RI Family Court Chief Judge Michael B. Forte welcomed over 250 attendees including school personnel, social workers, providers, attorneys, law enforcement and court staff to a conference he hosted for two days at the Providence Marriott Downtown on October 20 & 21, 2016.
In conjunction with many experts in the field, the conference included voices of several survivors of sexual assault and their journeys on the road to healing. Special focus was primarily placed on children but also included information relevant to adults. Attention was guided to areas such as: identification, dating violence, system response, and therapy.
Chief Judge Forte stated, “Almost every day, the effects of childhood trauma are brought to the attention of the Family Court, DCYF and/or the schools. As we examine these problems that face some children, we will explore how collaboration among the system providers can deliver effective appropriate interventions at all levels.”
“I applaud each of you for participating in this valuable conference which will help us to learn, to share and to help grow a system that will respond in an effective and timely manner when addressing some of these tremendous adverse life challenges that face so many of our most vulnerable assets – our children. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that they have the support and services to prosper and succeed in a safe and healthy manner. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to continue to take action to improve the futures of those that we are here to protect and guide,” the Chief Judge continued.
After the Chief Judge’s remarks, he introduced the Honorable Thomas Izzo who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the two day event. Mr. Izzo stated, “I appreciate being in a room full of advocates for children. Your presence here today is a testament that you are offering a willingness to make healing possible.”
Thursday’s presentations included: Kathleen Kemp, Ph.D. who is an Assistant Professor (Research) at the Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School and Staff Psychologist with Rhode Island Hospital Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Bradley/Hasbro Children's Research Center and is also the Director of the Rhode Island Family Court Mental Health Clinic. Dr. Kemp spoke on the impact on youth that childhood adverse life events and trauma have. “The Rhode Island Family Court does an excellent job screening all youth for trauma and adverse childhood events and linking youth and their families to services. It is vital to empower families,” said Dr. Kemp.
SURVIVORS SPEAK RI was a panel presentation that gave very truthful, emotional and personal presentations on being proud team members of this important group. “This presentation was truly impactful,” stated Chief Judge Forte. SURVIVORS SPEAK RI gives a voice to ALL sexual assault victims.
Jane Johnson spoke about sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective. She told the audience about her horrific rape at age 47 by someone she knew. I was working at DCYF at the time and suffered in silence for almost two years. “It is critically important to understand the trauma of sexual assault and the healing of sexual assault. Also, it is imperative to understand the difference between physical trauma and emotional trauma,” said Johnson “It was traumatic to have to go through the process alone, in fear of telling anyone what had happened because of what they would think. I was humiliated sitting at court proceedings’ looking at photographs of what was done to me. SURVIVORS SPEAK RI has given me not only strength for myself, but the strength to be the voice of many other victims and to face perpetrators and tell them what they have done.” “Victims need to know that someone is going to fight for them. I do this work on behalf of all the victims out there. I talk for you until you can talk with me,” stated Johnson to a deafeningly quiet audience.
Wendy Allmendinger has spent more than two decades working for social justice - as a public defender, as an attorney for indigent survivors of domestic violence, and in various roles in the sexual domestic violence field. She is a survivor of sexual and domestic violence as a child and as an adult. Most importantly, she is the mother of two intelligent and compassionate young men who have committed part of their busy student lives to work for social justice, for equality and to end violence against women. Attorney Allmendinger said, “witnessing domestic violence as a child has a lifelong impact on a child.”
Jessica Cinquegrana is a survivor of child molestation by three family members. As a teenager, she was removed from her home by DCYF after she disclosed her abuse. She was in placement until she aged out of the system. After several years of therapy, she has been successful working through her abuse issues and is now able to advocate for other victims who have not yet found their voices. “I have thick skin because I AM A SURVIVOR,” said Jessica. She has spoken about her abuse at the Rhode Island State House during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). She has been interviewed on television and has spoken at several colleges and universities in Rhode Island. In 2009 she earned a degree in Human Services and then chose a new career path as a nurse. She expects to graduate from CCRI in 2018.
