Bethel’s Children’s Advocacy Center reached a major milestone last week: an agreement with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to allow medical examiners to be part of the multidisciplinary team dealing with children who have been victims of sexual abuse. This big step will help the center achieve national accreditation.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has some of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation, and it is only now catching up with the established best practices for dealing with child sexual abuse. Leading this effort to help the region’s victims is Bethel’s Children’s Advocacy Center. On the wall next to the entrance is a hand-drawn poster of a tree. Carmen Pitka, the center's program director, explains its significance.
"So this is where you start. It’s like all the roots, your history, your strengths, your culture, your traditions, unity, acceptance, and resilience. And as you go up, our purpose is serving the children," Pitka said.
The tree lays out how the center handles child abuse in the region using Yup’ik and Western practices.
"We had a child who came through the CAC at that time would not talk, would not talk with anyone on the MDT [multidisciplinary team]. We gave the Elder a good 20 minutes just to sit and be alone with the child and within that time, the child, she was able to feel more comfortable, like someone cares at the CAC for their wellbeing. Their, just who they are and where they come from," Pitka said.
The center is usually the first stop for a child who tells authorities that they have been abused. Center staff interview the child and family about the abuse and help gather evidence for authorities. The staff also helps families create safety plans on how to handle the perpetrator in the future, once the family leaves the center.
Now the center has reached a major milestone. On January 11, the center signed an agreement adding the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to its multidisciplinary team, which already included organizations like the Tundra Women’s Coalition, the Bethel Police Department, and the Alaska State Troopers’ Violent Offenders Unit. This agreement with the health corporation allows a child to be examined by a medical professional at the center. Previously, a child was taken to the hospital for the examination, which is usually not considered a best practice by the National Children’s Alliance because it can increase the child’s trauma. The National Children’s Alliance guides and accredits CACs, which is what Bethel's center is aiming for in the next year or so.
"National accreditation at the CAC means that we have law enforcement, that we have Office of Children's Services, that we have medical, mental health. And having those four players at the MDT table means there is better case tracking and follow-through. We're able to follow up with families and updating them with the investigation process," Pitka said.
It can take years and a lot of collaboration with other organizations before a CAC can reach those standards. At the signing ceremony, Elder Mary Beaver praised the latest agreement.
"I want every one of you to continue to help the people, but one thing that you have to remember is only encouraging and comforting is the only way that you can be trusted from the people," Beaver said.
Now the center must file its application for accreditation with the National Children’s Alliance. It could take a year and a half before Bethel’s CAC gets accredited.