the country. Repeat maltreatment is defined as a situation when there have been multiple instances, and in some cases reports, of abuse or neglect, but the child is either left in the perpetrator’s custody or returned to it.
The State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Office of Children’s Services (OCS) is the agency responsible for keeping Alaskan children safe. When a teacher, relative or friend suspects that a child is being abused, he or she can file a Protective Service Report, or PSR, to report maltreatment to OCS. OCS is required by law to investigate the reports. If OCS determines that the report is unfounded and the family is not in need of services, the case ends there.
Alternatively, the office may open a case and offer the family services designed to address the safety issues in the home. Last month, OCS received 1,420 PSRs statewide, and screened 752 cases, according to the State of Alaska website. The Northern region, which includes Nome, accounted for 252 of the PSRs OCS received.
Christy Lawton, director of OCS, said that over the past five years the agency has made changes to their policy around their review of reports in an attempt to decrease the rate of repeat maltreatment. Lawton said the number of PSRs OCS receives has not changed too drastically over the past five years, but what OCS does with the reports has.
Statewide, OCS screens and investigates about 55 percent of all cases, and takes custody on around 10 percent of those. The number of PSRs OCS screened in for the Northern region, has increased from 789 in 2011 to 1,220 in 2015. Along with the policy changes, OCS is also making an effort to intervene earlier, especially in cases involving young children and infants.
Maltreatment can manifest itself in several different ways, including mental, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. To prevent physical and mental abuse, Deighton said it is important to help parents realize that when their children act out, it is because they are trying to cope with their environment, not because they want to behave badly.
More often than not, victims suffered from more than one type of maltreatment, Lawton said. The person who reported the victim, most often a teacher, health worker or a law enforcement officer, usually only knows part of the story. Lawton said that a teacher may file a PSR because a student has missed several days of school, which qualifies as neglect. When OCS investigates the home and victim, they may find that the victim is being physically, mentally or sexually abused as well as neglected.
According to OCS statistics, child neglect is the largest problem in the Northern region, which encompasses 90 communities in the northern half of the State. Allegations of neglect accounted for half of the PSRs OCS received last year in this region.
Lawton said neglect is so prominent because it is a “wide, all encompassing category.” Whenever substance abuse is involved, the child is considered a neglect victim. Neglect can also manifest itself in many different ways. Unlike abuse, when the maltreatment is intentional, neglect can occur for a variety of reasons.
Lawton said parents who suffer from depression may simply lack the energy to care for their children. Children in one-parent households are also more likely to be victims of child maltreatment. Lawton said that, given Alaska’s high domestic violence rates, there are a lot of people, especially women, raising children on their own. Lawton estimates that substance abuse is present in about 75 percent of OCS cases.
According to Deighton, neglect can be as harmful to a child as physical, sexual or mental abuse, because it is not an isolated incident. “It’s not just that mom got mad, it’s day after day after day that these kids go without food, without clothes,” Lawton said. By the time the neglect becomes extreme enough that someone notices, the victim is most likely scarred for life.
The reason the Northern region has such a high rate of neglect, Deighton believes, goes back to Alaska’s boarding school era. Neglect is defined as the failure of a caregiver to provide food, care shelter, medical attention or education to a minor in his or her care. An entire generation of Alaska Natives didn’t understand what it meant to have a parent, and therefore did not know how to be a parent. Though babies being born today are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of children who were taken away from their villages to be sent to school, the problem is passed down. This explains why victims are overwhelmingly Alaska Native or Native American. In 2015, only 73 of the nearly 2,000 subjects of PSRs were not identified as Native.
Lawton agreed that historical trauma is responsible for Alaska’s high child maltreatment rate. The ramifications of the trauma that occurred when Western culture was forced upon Alaska Natives and they were “sent out by the truckload (to boarding schools)” is passed down through the generations. The sense of loss of culture and traditional values continues, as does a distrust of the government.
Neglect is often harder to detect than abuse, because children most likely will not display physical symptoms until after it becomes a chronic issue. Deighton said the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” is the first step in the right direction. Deighton said it is important to understand that not every parent will know what to do. Every resident in a community needs to be aware of the children, and has a responsibility to make sure that they are being cared for. If they suspect the child is not getting proper treatment, people need to be willing to talk to the parent, the child and sometimes an authority figure.
Lawton said the way forward for Alaska is for OCS to better coordinate with the Alaska Native tribes and organizations. “We have made a lot of progress, but still have a long way to go,” she said.