Pasco Troia stated, “I believe in my soul the sexual abuse I experienced as a child broke me, but did not destroy me. I am a proud survivor of child sexual abuse. I believe the level of abuse I endured allows me to speak on behalf of the victims of child sexual abuse who did not survive. When I was 11 years old I was molested by a Roman Catholic Priest in Cranston, RI for about a year. I hid every sinful act of abuse from everyone, including myself. Twenty-one years later I read an article in the Providence Journal that changed my life forever. I later learned to confront the memories I recalled in order to become mentally and emotionally whole again. The internal anguish left behind after sexual assault is what kills the child. I kept silent for two decades because who would believe me (a child) over a man of the cloth. The sexual abuse had been unbearable and rough. I didn’t know how to handle it. I was young. I finally sought therapy and after about one year of intense therapy, with the right professional, I finally started to get my life back. I joined a lawsuit against the Providence Diocese and just finished writing a book titled “Behind the Altar” which is currently being reviewed for publication. Though my awakening, I am closer than ever to God. My words are to help all victims: SURVIVE, THRIVE and STAY ALIVE!”
Mary Byrne is a public speaker, educator and advocate. She is also a child molestation survivor. “I was born to a woman who did not really want a child. When I was four years old, a neighbor exposed himself to me. I wanted to know what happened to the nice man. No one asked me what was wrong. This went on until on was fourteen years old. My childhood was taken from me. I finally found my SAFE PASSAGE through therapy. Being sexually molested affected every aspect of my life. Counseling made all the difference in my life. Don’t let it take your life away – go to therapy. I am now a children’s book author.”
Peter Loss, ACSW provided sex offender treatment in Connecticut and in Rhode Island for nearly 40 years; directed the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) at the Adult Correction Institution (ACI) in Cranston, RI for 28 years; chaired the Sex Offender Board of Review for 10 years; and has provided training nationwide and is currently in private practice. Mr. Loss began, “Thank each of you on today’s panel for your powerful presentation. I work with sex offenders in treatment and in prisons. I have such admiration and resolve for the courage of each survivor to come into the cell block and speak about their personal stories. To have inmates hear the victims voices themselves is much more powerful from those who have lived it. I don’t think you can do sex crimes treatment in a community without this component of SURVIVORS SPEAK.”
Chief Judge Forte asked the panel about sex crimes and power. Mr. Loss responded, “That is an excellent point. Sex crimes are all about power and feeling emotionally superior to others. We almost never talk about sexuality. This is assault. Perpetration is the weapon.”
When asked how you encourage clients to participate in therapy?, Jessica responded, “They have to be ready.”
The panel of SURVIVORS SPEAK RI all received a resounding standing ovation after they each spoke. All participants at the conference listening were deeply affected by these personal tragic stories and no doubt left the conference changed and charged to continue to make a difference.
Amy Battersby, MS, LMHC, CTSC is the Director of Clinical Services at Day One in Providence. She spoke on the neurobiology of trauma and what it teaches us about effective treatment and intervention. “With technology we can look into the brain and see how it works after trauma. It is important to use bottom-up interventions. Therapists need to start at the bottom to aid in healing, When trying to get a trauma informed therapist, find a therapist trained in more than one kind of trauma,” stated Battersby.
Maureen Philbin, M.Ed., Director of Advocacy for Day One RI. Ms. Philbin addressed the audience on a multidisciplinary approach to survivors of childhood trauma and commercial sexual exploitation. “The CAC’s (Children’s Advocacy Centers) look at the victim first, they are videotaped so they do not have to tell their story over and over and over again. Victims should not have to be traumatized by re-telling their story. Every child gets trauma informed care. I would like to emphasize that we need to look at prevention in schools. One in four girls and one in six boys are affected by sexual abuse before age eighteen,’ Said Philbin.
The Voice Youth Leadership Panel consisted of well-spoken current and former foster youth who have had (and continue to have) the courage and tenacity to stand up and advocate for themselves and others. These young people are the experts of their own lives and their voices should be a part of the decision-making process. It is critical to hear the voices of foster youth when developing policies and practices that will directly affect them. The Voice youth leadership board advocates on behalf of current and former foster youth.
Gernani Yutob, Jr., a former foster youth from Hawaii, currently employed at Foster Forward as a Youth Engagement Specialist and is the adult supporter for The Voice Youth Leadership Board. Gernani asked poignant questions of the panel and had an exceptional grasp of the foster care system and what children face when then enter it. Gernani spoke of “Social Capital” which means Positive Support Network and asked the panel (Melody, Stephanie, Randy and Blanca), “How did your experience in foster care change how you interact with the world? They all stated that “moving around makes it hard to fit in; feel very alone and angry; confused; continuously have to keep re-telling your story; always feel like we did something wrong; difficulty trusting people which is a defense mechanism you develop over the years.”
