Alaska's already high child abuse rate doubles over decade

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

Tim Stewart, intake supervisor with the state Division of Family and Youth Services, serves on the front line of the war against child abuse.

The local DFYS office fields 70 to 80 reports of harm a month, Stewart said. They flow in not only from Juneau but also from Haines, Skagway, Pelican and other Southeast communities. Most reports are from schools. Some are from parents in custody disputes hoping to tip the scales against the other parent.

``We investigate every one of them,'' Stewart said, ``because of the zero tolerance for abuse implemented by Governor Knowles.''

The agency's first response is to assign one of three priorities.

Ribbons mark awareness

When child advocate Debra Gerrish ordered 10,000 mint green ribbon pins from China last year, ``They thought I was out of my mind,'' she said.

This year, she ordered 25,000.

Gerrish is a dynamo for change in the area of child abuse, and she hopes the Mint Green Ribbon Campaign will bring the problem squarely into the public eye.

``I don't want anyone else to live in fear of being killed or not knowing what's going to happen next,'' said Gerrish, who lived with a mentally ill mother until age 12. ``I used to be constantly worrying, `If I say this wrong, will she hit me?' No one should live like that.''

RID Alaska Child Sexual Abuse, sponsor of the 2000 Alaskan Child Abuse Awareness Campaign, asks Alaskans to wear a mint green ribbon to show support for ending child abuse. The ribbon includes a forget-me-not representing Alaska's kids.

The original Mint Green Ribbon campaign idea came from Hollie Marshal of Minnesota, a survivor of child abuse. Marshal spun off the pink breast cancer prevention ribbon.

Last year, the Mint Green Ribbon campaign embraced Juneau, Anchorage, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. This year it has expanded to Ketchikan, Saxman, Sitka, Angoon, Wrangell, Craig and Klawock.

``Of course,'' Gerrish said, ``the pin is just the come on. It gets people talking. It gets them to pick up the pamphlet and look at additional material.''

Volunteers are using a variety of approaches to get pins to the public. In Nome, pins were distributed to crowds at the Iditarod finish line. In Sitka, students will tie green ribbons to car antennae. In Wrangell, coordinator Kelli Prescott is having kids make a banner with hand prints. In Juneau, Gerrish is coordinating a pre-school coloring contest.

When Alaskans call with reports of harm, they usually begin, ``I have a friend. . . ,'' said Beth Mercer of Juneau Youth Services. ``But, of course, the `friend' is really them, and they are abusing or know someone who is abusing or abused.''

Mercer has become part of the Mint Green Ribbon Campaign because of these reports and because seeing Gerrish at work inspires her.

``When Debra travels and talks about abuse, her own past re-surfaces. It's hard for her. But she feels so strongly about this that she has become a leading force in our state.''

Gerrish can be reached at 789-3236. Mercer, who heads the Southeast Child Abuse Network, can be reached at 789-7610.

Priority Three calls are judged the least critical. These calls usually address issues of neglect, such as ``a child coming to school without adequate clothing, a child who may not have eaten the day before, or has been left at home alone overnight,'' Stewart said.

Priority Two calls are more severe and require a faster response time. These are incidents of physical harm or out-of-home sexual abuse.

Priority One calls require immediate response. They include episodes of in-home sexual abuse where the child is still with the perpetrator, or sustained physical harm that places the child's life or health at risk, Stewart said. Other Priority One situations would be a child abandoned or in imminent risk of any of the above.

Alaska has one of the highest child abuse rates in the nation, and the number of reports of harm of all types to Alaska's children has increased dramatically in the last decade. The most frequent category of abuse is neglect, followed by physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental injury and abandonment.

During fiscal year 1989, DFYS received 7,876 reports of harm to children. During 1999, there were 16,294 reports of harm - an increase of 106 percent, said Roger Withington of the agency.

Buttocks marked by a belt buckle are an obvious sign of physical abuse, but the effects of abuse go far beyond the visible bruise, said Jackie Tagaban, early childhood development specialist with the Tlingit-Haida Headstart program.

``We now have the technology to compare normal child brain development with that of a child who has been in a traumatic environment,'' Tagaban said, ``and there is a huge difference.''

Brain development starts at birth and continues until age 10. It begins at the brain stem and progresses upward into other areas. The brain stem and mid-brain control basic life processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep. The limbic and cortical regions control higher functions such as emotions, memory, and concrete and abstract thought.

In a normal brain, Tagaban said, the limbic and cortical regions will grow to a ratio of two-to-one to the stem and mid-brain. But in the brain of an abused child, there will be a one-to-one ratio.

Development of higher brain functions doesn't happen in an abused child because ``it is so much more important for the child to deal with sheer survival,'' Tagaban said. ``The brain concentrates on survival and never gets to higher functioning.''

She suggests that children who kill other children have brains suffering from abuse, that they react purely on a fight-or-flight level and never develop rational thinking abilities.

``When we nurture and support our children, when we provide them with comfort, continuity and companionship, it sets the cornerstone for their development, both emotional and intellectual,'' Tagaban said.

Yes, child abuse exists in Juneau. ``We deal with the issues of child abuse on a daily basis in the classroom,'' she said.

DFYS posts current child harm statistics on the Web. More information is available through

Counselors and others who want to learn more about child abuse might consider a seminar, ``Why are these kids so angry and what can we do about it?'' The seminar by Malcolm L. Smith of Colorado will be held April 10 in Juneau. The fee is $109. Continuing education credit is available. To register or for more information, call 1-800-574-7438.

This is the first in a four-part series of Empire articles running Mondays this month. Other topics are: April 10, the shaken baby syndrome; April 17, preventing abuse; and April 24, resources for parents.

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