April was Child Abuse Prevention month. Intending to bring more awareness to cases of child physical and sexual abuse and neglect, members of the Kodiak Area Native Association’s Kodiak Child Advocacy Center (KCAC) placed colorful pinwheels on the lawn near the city Police Department headquarters on East Rezanof Drive.
“We got a mixed bag of responses (regarding the display), mostly positive,” said Joana McFarlin, director of the KCAC. “We had a lot of people saying (the pinwheels) look beautiful out there. We had some people say that (the pinwheels were) sad. It’s a reminder that their child is not the only victim of abuse.”
McFarlin and her team at KANA interview abuse and neglect victims in a “child friendly” manner, McFarlin said.
In the past, children who had been allegedly victimized by abusers had to go to several agencies for questioning. Already traumatized, the children found it frightening to appear before officials representing child welfare, law enforcement and other agencies.
“It was horrible for the kids,” said McFarlin. “The child had to tell what happened over and over again.”
Under the duress, along with enduring multiple incidents, some victims would have a tendency to get inconsistent.
“It looked like they were lying when they weren’t,” McFarlin said. “They felt they did something wrong. It made the child feel that the abuse was their fault.”
McFarlin explained that it’s normal even for an adult not to remember the exact details of every incident, or to have them run together in memory.
“I doubt that anyone could relay exact details of their last two shopping trips to Safeway without forgetting details or giving inconsistent details that could be refuted by witnesses. Yet we expect children to (recall specific details) sometimes with a lack of language and understanding within a traumatized brain,” McFarlin sai.d
At the KCAC, children are interviewed in a non-threatening way by an interviewer trained in dealing with children.
“We have a protocol we follow that is child-friendly and developmentally appropriate. We would interview a 4 year old differently than a 17 year old,” McFarlin said.
Questions are open-ended, framed in such a way that the child does not feel compelled to answer in a certain way.
“We want to know what happened (and reach) the best approximation of the truth. Sometimes there are misunderstandings and it’s our job to figure that out,” said McFarlin.
“We problem-solve together as a team. We have a better opportunity to provide a safe place for kids to tell what happened.”
The district attorney, police officers, child advocates, medical providers and representatives of the Office of Children’s Services are part of the KCAC multi-disciplinary team.
Under McFarlin’s supervision, the KANA KCAC team provides support for the victims and their caregivers.
“We help the family with further needs (such as) crime compensation, counseling, medical help. We help them through the prosecution process if they have to go to a grand jury or trial. We stick with them and help them prepare for that. We accompany them wherever they need to go,” she said.
“We’re trying very hard to make it better for them and to reduce the trauma.”
She sadly noted that in some cases, abuse victims are attacked through social media,
“It’s a horribly corrosive situation,” McFarlin said. “We try to mitigate” the adverse effects of such attacks. “We are trying to find ways (in which) we can to reduce that” trauma.
“We primarily work with the caregivers. If the caregiver is doing well, the child will be doing well. We help the parent to lovingly parent and support child through the process,” she said. “A lot of times the caregivers are blind-sided, terrified. We try to help them with the process while they’re feeling that way.”
“We also provide a medical exam,” noted McFarlin. “Part of that is beneficial to the child. It can be a wonderful place for them to see that they’re healthy” in spite of the emotional damage they have suffered and their worries about what happened to their bodies throughout the ordeal.
McFarlin said she is “passionate” about her work. For many victims, the trauma of the abuse and the after-effects are “corrosive to their health and well-being.”
“It’s hard for us here to see that, sometimes we’re not able to intervene in the way we want to,” she said.
Prior to coming to the KCAC, McFarlin was a clinician for the Providence Kodiak Island Medical Counseling Center. That job took her to the Kodiak schools.
“It was there that I really could see the effects of child abuse on the kids I worked with. It was a really rugged process for them,” she said.
At the KANA KCAC, McFarlin is assisted by Mary Lou Gillis, program specialist and advocate; Marie Greene, advocate and forensic interviewer; and Karen Millstein and Cyndy Malinit, who provide needed medical exams for the children.
“We switch roles, depending on the need of the family,” said McFarlin. “We don’t want those who know the family to work on the case. It may be that we have an older parent who needs an older advocate. We pick and choose who is best for the child” and caregiver, McFarlin said.
The KCAC also includes Detective Sgt. Kathleen Gambling with the Kodiak City Police Department and Sgt. Daniel Blizzard with the Alaska State Troopers, who are trained to “work with victims.”
After their KCAC visit, the children are referred to trained trauma therapists Angie Christiansen and Dr. Anna Stevens.
As I reflect on that sunny April day when McFarlin and her assistants graced the lawn with pinwheels, I realize they were making a statement of hope.
That occasion was a bright spot during the gloomy coronavirus crisis. The pinwheels, which represented the victims of abuse, conveyed not only a problem that affects the whole state and country, but also a message of hope.
Victims and their families need not walk alone through their traumatic crises. They can get help on their painful journey by a team of professional, caring individuals and agencies who are the “front line workers” in the battle against a problem that is just as ominous as the virus itself.