One of the joys of living in Alaska’s Bush and rural villages is their tendency to be tight-knit communities in which people take care of each other. In Alaska Native villages in particular, the lines of connection go back for generations.
This kind of closeness can be claustrophobic for someone used to the impersonal nature of a big city or suburban development. It takes a while to get comfortable with it and perhaps an even longer while to appreciate it
Unfortunately, one of the down sides of this closeness is a hesitancy on the part of friends, neighbors and extended family to sit in judgment on other people’s behavior in any formal setting. People will gear up for a meeting at town hall about the village alcohol problem and wax eloquent about the damage it has done to their community and families. But this will be done in the abstract so that no one person or family ever feels as though they’ve been publicly singled out. The CB may cackle with gossip about problems in the village and which families are causing most of them, but that information is rarely shared with people outside of the village.
In fact, if you ever hear of a village in Alaska reaching a point where it dis-invites one of its members from ever returning, figure that person has crossed so many lines in such an egregious fashion that even the most tolerant of people and cultures have been forced to admit that in this case there simply is no foreseeable redemption.
Most villagers are reluctant to get in the face of their neighbors over personal and family problems. Community members and relatives might be more than willing to take the kids in for a night or two if the parents are drunk and/or threatening. They’ll keep the kids for a while if social workers have stepped in and indicated that the children might otherwise be removed from the village. But, as almost inevitably happens, when the social worker leaves and the parents show up sober on their relative’s doorstep asking for the kids back and truly sorry for causing a problem, the kids end up going home.
All of which goes a long way towards explaining why it’s hard to recruit Native people in Alaska to be Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASAs. To accept this position means to get very intimate with problems in families who are usually related to you or who, at a minimum, you’ve known since birth. It means sometimes going to court and making reports that show the family hasn’t made any progress on addressing its problems and possibly should have the children removed permanently. It means going to the Christmas feast in the school gym next year and facing a family sitting there without their children who at least partially blame you for their problems.
Whether this blame is fairly placed or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that CASAs who come from the same area as the families on their case load face some very unique circumstances in effectively advocating for those families and their children. How to avoid these difficulties is a solution not yet found. But the need for Alaska Native CASAs is tremendous nonetheless.
Alaska Native CASAs understand the circumstances of life for families on their caseload; understand the underpinnings of the culture and the values that culture propounds. They can work with local families with more credibility than someone coming in from the outside. They are there all the time and can offer on site support and not just a phone number to call if things get stressful.
Yet familiarity can breed contempt and some families look askance at neighbors they feel are trying to sit in judgment on them. These families wonder why their neighbors suddenly think they are somehow better than them. No matter how much a CASA might try to explain otherwise, that perception can be hard to change.
Alaska Native CASAs can make a world of difference in their communities for their youngest and neediest members. Yes, it’s hard work, it’s volunteer work and it can be emotionally draining work. At the end of the day, however, you can go to sleep knowing that a child in your community is a little safer because of you; a family is a little more whole, a little stronger because of you; your community is a little better place because of you.
Alaska Native CASAs are needed in Bush villages throughout the state. For more information, go to http://www.alaskacasa.org or call 907-269-3500. Help make your little part of the world a nicer place to be for children and their families.