My Public Hearing Testimony About OCS

 Representative Tammie Wilson from North Pole held OCS Public Testimony Hearings at multiple locations around the state, after a grand jury declined to investigate and turned over their findings to the Citizen’s Review Panel and the Ombudsman’s Office. The hearings were opportunities for those “not satisfied with the current state of the Office of Children’s Services”.  Rep. Wilson has accused OCS of “legal kidnapping”.

As CPS workers, we are either accused of stepping on parents’ rights and kidnapping children who are perfectly safe or we don’t do nearly enough and leave children in grave danger in their homes. I decided to attend the hearing and below is what I said. I hoped it would be an encouragement to my fellow workers and a motivator to get the services that will actually help Alaska to be a safer state for children. Below is what I said:

My name is Jessica Veldstra and I am speaking as a private citizen. The opinions below are mine alone and do not represent  the viewpoint of the Office of Children’s Services.

 

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Different

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic violence, child abuse, and rape.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:2 KJV

 Just in case you have been out of country, live under a rock, or your eyes glaze over and you become momentarily deaf every time you see a football uniform on the TV (like I do), the foot ball world has been recently rocked by stories of family abuse in the last several weeks. A video appeared of Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancé in an elevator and charges were filed against Adrian Peterson for leaving bleeding welts all over his four year old boy’s body.

Some of the social media reaction was predictably abysmal, rife with victim blaming and people defending “spanking”. Many people asked why Rice’s fiancé later married him and in reaction, the twitter hashtag #whyistayed began to trend, with domestic violence victims giving reasons to why they stayed as long as they did in a violent relationship. The reasons ranged from knowing the most dangerous time for a person is when they leave a DV relationship to the abuser threatening their children or animals to the abuser socially isolating them so they felt they had nowhere to go. However, as Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E. addresses in #whyistayed: Chruches Support Spousal Abuse, many of the reasons had to do with the response of the church or pastors to the abuse. Many pastors told the victim to endure to be a good witness or that God hates divorce or that they should be more submissive.

When I read the responses, I was not surprised but I thought the answer was obvious. These churches should council domestic violence victims to call authorities, refer them to a shelter, and encourage them to leave. Something about this response troubled me. I realized that it was the exact response most “secular” people would give an abuse victim. Was my response “conforming to the world”?

With more progressive Christians, a common criticism is that we have conformed to the world and look no different than the secular population. After all, it is easy to feel different as a Fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical. While the “rules” that are followed vary from church to church and person to person, often make differences are external, such as women not cutting their hair and only wearing skirts and men wearing polos and khaki slacks, not drinking alcohol, not watching R rated movies, not swearing, exclusively homeschooling, and not listening to secular music. When I was in a more conservative Evangelical environment, I often felt different. I hadn’t listened to that new album all my “public school friends” were listening to and I couldn’t bring myself to say a swear word, even when I stubbed my toe.

Now, I look at those things as legalism, simply following rules. However, what makes me different than the rest of the world? What is my response to the pastor  whose version of not conforming to the world is to encouraging a wife to stay with her abusive husband so she can be a good witness, or those who condone child abuse as scriptural, or those who say that God hates gay people?

It hit me then that our call in the face of abuse is not to conform to the world by handing a domestic violence victim a card to the shelter or encouraging her to leave him to leave his abusive spouse. I should not conform to the world by only reporting child abuse if I happen to see it. I should not conform to the world by voting for leaders who will provide more welfare for the poor. I should not conform to the world by just putting a Facebook profile picture confirming I believe in marriage equality.

We should be running the domestic violence shelters.

We should be preaching from the pulpits against domestic violence and child abuse.

We should be actively teaching our children respect and non-violence in relationships.

We should be feeding the poor and running food banks and soup kitchens.

We should be foster parents for abused and neglected children.

We should be meeting the needs of women who are unsure how they are going to provide for their unborn child.

We should be standing in support of the victims of sexual abuse in court.

We should be foster parents for the enormous amount of LGBTQ youth who are homeless because their parents kicked them out.

