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Program helps children of abuse feel safe, emerge stronger
In an office overflowing with stuffed animals and painted in soothing pastel colors – a place that feels light and airy – Cory Bryant and Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, MD, hear some of the darkest stories of their lives: children, some just babies, sexually abused, beaten, emotionally tormented.
It’s a job they have to actively battle against bringing home but that they feel compelled to pursue. For every child who comes into their rose-colored office, they offer advocacy, protection and hope. Providence Health & Services Alaska, in the tradition of the Sisters of Providence, stands alongside them in their efforts.
As part of its $57.8 million contribution to programs that help the poor and the vulnerable, Providence saw a particular need to ensure children – perhaps the most vulnerable of all – have a place to go when in distress. Along with community partners, Providence helps fund Alaska CARES, an outpatient clinic that provides sexual and physical abuse evaluations for newborns through 18-year-olds. They are interviewed, counseled and examined in a single, supportive location rather than being carted from one doctor’s office or police station to the next and being made to repeat their story.
The process of finally talking about abuse can be terrifying, said Alaska CARES medical director Dr. Baldwin- Johnson. Alaska CARES exists to help alleviate that fear.
“I think we’re the first step in the healing process,” agreed Bryant, Alaska CARE’s manager. “Kids can’t begin the healing process without feeling safe.”
Last year Alaska CARES also provided statewide training to help better identify, document and collect forensic evidence in abuse cases. The improved screenings help victims be free of their abusers and, long term, begin to heal fully.
“It was geared for medical providers and forensic nurses on how to recognize abuse, how to do a proper exam and how to take really good photos,” said Dr. Baldwin-Johnson, who developed and led the trainings with financial support from Providence.
Alaska CARES works on some 950 cases a year. Bryant said they often interview two or three children a day – their highest week brought in 40 children in five days. These harmed children come to Alaska CARES through doctor’s referrals, police reports or individual reports by those who suspect something is wrong. A staggering 70 percent of all sexual abuse cases in Alaska involve children.
Bryant and Dr. Baldwin-Johnson take each case, hoping to create happy endings and new beginnings.
One such case still sticks with them. A father suspected that another family member was mistreating his daughter and reported it. Alaska CARES met with the little girl, who at first seemed hesitant to speak. Finally, she opened up about the abuse, and forensics confirmed that she had indeed been sexually abused.
“That father followed his instincts,” Bryant said.
Healing came slowly.
But, in time, with eight months of intensive therapy and support through Alaska CARES, she blossomed.
“A lot of these things alleviated,” Bryant said. “Her parents wrote letters of thanks, saying, ‘thanks for giving me my child back.’ ”
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