Children of the River Child and Family Advocacy Center

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By Matt Nagle 

8-11-17 PTN Verna Bartlett
Dr. Bartlett with some colorful cultural characters that performed in a Tacoma concert by Spanish singing sensation Lila Downs. Photo courtesy of Eugena Buena-Douglas

Dr. Verna Bartlett has established a program to help Indian people who are now, or have been, victims of trauma brought on by sexual abuse, be they children or elders. With many years of child advocacy behind her, including 25 years working for Puyallup Tribe’s Children’s Services, this 81-year-old Puyallup elder has been awarded a $1,092,315 federal grant from the Department of Commerce Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to launch Children of the River Child and Family Advocacy Center, a program she has been developing for the past two decades.

Others have helped her along the way to establishing Children of the River, including the Tribe’s Director of Grants and Planning Kevin Stark, who chose grant writer Norm Dorpat to write the proposal to send to the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy. Without these two men, Dr. Bartlett said that there was every chance she would not have been awarded the grant, as the wording and language in the grant proposal had to be appropriate and proper for Children of the River to be considered. Part of Stark’s and Dorpat’s work was to fine-tune the 40-page Children of the River strategy document that Dr. Bartlett wrote in 1997, and it was done with much skill and thoughtfulness.

“I definitely give a lot of the credit to them,” she said.

She is now working from a small office in the Puyallup Tribal Administration building but is actively searching for a larger location in Tacoma to implement the plan she has for Children of the River to expand the Tribe’s existing victim assistance programs. She is also researching and seeking out dedicated, sincere, extensively experienced and educated individuals for her staff. As director of Children of the River Child and Family Advocacy Center, Dr. Bartlett’s goal is to establish a trusted, accredited, culturally sensitive and trauma-informed program that employs Native American staff and offers a place where Indian children and adults will feel comfortable by being around their own people.

“We will serve people from birth to 100 years old from all 27 federally recognized tribes in the state of Washington, and any Indian person from across the United States who wants to work with us, they are welcome – not just children who have been through trauma, but elders too and everyone in between. These are my people and they have nowhere to go to get the kind of extended one-on-one help they need,” Dr. Bartlett said.

Through years of research, study and living as a socially involved Native American woman, Dr. Bartlett knows what she’s talking about when she says that the crime rate, drug and alcohol rates and the rate of children being traumatized on reservations is three times greater than the general population.

“Why is this girl being abused at 7 years old then at 13 she starts acting out – carving her arms up, doing drugs, sleeping with every boy. That girl is a victim,” she said. “I see kids now cutting themselves with razor blades or committing suicide at 12, 15, 21 years old.”

Words can do severe damage too. Dr. Bartlett said that calling children names like “lazy” or “stupid” or telling them things like, “You’ll never amount to anything!” or “You’re a bad, bad girl!” can result in deep wounds carried into adulthood. These, too, are traumatizing experiences that often set the tone for how children live their lives as adults and turn to substance addiction, violence or other means to survive the shame carried inside from being told they are worthless.

She also knows that the way the system works now is generally not sensitive to Native American children. As Dr. Bartlett explained, the standard practice today is that a child will make a disclosure at school or the doctor’s office about abuse he or she is suffering at the hands of a family member or family friend then is forced to repeat the disclosure over and over to police, Child Protective Services and others on down the line.

For Native children, this means having to open up to non-Native authorities. Dr. Bartlett’s program alleviates this by providing to children the people of their own culture who bring the comfort of familiarity to the child.

A THREE-PART APPROACH

Taking a three-part approach, the Children of the River program does not force children to repeatedly tell what happened to them, as this forced repetition in effect causes the child to re-live trauma each time the story is told. In addition, the child will be interviewed in a room that’s comfortable for the child in that it will reflect the child’s nationality, with pictures of Native American children on the walls and Native-inspired décor to make the child feel more at home among the things that are valued in indigenous culture.

For step one, by using a two-way mirror Dr. Bartlett, an FBI agent and a CPS worker can all be on the other side as the child is interviewed by a trained Native American forensic interviewer in one sitting.

“We witness this one interview and it goes through the whole legal system. You let them talk instead of leading them to say yes, he did this or that to me,” Dr. Bartlett explained. “The child won’t have to go to court to testify again, and won’t have to face the perpetrator.”

After the interview, step two will be a one-time forensic physical examination from a trained doctor with a colposcope, a special camera to take photographs for evidence to validate the accusation. Then step three is to have a Native American caseworker work with the child and family, with counselors available as well.

A COMMON PATH

Dr. Bartlett knows this pain, as she herself is a survivor of trauma inflicted upon her when she was a young girl and later after marriage.

“I’ve put my whole heart and soul into this program because I was a victim as a child and had no one to turn to. There was no such thing as mental health counseling back then. I was sexually abused by my mother’s boyfriend from the time I was 7 until I was 11. I carried that inside of me and this is why I have such a heart for children who are being abused now.”

Like so many who are traumatized in these ways, she turned to alcohol to cope in her younger years. Alcohol ruled her life, and almost ruined her life until the day she had enough. “I took my last drink of whisky on April 16, 1978 so I count time from that date,” she said. This was when she began living her purpose – to get a formal education and speak up for the suffering. It took her seven- and-a-half years to get her master’s degree. She began working to earn her PhD when she was 65 years old and achieved it when she was 75 years old. And what’s telling about Dr. Bartlett’s character is that she is not one who feels superior to others just because she has multiple degrees and diplomas.

“I’m not pious because I have a PhD,” as she explained it. “I’m still one of the people that needs help. I’m in that alcoholic, that drug addict, that girl who can’t take care of her children… I’m one of them. My heart is there. I tell my clients, ‘I’ll walk every inch of the way with you. You have to go to treatment? I’ll go to treatment with you. I will visit you in jail. I will help you and look out for the children.’”

Once she got clean and sober, she had the clarity to do great things for others. One example took place many years ago when she opened an 18-month program for alcoholics and drug addicts called Tiospaye, which in the Lakota language means people helping people like they’re your extended family. Located at the former Cascadia building (Cushman Indian Hospital), Dr. Bartlett said Tiospaye was created out of nothing with the help of four recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

“We had no financial support and I couldn’t even pay them, but we had food. I brought my stove from home, my refrigerator, my bed, my two kids and we stayed in that building,” she said.

To develop the 18-month program, Dr. Bartlett followed the “Orthomolecular Psychology” theory, which is to treat mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction with massive doses of vitamins and minerals. She didn’t allow the residents to ingest any pop or sugar products, coffee, tea, bread or flour products, milk or greasy foods. Smoking was not allowed. After about 30 days, the effects of this detoxing begin to take effect.

“You cannot reason with a person who is toxic and suffering,” Dr. Bartlett said. “The first step is to detoxify and in about 30 days you may be able to begin the process of communicating.”

This regimen was difficult for many of the residents to handle at first, but as time passed they lost their cravings for intoxicants and addictive foods like sugar and caffeine.

“They said they hadn’t felt that good since they were children.”

Now with Children of the River Child and Family Advocacy Center, Dr. Bartlett is on a new journey to continue her decades of service to her Puyallup Tribe and all Native peoples who come to her for help. “My heart is with the people. My heart is with the Puyallup Tribe.”

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