Melody said, “Listen to us. Take the time to know us.”
Randy stated, “Talk to youth having trouble. Build trust. I had a real support person. Who told me, “Your education is all on you – no one can take that away from you.” I still talk to him today.”
Gernani spoke about the Prudent Parenting Standard, “the standard of care for foster youth should be the same as bio kids.”
Blanca said, “When I was in highs school a few years ago, I couldn’t go to school events. I couldn’t go to my prom. I couldn’t have a cell phone. I had no social media access so kids at school couldn’t call me. It made me an outcast. Now you can do those things.”
Melody stated, “Group homes and residential programs should have the same standards as foster care and bio kids – Prudent Parenting Standard.”
The panel strongly stated – unilaterally- that “FOSTER CARE should be EXTENDED to age 21 in Rhode Island. Hopefully this law will pass in RI.”
Randy, under an Interstate Compact between Massachusetts and RI, has his time in Massachusetts foster care extended until he is 23.
Today’s presentations continued to carry forward the strong message from yesterday that collaboration among system providers can deliver effective and appropriate interventions at all levels.
Governor Gina Raimondo welcomed conference participants this morning saying, “I want to begin by thanking the men and women here today who have dedicated their lives to the protection and care of our most precious resources – our children. From Family Court judges and staff, to DCYF social workers, to educators – thank you for your service. There are too many children in our own state who grow up subjected to violence, trauma and abuse. And too often, our fellow Rhode Islanders suffer lifelong scars –wounds that will hurt them for a very long time. That is unacceptable. Every child that grows up in Rhode Island deserves the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe, loving environment. That’s why we are here at this conference – to hear from survivors, to listen to their stories of profound courage, and to take action.”
There was then a panel discussion, led by Family Court Judge Laureen D’Ambra, “Youth and Trauma: The Rhode Island Landscape, that included Susan Lindberg, Associate Director, DCYF; Jeannine Nota-Masse, Cranston School Superintendent; Maureen Philbin and Amy Battersby, both from Day One.
Christie Rizzo, PhD., spoke on relationship violence. Dr. Rizzo is an Associate Professor, Northeastern University and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and served from 2006 to 2014 as Assistant Director for the Juvenile Mental Health Clinic at the Rhode Island Family Court. Her research focuses on romantic relationship risk behaviors among adolescents (dating violence, sexual risk taking), with a particular focus on vulnerable youth such as those involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. She said, “I think it is great that the Family Court put this conference on and having our research project in the Court. Our research , for example Project Strong” for middle school boys and their parents (which includes interactive games for the adolescent boys to play with their parents about sensitive topics including dating), is showing signs of becoming an evidenced based program.
There was a heartfelt presentation by Ann Burke¸ M.Ed., on the need for supporting the prevention of relationship violence. Ms. Burke founded the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund after her daughter’s murder and, independent of the fund, worked to pass the Lindsay Ann Burke Act of 2007, one of the first comprehensive dating violence education laws in the U.S. Through the her daughter Lindsay’s Memorial Fund, she has trained thousands of teachers in the topic of dating violence and the fund has donated curriculum materials to most secondary schools in RI. The fund is also involved in a variety of activities that support and promote dating violence education in RI schools.
The conference closed with an eye opening presentation by Frank Pescosolido, PhD., M.P.H. on the “Cost of Caring: Bearing Witness to Psychologically Traumatized Children.” Dr. Pescosolido lectures and has published on traumatic childhood experiences resulting from interpersonal victimization.
“On behalf of the Family Court, I am extending our thanks and appreciation to everyone involved with this two-day event. Special thanks to all the speakers for sharing your knowledge and personal experiences,” Chief Judge Forte said. “We can be part of the healing process and I welcome you to join me in this effort to continue to do the work to ensure that all of our children, young adults and adults have Safe Passages,” continued the Chief Judge.
Frank P. Geremia, Executive Director of the RI Mediators Association, noted that people who had attended the Conference commented that it was a "moving experience".