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Tackling Alaska's domestic violence epidemic

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS – To hear Ida Ross tell it, all she did was “help out the kids” for 40 years. But as a Fairbanks foster parent, Ross took kids from the “bottom” of the foster list and did what no one else seemed to do: listen.

“What did you do to those kids?” Ross, 78, said people would ask when they saw a child who once had behavior problems suddenly acting well-adjusted. “Nothing,” she replied. “I just gave them a little love.”

Ross shared her story Tuesday during the 15th International Congress of Circumpolar Health. The congress, held every three years, brings together health practitioners, researchers, indigenous leaders and other community representatives from Arctic regions around the globe to discuss research and the pressing health needs of the circumpolar north.

Ross grew up in Kobuk, a small village in northwest Alaska near Kotzebue. She experienced loss early in life, with both her father and sister dying young. As the oldest sibling, Ross had to stop going to school in third grade to care for her brothers and sisters. Over the years she was able to use her story to help troubled youth overcome their own obstacles. She still helps young people as an elder at the Wings of Healing Pentecostal Church in Fairbanks.

“I know what it's like when you're lonely, when you're hurt,” Ross said. “As long as I can walk and stand, I will help out the people.”

Ross' story emphasized what many researchers and health providers aim to do in rural villages: build relationships. Her story followed a lecture from Linda Chamberlain, founder of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project. Chamberlain spoke about the effects of domestic violence on children.

Stress of domestic violence

There's no question that domestic violence affects circumpolar Native populations to a greater degree, she said. Alaska is no exception. In her keynote, Chamberlain referenced the fact that one in 10 Alaska Native women will report physical domestic violence.

Physical violence is relatively easy to track, Chamberlain said. Much harder to measure is the impact of domestic violence on children’s mental health. Those children might not be physically harmed, but just living in a household coping with domestic violence can cause serious stress.

“The problem for children is unpredictability,” Chamberlain said. “Wondering whether you'll be eating dinner or wearing it.”

A host of health problems stem from exposure to “toxic stress” -- obesity, failure to thrive, bed wetting and asthma. There are significant connections between toxic stress and suicide or substance abuse problems, Chamberlain noted. Behavioral problems can often manifest in ways that look like attention-deficit disorder. And underlying problems of children who are medicated can be easily overlooked.

Solutions start with “going back to basics,” Chamberlain said, and focusing on relationships. Many providers prefer to work with both the parents and the child.

Chamberlain proposed adding another “R” to the popular “three Rs” that are considered keys to education: Reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships.

Youth involvement

Researchers talked to youth in two western Alaska villages to learn what issues concerned them. They focused on young people, often the first in a culture to experience social change.

What they found was perhaps unsurprising. Many young people are bored; some say that others are “being mean to them.”

But how the young people deal with such challenges may be surprising. Researchers found that young people developed resilience by building relationships, helping others in the community and living off the land.

Lisa Wexler, a researcher with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her team listened to the stories of 20 young people living in Kotzebue to get the Inupiaq perspective. Tara Ford, a doctoral student with the University of Alaska Fairbanks worked with the Center for Alaska Native Health to do research in Alakanuk, where 25 people between age 11 and 18 were interviewed, to get the Yupik point of view.

Ford created a comic book based on the research to bring back to the community. “Tales of the Yugtun Defenders” used actual conversations from youth to depict some of the problems they face and some of the solutions devised.

Ford decided to make a comic book after hearing that posters in clinics and schools didn't connect with youth.

“It was something they could engage in,” she said.

That comic book will be distributed to other Alaska communities that want it, Ford said. The same model could be applied internationally, in other sites doing similar research.

“It's really something the community can be proud of,” she said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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