Inside Alaska Cares, where young crime victims go to begin healing

Sunday, March 19, 2017 - 12:38
  • Law enforcement offices the Alaska Cares facility. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Children’s toys in a waiting room at the Alaska Cares facility. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Following the fatal Feb. 16 shooting of former Eagle River resident Brandy Sullivan in Anchorage, the local community is rallying around her family, raising thousands of dollars to support the two daughters left behind.

A account is making the rounds on social media, shared by friends and neighbors and Eagle River businesses. Donation boxes were set up at a local hair salon and hardware store. Adeara and Lily Sullivan were their mother’s world, according to her obituary.

The girls, ages 13 and 11, were in the home when their mother was killed, Anchorage police said. Their father, 40-year-old Adam Sullivan, would later be arrested and indicted in connection with the crime. It was the girls who called 911 to report the shooting, according to court documents.

Across Alaska, law enforcement officers say, the number of children affected by domestic violence is high.

In Anchorage, there’s an entire facility dedicated to supporting the young witnesses and victims of violent crimes.

“What we do is we end up bringing those children to Alaska Cares,” said APD Lt. John McKinnon.

Part doctor’s office, part police station, the outpatient Alaska Cares clinic is an accredited member of the National Children’s Alliance and the state’s largest child advocacy center.

It’s intended specifically for young Alaskans, usually age 15 and under: The walls, painted soothing shades of blue, are decorated with patterned quilts and brightly colored streamers. Oversized stuffed animals lounge in corners — big bears and monkeys and unicorns, mostly donated. There are drawers full of snacks and private waiting rooms equipped with packed bookshelves, video games, dollhouses and other toys. The facility is designed to be calming and comforting, police sad.

About 1,000 children come through the center’s doors every year. Approximately 70 percent of them are victims of sexual abuse, according to center manager Bryant Skinner. The remaining 30 percent have experienced everything from physical maltreatment and neglect to family violence or other crimes; anything from a violent home invasion robbery to a deadly shooting.

When families arrive at Alaska Cares, at first, the process is somewhat routine – there’s paperwork and an initial medical assessment. Then comes a forensic interview in a special room equipped with audio-visual recording apparatus.

“We’re not going to push them to talk about anything,” McKinnon said. “If the child wants to disclose what happened, that’s ok. If they don’t, that’s ok, too.”

The interviews are some of the most important pieces of evidence collected at Alaska Cares, according to the center manager. The goal, Skinner said, is to minimize the number of times a child is forced to recall a particular traumatic experience, yet still preserve any information that could be used at trial.

After the interview there’s often another meeting with a nurse, just in case a child has questions or concerns or needs some reassurance.

Children can spend hours going through the entire process, from check-in to final check-up, said Kris Pitts, an Alaska Cares family care coordinator. Often, it’s only the beginning of a much longer emotional and judicial process, and Alaska Cares provides follow-up services for as long as necessary.

“Some families feel well-supported and are well-connected and don’t want a whole lot of follow-up; other families … years later you’re still talking with them,” Pitts said.

As part of that follow-up, the center works to connect patients with mental health resources, Pitts said, but insurance limitations mean some children wait more than a year to get help. That wait is “hard to fathom,” Skinner said.

From the beginning, Alaska Cares cases are handled by a multidisciplinary team; usually a representative from the Office of Children’s Services, a detective, an Alaska Cares family care coordinator and nurse practitioner and an advocate from the Southcentral Foundation or Standing Together Against Rape. In the absence of parents, Skinner said, OCS steps in to help decide where the children will go next.

Then, when possible, it’s back with family.

“Because that’s what’s best for those children — to be with somebody familiar and safe,” he said. “It’s our job to advocate for the child.”

Contact Chugiak-Eagle River Star reporter Kirsten Swann via email at [email protected]

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