We should holding the AA and NA and Al-anon groups in our church basements.

We should be advocates and running hotlines for victims of sexual assault.

We should be different. We should not be conforming to apathy or to doing as little as possible.

We should be the ones on the front lines, combating poverty, abuse, racism, homophobia and sexism. We are the church. We are called to be the light and the salt of the world.

Do We Take Sexual Assault of Children Seriously Enough?

Tear

On Monday, popular Christian author and blogger Donald Miller posted on Facebook “I oppose the death penalty in murder cases, but support it for child molestors (Sic). Might have to start my own political party for this one.”

His post’s timing coincided perfectly with a conversation and blog that I had already started regarding sex offenders.

Let me start by clearly stating that  I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases.  I consider murder one of the most egregious crimes and it clearly deserves what I consider the harshest humane punishment, life imprisonment, however I appreciate the sentiment behind Donald Miller’s statement.

If  you were to think of the most horrific crimes, sex abuse of a child would be at the top of the list and anecdotally, child sex offenders have to sometimes be segregated from the general population of prisons due to the threat of violence that other prisoners pose to them. Drug dealers, thieves, wife beaters, and murderers also think that child sex abuse is abhorrent.

However, what is commonly held in opinion and what is practiced in reality are two separate things.  For instance, every state has a Sex Offender Registry.  While one might point to this a punishment unique to sex offenses and child kidnapping, what it actually shows is convicted child molesters are out in public after serving their short jail terms. In the State of Alaska there is a public Court View application that shows  criminal charges, dispositions, and sentences. When I compared this to the registered sex offenders in Kenai, it was disturbing how light the sentences for child sexual  assault really are.  The longest sentence for anyone with a Sex Abuse of a Minor 1 charge (the most serious charge in Alaska-rape of a child) was eight years. Sex Abuse of a Minor 2 yielded anywhere from 270 days to four years , and people convicted of Sex Abuse of a Minor 3 were sentence from 270 days to two years. Attempted sex abuse crimes were sentenced with as little as 30 days. What is even more disturbing about these statistics is that on average, a sex offender who has been sentenced to 8 years for raping a child, will only serve about 3 and a half years.

In addition to light sentences compared to those convicted of homicide, sex offenders, have much higher recidivism rates.  According to the Department of Justice within three years of release from prison, 1.2 % of those convicted of homicide were arrested for another homicide. but within 3 years following their release 5.3% of sex offenders were rearrested for another sex crime, and remember that is only the people who had been caught.

In the U.S. we may say that we think that child sex offenses are one of the most serious crimes but in the legal system, do we show that we really respect or care about children?

There are a multitude of problems in the legal system that lead to these light sentences.

First is the fact that most of the time the sex offenders are charged with quite a few crimes and in exchange for a plea, the prosecutors will dismiss all the charges except one, or will allow the defendant to plead down to a lesser charge. For example, in all but two cases of the Kenai Sex Offenders, the defendants plead guilty or no contest and charges were dismissed. Prosecutors often do not want to have a long costly trial and possibly re-traumatize a child victim by putting them on the witness stand. They often do not want the possibility of an acquittal where an offender will not be put on the Sex Offender Registry all.

Secondly, there is a problem with the culture of believing child victims and believing that someone who doesn’t have horns and a tail could be guilty of child rape. Often in movies or on TV someone on the Sex Offender Registry is portrayed as a nice guy who simply urinated in public or an 18 year old having sex with a 16 year old. In my own conversations, often people will say something like, “they are a registered sex offender but I heard it was because he was dating a 16 year old when he was 18” . Here’s the facts: In Alaska, the age of consent is 16.  Yes, a 16 year old can legally have sex with a 40 year old. The law states that sex abuse of a minor 3 only occurs when a person 17 or older has sex with a person 13,14, or 15 AND is at least four years younger than them. That would be a 17 year old engaging in sex with a 13 year old or an 18 year old with a 14 year old. No adult is going to go to jail in Alaska for having sex with someone only one or two years younger than them.  The law only requires someone to register for indecent exposure 2 if the exposure was in front of someone younger than sixteen and has a previous conviction for the same offense, so again, no one is on the sex offender registry for accidentally peeing in  public unless they make it a habit.

