Many of you read stories in last Wednesday’s Juneau Empire about some of the horrific situations facing many Alaska Native teens; situations involving bullying, abuse, violence and rape. We expect most of you, if not all, were shocked when reading about how a 16-year-old girl from Tanana has spent more than a quarter of her short life being victimized by members of both her’s and neighboring communities. Stories like hers are not easy to read about. Or to write about, for that matter.
More than a half dozen teens broke their silence during the Elders and Youth conference held in Fairbanks this week. Each shared their own tragic tale with a packed room of 700 peers and elders. What these teens did took great courage. Each knew that speaking openly and honestly was the best way to force a much-needed change in their communities.
In some rural communities it is considered taboo to even speak of such issues such as violence, abuse and rape, though that’s not to say it isn’t happening or won’t continue to happen in the future.
Cynthia Erickson, a 4-H coordinator in Tanana, organized and lead the group during its prepared statements during the forum. Afterward, she told the Empire that people in her own community were upset she chose to discuss such topics openly. They told her to keep quiet or else risk making the situation worse. What they gave Erickson was more than just bad advice. That mentality serves only to enable those who prey on their communities’ youth and does nothing to dissuade predatory behavior against minors.
“You can believe what you’re going to believe, but I’m not going to do it anymore,” was Erickson’s response to those wishing to silence both her and the teens willing to speak up.
We commend Ms. Erickson for taking a stand and for refusing to be quiet on such a disturbing issue. The teens she is working with need adult voices speaking on their behalf — not against them. What Ms. Erickson is doing is morally, ethically and spiritually in the right. Those wanting to pretend these issues don’t exist are adding to the pain of a festering wound that needs immediate and direct treatment.
Per capita, Alaska ranks highest in the nation involving cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse. And those are only the cases we know of. When it comes to sexual abuse of minors, far too many cases go unreported, as the teens speaking out at the Elders and Youth conference will attest.
According to the Child Welfare League of America, 17 out of every 1,000 Alaska youth were victims of abuse, neglect or both, in 2010. That’s nearly two percent of our young people. And again, those are just the cases that were reported. In the same year there were 14,416 reports of child abuse and neglect. A little more than a third were ever investigated.
The prevalence of child sexual abuse is not a white problem, black problem or Native problem. It’s an Alaska problem, and it is one that doesn’t discriminate by race, income or social status.
The only way to combat this epidemic is by encouraging people, young and old, to speak out against such heinous acts, and also for Alaskans to demand that child predators in their communities be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
We know one thing for certain: Pretending a problem doesn’t exist is not a viable solution and only makes the issue worse.