YK Delta sex offender rehabilitation program enters 7th year

The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta has a program that focuses specifically on sex offenders. Unlike any other program in the state, it combines both Western and Yup’ik ways of rehabilitation.

The Y-K Delta Sex Offender Treatment program is in its seventh year, and has plans to keep going.

An informational video about the program starts off with an old Yup’ik story about a young boy who upsets his mother. The boy’s father takes him outside to hammer nails into a piece of wood. After the boy hammers the nails, the father asks him to remove them. He tells the boy that even though he pulled the nails, the scars still remain.

The program’s clinical director, Steve Dempsey tells this story frequently. He says the analogy is fitting to the life-long damage sex offenders can cause their victims.

The treatment program began in 2008 and focuses on Yup’ik men who have served time for sexual crimes and also struggle with substance abuse, like alcohol.

“A large part of the program is based on kind of correcting some thinking programs that they’ve learned over the years,” said Dempsey.

By thinking problems, Dempsey means the type of thinking that allows the offenders to get into trouble. An example would be a person always feeling like a victim of their circumstances, which doesn’t allow them to take responsibility for their actions.

The program currently has 18 participants and Dempsey spends about two to three weeks each month in Bethel, working with the men.

He says an overwhelming majority of the men in the program have experienced trauma themselves.

“They’ve witness the results of suicides in their village,” said Dempsey, “They’ve seen dead bodies by an early age. They’ve seen trauma related to substance abuse and domestic violence,

Dempsey says it’s different from other programs in the state because is incorporates both Western and traditional Yup’ik ways for dealing with these type of offenses.

The Western approach is the men serve time in prison. The Yup’ik approach is reintegrate the offenders into the village to become a valuable and productive member of society.

The state issued PFDs this month, and Dempsey says this time can be challenging for the participants.

“When that comes out of course there’s a lot of alcohol in town and in the villages, and its quit a temptation for the guys in the program to return to that, so they can be with their friends or numb out the pain. So this time of year is particularly stressful,” said Dempsey.

Once the men graduate from the program, they reenter their communities. Dempsey says they call the known victims of the perpetrator and ask if they are comfortable with the men returning.

Once a program participant is ready to go back, Dempsey or another program official travels with them. The participants have to admit their crimes in front of the village council, who then accepts them back into the community.

He says this integrated approach is counter to what’s done in the Lower 48.

“What happens in the Lower 48, a lot of these men are regulated to living under bridges or in the back rooms or someone’s home. We believe that’s a riskier situation for the general public than if we know where he is and what he’s doing, and he’s supported by his community to change his life. So far, that’s been a pretty successful approach here,” said Dempsey.

Although the program only focuses on male perpetrators right now, Dempsey says a program for women has been considered.

He says one might be possible if there becomes enough need for it.

Dempsey has more than two decades of working with at-risk populations, and has worked in similar programs like elsewhere.

But he says the job doesn’t come without its toll.

“It wouldn’t be honest to say that at times it [doesn’t] become very stressful and somewhat overwhelming,” said Dempsey. “Our hope is that the guys are successful and there’s an impact on minimizing the sexual violence in the delta.”

Out of the 100 men who have completed the program since its inception, two have gone back to prison for sexual offenses.