AK: Protecting a village

Kwigillingok – a village that keeps kids out of foster care by making it unnecessary. Their Child Protection Team intervenes with families before things get out of hand.

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“And that’s my cousin up there!” shouts 6-year-old Chloe Lewis as she runs about the playground.

She’s playing freeze tag with her classmates, but pauses to grab the microphone from my hand and shout about her favorite things.

“Give me it. Give me it! Look. I like to find eggs.”

She’s not talking about plastic Easter eggs hidden in a yard. Chloe is growing up in the village of Kwigillingok. It’s 80 miles from Bethel by air. There, “finding eggs” means looking in the tussocks of the tundra for hidden nests filled with gull, goose, and swan eggs. Her elders did it, so she does, too.

According to Lillian Kiunya, that’s how many things should work in Kwigillingok – following the ways of the elders. Kiunya is a founding member of the village’s Child Protection Team.

“Yup’ik culture, all our counsels from our elders, are prevention,” says Kiunya, a founding member of the village’s Child Protection Team. “They’re always prevention.”

The volunteer group was founded about 20 years ago. Tribal members were sick of children being abused and neglected then taken from the village, so they decided to intervene – before the abuse starts.

Chloe Lewis plays with her friend on the school playground in Kwigillingok. (Hillman/KSKA)
Chloe Lewis plays with her friend on the school playground in Kwigillingok. (Hillman/KSKA)

Kiunya says the team works “because this team is from the community.” Like most of the village, the team members’ first language is Yup’ik. They grew up there or nearby.

Kiunya works at the school where she sees the kids every day and is on the look out for signs of neglect. If something seems amiss, she talks to the rest of the team then they speak with the parents.

“We have different needs,” she explains. “Sometimes we just need someone to talk to and just having a caring person there to listen to you. It will give a person a sense of support.”

Sometimes all the child protection team does is teach the parents about what neglect means and what happens if the Office of Children’s Services gets involved.

In other cases, like for Emma Oscar, it took more than just stern counsel.

Oscar grew up in Kwigillingok then moved away to Bethel and Anchorage. She started drinking when she was 16 years old. OCS took her oldest daughter when the girl was only one. For the next decade, Oscar gained and lost custody of her six kids–multiple times.

“It was really hard for me to see my kids going through what they’ve been through.”

Eventually Oscar returned home to try one more time to get her kids back. The protection team offered to help, but they didn’t want to just reunite the family. They wanted to get to the root of the problem – her drinking.

“I was really skeptic about it at first, thinking this isn’t going to work.”

After helping her find a job and housing, they sat down together for a Talking Circle. Team members shared challenges they overcame in order to help Oscar open up about her own past, and eventually she did. Now, she’s been sober for three years and has custody of her children. Her youngest sits silently on her lap, clutching her mother’s shirt.

“It feels good. I feel complete now. At first I felt empty inside,” she pauses, reflecting. “But now I feel full.”

Lillian Kiunya on her four-wheeler at the edge of town in Kwigillingok. (Hillman/KSKA)
Lillian Kiunya on her four-wheeler at the edge of town in Kwigillingok. (Hillman/KSKA)

“We can do anything we want to, accomplish anything we want,” says Andrew Beaver who was the village’s child welfare worker when the team was formed. Now he’s the tribal administrator.

Beaver says when they began, 10 to 15 kids were removed from the village of 400 each year. Now, with the help of the protection team, cases of neglect are down and very few kids become involved with OCS. The team is officially part of the tribal government, but they aren’t paid.

“They have internal commitment. They have a passion to protect children within their community. Because these team members are the ones who were lectured by elders. They have that knowledge. They want to pass down this knowledge to this new generation.”

In instances where children do need to be removed from their homes, the Child Protection Team works with OCS and the tribal court to make sure they are placed with relatives in the village. And not just close relatives, like grandparents or aunts. Team member Lillian Kiuyna says they rely on the extended network of family members recognized by Yup’ik traditions.

“I think we’re able to help look after even my cousin’s children,” she says with a smile.

Kiuyna says the team isn’t that busy these days, in part because it’s working. They still organize conferences and bring in speakers to teach the community about problems like domestic violence and suicide. But they have fewer cases than before.

Kiuyna says her elders predicted this.

“You guys will be our leaders some day. You guys will be our counselors some day,’ she says her elders told her over and over. “Then, when I was small, it seemed impossible.”

But the the success of the Child Protection Team shows they were right.

This is the fifth in a five-part series “Fostering our Future.” Check out the other pieces here:
Part One – Number of foster kids at record high, case workers overloaded
Part Two – Changing what it means to be a foster parent
Part Three – Reuniting families with community support
Part Four – Preventing child abuse through social networks