Thirdly,  we need to continue to educate about consent and healthy sexuality. Some studies show that 10 – 15 % of all sex crimes are perpetrated by people with intellectual deficiencies and almost 50% of incarcerated sex offenders had intellectual deficiencies.   One of the possible reasons is that people with developmental disabilities often are functioning at a lower age than their chronological age and therefore don’t realize the inappropriateness of their sexual advances on a child. Though their rate is not much higher than the general public and may be accounted for by them not hiding their actions so being more easy to convict, if we can prevent 10-15 % of sex crimes by concrete and continual education, why wouldn’t we? When I worked in a special ed class room with adolescents, we had to continually, concretely and specifically address sexuality and appropriate sexual boundaries. A lot of what we learn about appropriate sexual behavior is learned through subtle social context that can be more difficult for some people with developmental disabilities to learn.  I think it would be great if we could speak bluntly and clearly to all students and not rely on the idea that people will just know what is right and wrong.

We need to back up our abhorrence of child sexual abuse with stiff prison sentences that take into account the high recidivism rate of sex offenders. We need to protect our children by not allowing them to be around people who are registered sex offenders. You can find the Alaskan Sex Offender Registry here, and Alaskan court view here. When in doubt, research what the charges are and what they mean.  We need to educate all people on consent and age appropriate sexual activity to prevent at least some abuse in the future.

Hug Your Local CPS Worker


I have a confession to make. Yesterday, I came home after working incredibly hard at my job with the local Child Protection Services, saw several different versions of the above post, and cried  for a half an hour.

Usually I don’t let my job get to me, but it was the perfect storm. I had a very taxing day with a huge amount of work I needed to complete and was emotionally vulnerable due to a particularly nasty abuse case that had caused a lot of the work.  Having my friends bash CPS workers online was the last straw.

As someone who works as support staff for CPS, I often read local media stories or complaints that only post the negative about CPS workers and leave out most of the story. Because of privacy laws, we can’t stand up for ourselves and state what really happened. CPS is vilified as either doing nothing when children are in danger or being “baby snatchers” who take children for no reason. Recently, someone on Kenai Craiglist suggested that the next mass shooter should target the local OCS and someone else said that the workers “sit on their fat asses” instead of protecting children.

The truth is that I have had jobs in the private and non-profit sector and my CPS job is quadruple the amount of work of any of my previous jobs and I am not even a case worker. To give you an idea, as a support staff member, I am receiving about 100 emails per day, most of which have some task for me to complete. That is just the emails. It doesn’t include the meetings, visits, paperwork, data entry, and phone calls.  If it was just the amount of work it would be difficult, but the emotional toll of working with abused and neglected children sometimes freezes me in my efficiency.

No sane person would keep a CPS job unless they cared about the work. Someone has to make sure our most vulnerable citizens are safe. CPS workers do this by working with families.  With the vast majority of reports of abuse that are substantiated, workers put into place services (substance abuse and mental health assessments, transportation, housing, domestic violence education, referrals to the food bank, public assistance, and local charities) to prevent future abuse or neglect. In the extremely rare case that a child has to be removed because of safety reasons, the worker’s first priority is to return the child home.

There is a reason CPS workers only stay an average of 18 months on the job. The amount of work is staggering, the emotional toll of working face to face with both abused and neglected children and parents with substance abuse and mental health issues, topped with the hatred of the community is just too much for most people. It is true that there are bad decisions made by CPS workers, but experience prevents those. By supporting CPS workers, you are actually supporting better work by encouraging workers stay in their job.

The next time you run into a CPS worker, tell them that you appreciate the hard work they do to keep the children of your community safe. Trust me, it may be the first time they have heard it.

*All opinions are purely my own and in no way reflect the opinions of my employer.