In a church-owned classroom circled by 58 acres of frosted spruce and frozen lakes, 10 children sat at a cafeteria table learning what to do if someone sexually abuses them.
The kids, most born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder that may make them especially vulnerable to Alaska’s many sexual predators, had just watched an educational video about grown-ups, bad secrets and bribes. In the story, a girl named Juliette is abused by her uncle but refuses to stay quiet.
“Who did Juliette end up telling her secret to?” asked instructor Danielle Mohr, whose day job is working at the victim-advocacy group Standing Together Against Rape.
“Her mom!” the children shouted.
“Did her mom believe her?”
In unison: “Yes!”
Mohr nodded. “It’s never ever, ever the child’s fault when they get hurt like that,” she said.
The class marks the first time organizers of the twice-annual FAScinating Families Camp — one of the only camps specifically for children with FASD and their families now operating in the nation — have sought to teach the children about sexual abuse. High-profile crimes in the Alaska news involving attackers who may suffer an FASD prompted camp organizer Trish Smith to add the lessons.
The idea strikes at one simple way Alaska can attempt to erode a statewide crisis of child and adult sexual abuse: By teaching some of the most unguarded victims that it’s OK to report abusers.
“People that are affected by FASD tend to be victims a lot, or they can be perpetrators as well,” Smith said. “The younger we start giving someone information, the better they are at handling situations down the road.”
CATCHING A RISK EARLY
Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States, more than two and a half times the national average. State health department officials suspect Alaska also suffers the highest rate of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, lifelong disabilities caused to children by a mother drinking while pregnant.
Research suggests the twin epidemics are related.
Children with a FASD are more likely than others their age to be victimized by adults, according to studies by the University of Washington. Three in four girls and women with the disability are sexually abused, said a 2004 report based on interviews with 415 patients in Washington state. A majority of the males with an FASD had engaged in “problematic sexual behavior” including sex crimes.
People with the disability are not necessarily more violent than their peers. Sometimes the opposite is true. They might be indiscriminately friendly to strangers or unable to read social cues and body language, making them less able to flag people with bad intentions.
Shawna Jack, the adoptive mother of a 12-year-old camper said she was nervous about the workshops at first, but is glad her daughter is getting the information now. On Tuesday she turns 13.
The girl makes fast friends with anyone she meets and doesn’t necessarily understand that someone who is nice at first is still a stranger, Jack said. “She’s very eager to please and very naive.”
Among the more common symptoms of FASD is inappropriate sexual behavior, which in the case of young men who are emotionally or developmentally immature might mean seeking out unsuitably young sexual partners.
“Even though this person has the body of an 18-year-old, his mind is still functioning at a 12 or 13-year-old level,” Smith said. “So of course he is going to be more attracted to someone like that.”
Smith not only added classes for children, but a separate workshop for teenagers that teaches age of consent laws and social skills such as the appropriate way to ask someone out on a date.
Kids with FASD sometimes need to learn about boundaries, that behavior they saw early in life isn’t appropriate, said Rozann Kimpton, a 78-year-old great-grandmother raising two children with the disability.
They are often also coping with the trauma of abuse and neglect, Kimpton said. “If they saw mommy and daddy hitting each other or wild sex going on the living room, it’s hard for them to establish what is right and what is proper.”
TOP SEX ASSAULT RATE IN NATION
The Alaska FASD camps began in 2000 or 2001 and cost about $14,000 a year, said Smith, who works for Volunteers of America. A grant from the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health pays the bills, while many workers donate their time.
Held at Kalmbach Lake, in the woods northwest of Wasilla, the families stay at cabins and gather in common areas for educational meetings, meals and games. Some years they go ice fishing or take dog sled rides. This winter the group traveled to an equine therapy arena to ride and pet horses.
The camp offers children with the disabilities the opportunity to be together and feel normal, and for parents and caregivers to spend a long weekend somewhere where their child will not be judged for impulsive outbursts. Another camp was scheduled this weekend in Fairbanks.
The simple tactic of teaching children and teens with FASD about appropriate sexual behavior could be replicated across Alaska, Smith said. “Absolutely we could be doing more diagnosing and supporting.”
Gov. Sean Parnell has made preventing sexual abuse and domestic violence his signature social issue, championing a statewide “Choose Respect” initiative that the state says is an effort to hold offenders accountable, provide a safe place for victims and promote healthy relationships.
Despite years and decades of talk about the problem, the sexual assault rates here still top the nation with nearly 80 rapes reported per 100,000 people in Alaska compared to a national average of 27 per 100,000, according to the Uniform Crime Report.
The numbers aren’t just high, but increasing. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of reported rapes per capita was up 11 percent over the prior five-year average. Frontline officials warn of worsening turmoil in families.
Reports of child abuse and neglect are on the rise in Alaska, the director of the Office of Children’s Services told legislators on Thursday. The agency’s statistics show 6,856 open investigations of child abuse or neglect in the 12 months that ended June 30, an increase of 700 cases over the year before.
‘WE CALL HIM OUR HERO’
If Alaskans want to help children and teens with an FASD, including teaching ways to prevent sexual abuse, the state must first identify which kids have the disability. Despite a robust diagnostic effort compared to most other states, the agencies and organizations that serve the greatest number of Alaska children who likely have an FASD do not reliably identify which children have the disability and could benefit from special help.
The Anchorage School District, which educates about one in three Alaska students, has no estimate for the number of children with the disability at its schools. The district recognizes 13 potential disabilities spelled out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — including autism, deafness and orthopedic impairment — but not fetal alcohol syndrome, a medically diagnosable disability, or other FASDs that comprise one of the leading causes of intellectual disability in the United States.
An expert on the disability works on contract for the district teaching school employees about FASD, and a brochure is available for parents.
When University of Washington researchers screened children passing through a county foster care system in that state, they found the children removed from parents homes to be 10 to 15 times more likely to have fetal alcohol syndrome than the general population.
Yet when asked for estimates, officials with the Alaska Office of Children Services could not say how many of the children it removes from troubled homes are believed to have had some pre-natal alcohol exposure or were referred for an FASD diagnosis.
The Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice also has not historically tracked the number of young Alaskans on probation or in youth jails who are suspected to have an FASD and might require a diagnosis, said clinical director Shannon Cross-Azbill. Cross-Azbill said earlier this year she wants clinicians to begin making a note of whether there is evidence of prenatal alcohol exposure.
The parents at Alaska’s FAScinating Families Camps already know their children have a disability. For some, the new classes aimed at keeping kids out of trouble and protecting them from predators are painfully resonate.
One adoptive mother of three said two of her children with FASD were sexually abused by a man hired to provide respite care in their home. The mother worked with police to record a confession on a wire tap, and the man is now serving a 15-year sentence in prison.
The mother suspects her son’s disability emboldened the abuser.
“They don’t think these kids are smart enough to tell on them, and my son did. We call him our hero,” she said.
Still, the family didn’t have strangers in their home for a year. Her son kept a knife in his room long after the attacks, afraid the man might follow through on a threat to kill his parents if the boy ever told.
“Two years later he’s still holding this secret inside, turning on every light as he walks down the hall,” she said.
Originally published March 1, 2014 by KYLE HOPKINS and MARC LESTER in Anchorage Daily News.