• Putting Alaska Native hopes, voices at center of state’s ACEs movement

    Lisa Wade is the Health, Education, and Social Services Director, tribal court judge, and elected tribal council member for the Alaska Native Village of Chickaloon.

    Before the Alaska Resilience Initiative could push forward on any of its goals—to grow a sustainable statewide network; to educate all Alaskans on brain development, adverse childhood experiences, and resilience-building; and to support organizational, policy and practice change to address trauma—its leaders had to start by listening.

    Specifically, they had to listen to Alaska Native people.

    Alaska Native people comprise nearly one-fifth of the state’s population, but historically their voices have been largely excluded from decision-making about social services, education and behavioral health.

    That’s why Laura Norton-Cruz, program director of the Alaska Resilience Initiative, partnered with First Alaskans Institute and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council in a May 2016 gathering that put Native perspectives, customs, history and hopes at the center.

    That gathering of about 30 people “was setting a tone for the whole state that the voices of Alaska Native people matter in this process,” Norton-Cruz said. 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.

    Participants at May 2016 meeting hosted by Alaska Resilience Initiative, First Alaskans Institute, and Native Village of Chickaloon.

    The group’s recommendations included specific suggestions for revising the materials currently used for ACE/resilience trainers, emphasizing:

    • Cultural and collective trauma, including ongoing injustices faced by Alaska Native people and others worldwide—for instance, mandatory boarding school attendance and the loss of traditional food sources;
    • Cultural and collective strengths, such as indigenous practices of healing and child-rearing;
    • An understanding that the ACE Study translates and confirms what is ancestral knowledge for Alaska Native and other indigenous people;
    • Basic cultural competence;
    • A focus on cultural humility, partnering and listening.

    The group also urged that, whenever possible, resilience initiative leaders invite Alaska Native people to talk about their own experience rather than having others speak for them, that Alaska Natives have opportunities to be co-trainers and that data-gathering include cultural and collective perspectives (for example, “in your household” doesn’t adequately describe the extended-family influence on many Native children).

    A State-Wide Initiative

    That meeting and its recommendations formed the foundation when, a month later, 80 people from across Alaska, all of them involved in ACEs or resilience work, gathered for the first statewide meeting of the Alaska Resilience Initiative.

    Participants included Lisa Wade, a tribal council leader from the Nay’dini’aa Na’/Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, which has adopted a trauma-informed approach to all tribal operations and meetings, and Marcus Wilson, former principal of North Star Elementary School in Anchorage, where test grades rose and playground scuffles diminished after the school launched trauma-informed practices in 2010.

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  • Battling meth: A rural Montana county starts drug court to reverse surge of kids in foster care

    By Daniel Heimpel

    When James Manley came to rural Lake County, Montana, as a district judge in 2013, he knew the meth problem was bad, but he didn’t know how much worse it would get.

    Judge James Manley

    Three-and-a-half years ago, Manley says the courthouse was processing roughly 220 felony cases a year. This year, he says the county will handle upwards of 500 drug-related felonies, and that at least 400 of those arrested will be parents.

    “The destruction to families is incredible,” Manley said. “It breaks your heart to see families torn apart by addiction.”

    Lake County, tucked in the northwest corner of the state, is at a breaking point. The jail regularly has inmates sleeping on the floor, the courts are clogged and kids are entering the foster care system at a stunning rate.

    While the county is unique in that more than two-thirds of its 1,600 square miles of pristine forest, farms and pastureland sit on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, its meth problem is part of much larger, and disturbing, trend.

    In October 2016, the federal Administration for Children and Youth and Families (ACYF), which oversees foster care nationwide, pointed to substance abuse – particularly meth and opioids – as a driving factor in a steady three-year increase in foster care numbers. From 2013 to 2015, the last year of national data available, the number of children in foster care grew from 401,000 to almost 428,000.

    “The increases we are seeing in the foster care population, and the rise of parental substance use as a contributing factor, is not limited to one or two states – this is a concern across the country,” said then-ACYF Commissioner Rafael Lopez in statement released alongside the report.

    While the opioid epidemic gets headlines across the country, in Montana meth use is a persistent and growing problem.

    From 2008 to February 2017, the number of foster children in the state more than doubled from 1,408 to 3,172, according to data provided by Montana’s Division of Child and Family Services. During that same period, the percentage of child abuse and neglect cases involving meth shot up from 26 to 52 percent.

    Source: Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, Child & Family Services Division CAPS Report 5388.2 (updated 02/18/2017). *Open placement counts exclude tribal placements. *Open Placement Counts exclude Tribal Placements.

    In response, Montana Governor Steve Bullock created the Protect Montana Kids Commission in 2015, which was meant to find a path toward reducing entries into the overwhelmed system. In May 2016, the body issued a report that repeatedly cited meth use as a driving factor in skyrocketing foster care rates.

    “The system is in a state of crisis,” the commissioners wrote.

    The report was timed to influence the current legislative session. And while some reforms are moving through the state house, at least one commissioner says that progress isn’t moving fast enough.

    “We saw that our system is in turmoil,” said Schylar Canfield-Baber, a former Montana foster youth who served on the commission. “But our turmoil is getting worse. We are losing children. Children are dying.”

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