Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: Ten Lessons Learned in Rural Alaska

Article excerpt

Each year, millions of children grow up in violent households. The impact of domestic violence on child witnesses can be devastating, and these children are at much greater risk for child abuse.

In Alaska, a retrospective review of 475 families who had been reported for abuse or neglect six or more times in the past three years indicated that 59 percent of these families experienced domestic violence (Demer, 1997). This statistic is likely to be a gross underestimate, however, because the review was conducted prior to legislation in Alaska that now mandates routine screening for domestic violence during child maltreatment investigations.

The application of recent technology to early brain development has improved our understanding of the broad range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects of domestic violence on children (Perry; 1997). Child witnesses are more likely to experience numerous health problems, which has led to recommendations for domestic violence screening in pediatric health care settings. Changes to Alaska's child protection laws in 1998 acknowledged the risk of mental injury and includes children exposed to domestic violence and implemented mandatory reporting for child witnesses.

While many service providers are acutely aware of the connection between domestic violence and child abuse, funding limitations and policies often separate these types of programs into different agencies in which interventions must focus on one form of abuse. Funding and policy development have done little to promote collaboration between programs serving victims of domestic violence and child protection agencies, a move that would lead to integrated service delivery. Unfortunately, the failure to develop a multidisciplinary, coordinated approach to addressing domestic violence and child abuse has led to myopic policies that do not promote the safety of victimized parents and their children simultaneously. These system deficiencies have helped to widen the gap between domestic violence advocates and child protection workers.

In 1996, the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault was awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a rural initiative on domestic violence and child abuse. The first phase of the grant focused on interagency planning to develop partnerships and policies that would promote an integrated approach. The second phase culminated in a statewide educational initiative to bring different types of service providers together and help rural communities develop a coordinated response to domestic violence and child abuse. The Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project (AFVPP) was selected to lead the training initiative and to coordinate 12 regional, two-day workshops during 1998-99.

Two decisions were made at the onset that became defining features of these workshops. A multidisciplinary steering committee decided that a local planning committee would be established for each regional workshop. This strategy provided the opportunity for local control while creating a cooperative atmosphere for grassroots networking. The planning committees drew on the expertise of local leadership who knew how to design the workshop to best serve their communities and encourage participation. Planning committees reviewed a sample agenda of recommended topics developed by the Steering Committee and then customized the agenda so it was relevant to local needs and concerns.

The second decision was to reverse the usual flow of travel in which rural providers come to an urban area for training. Instead, the workshops were held in rural communities and urban-based service providers who served each respective region traveled to the rural workshop site. This became known as the "Take It to the Village" strategy and created the opportunity for service providers, who frequently have tightly scheduled visits to rural locations during an assignment or crisis, to spend more time in the community. …