Concerns raised by Op-Ed are real, says DHSS director
Dept. of Human and Social Services Director Taeaoafua Dr. Meki Solomona says the common goal of the DHSS Children and Family Services Division (CFSD) and the Behavioral Health Services Division (BHSD) “is to promote wellness and recovery by ensuring a comfortable and safe environment for clients to openly share their stories”.
He added, “It is a priority for me and this department to identify and secure funding and other resources that will help DHSS counselors to adequately and effectively serve the needs of child victims of sexual violence and sexual offenders.”
Taeaoafua’s comments were made in a Jan. 13 letter in response to a guest editorial titled “Rehabilitation and Treatment for Victims of Sexual Violence” penned by Ipu Avegalio Lefiti and published on Monday, Jan. 13 in the Samoa News.
In the guest editorial, Lefiti lashes out at DHSS saying the department’s “failure” to provide a treatment program to treat sexually violated children is “inexcusable” and for years, “past DHSS directors have ignored this need or are in denial”.
Lefiti goes on to say, “If it takes the Fono to confirm a Director, why not recall this director to find out why is there no action to provide treatment services for victims and sex offenders?” She added, “Here is a department full of degreed counselors yet none, I was informed, are certified or licensed to practice in this area. This is a growing systemic problem that needs to be aggressively addressed thru a collaborative effort between DHSS, DOH, DPS and licensed counselors.”
In response to the issue regarding the lack of certified counselors, Taeaofua said, “Although there are no certified or licensed counselors in the area of sexual violence treatment for victims and offenders, there are several evidence-based counseling approaches that are currently applied to these referrals (e.g., motivational interviewing, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and trauma-informed care).”
The DHSS director pointed out that all BHSD counselors have received extensive training in each approach, and there are also ongoing discussions to seek funding that will support training and certification of counselors in this special field of treatment for victims of sexual violence and offenders.
According to Taeaoafua, DHSS receives $86,000 annually for community mental health services and 20% of this amount is dedicated to children’s mental health, which amounts to roughly $17,000 per year. In addition, DHSS receives approximately $120,000 per year for Family Violence Prevention, which pays for shelter operations and client transportation costs for the Victims of Crime Advocacy (VOCA) Services.
“These merger dollars are nowhere near what is needed to provide effective and efficient treatment services for child victims of sexual violence and sexual offenders and is one of many challenges that DHSS faces in providing the best services to our people,” Taeaoafua explained.
He continued, “The concerns raised in Ms. Lefiti’s op-ed are real and depict the strains and challenges that the current system faces in providing adequate treatment services to child victims of sexual violence. The lack of certified counselors in this area is accurate. However, it must be noted that there is a shortage of counselors in this field altogether.”
According to Taeaoafua, recruiting mental health counselors to address this special need is “very difficult,” and DHSS is forced to assign its limited workforce to the majority of referrals that are received from the Court, which are alcohol-related offenses and not treatment for child victims of sexual violence.
“Available funding to support certification of counselors to treat child victims of sexual violence is an issue, and clearly without funding allocated for this special need, providers such as DHSS resort to utilizing scarce resources and approaches,” he explained, adding that although these approaches do not address the problem directly, they do allow DHSS counselors the opportunity to make a positive impact on the child’s life and potentially create a safe environment for recovery and change.
“I welcome the collaboration and support of all local service providers and the community at-large in joining our effort to ensure that victims of such crimes receive the best possible service we can offer,” Taeaoafua said.
DHSS ROLE IN TREATMENT AND REHABILITATION
According to Taeaoafua, approximately 80% of child victims of sexual violence cases received by Child Protective Services (CPS) are referred for treatment or counseling services. Some of these cases are court-ordered, while others are referred for treatment by CPS. The only exception to a referral for treatment is when the parents and/or child refuse treatment.
Criminal matters regarding the alleged perpetrator, says Taeaoafua, are instantly handled by the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office once charges are filed.
“Presently, the responsibility to refer sex offenders for treatment rests with the Court and the Office of Probation,” he pointed out, adding that American Samoa has a few treatment providers, which include DHSS, LBJ Medical Center, (Psychiatry Services), and a private psychiatric clinician. “There were also instances where sex offenders were not referred for treatment due to conditions of a plea agreement”.
Taeaoafua said the Court makes up close to 95% of all treatment referrals that are received by BHSD, and once a referral is received for a child victim of sexual violence, an intake and behavioral health assessment is conducted to assist in developing an appropriate treatment plan.
“At this point in time, such cases are handled by either a senior counselor or a management staff member who encompasses a high level of counseling skills to address related issues. Periodically, the LBJ psychiatrist is consulted regarding treatment for children with severe emotional disturbances, including child victims of sexual violence. This is an important part in ensuring that appropriate treatment is provided,” Taeaoafua concluded.