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Dealing with sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities is difficult for many reasons. The pain and the shame many communities are experiencing because of all the related abuse they have suffered makes it very difficult to even talk about it. Many people prefer to bury the pain and to try to forget. But we are now learning that many ruined lives can be connected to sexual abuse. How many youth suicides, how many broken marriages, how many frightened, abused children, how many lies, how many cover-ups will take place before people finally address these issues and decide to end the cycle of abuse? In the mid 1980's a few Canadian Aboriginal communities began the process of recovering and healing related to sexual abuse. Now, in 1999, almost all communities are struggling with this issue. Some communities are very open about their struggle, but there are still many in which the powers that be will not allow the issue of sexual abuse to come to the surface and to be addressed head on.


This program has been developed for communities that are ready to address the issue of sexual abuse with determination and perseverance. In preparing the program we took a number of key factors into account.

1. There is a tension that exists between many Aboriginal communities and the Canadian legal system. The law requires that all suspected cases of child sexual abuse be reported and prosecuted. Canadian society tends to want to push sexual abusers into prisons as quickly as possible. Aboriginal communities, on the other hand, tend to see the problems of abuse as an imbalance or a sickness in the person, the family and the community. A sickness calls for healing, not jailing. Healing is needed most of all for victims, but also for the victim's family, the abuser and his (or her) family, and for past victims of abuse that have carried their hurt hidden away inside of them for many years.

2. We also know that sexual abuse is fundamentally an abuse of power. Abusers use their power, control or influence over victims in order to gain access to sexual contact. Because there is a power imbalance, healing usually requires an infusion of power into the situation. The combined power of the law (through the threat of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment) and of the will of the community is needed to step into the relationship between the victim and the abuser. So while it is true to say that healing is what is needed in order to address the issue of sexual abuse, it is also true that the power of the law is needed for the protection of the child (and other victims), the restoration of balance in the relationship between everyone involved, as well as for the promotion of healing processes for the victims.

3. The challenge for Aboriginal community's is to develop a strategy for dealing with sexual abuse that balances the needs of everyone involved in the situation for protection, healing, justice and restoration of healthy human relations. The community's own culturally based understanding of how to best do this should provide the guiding framework for building a program.

4. Sexual abuse is a part of the pattern of life in many families and communities. There is no way to end abuse without changing the pattern. A process of community learning and development is also needed. prevention and wellness programs, and community development must be a part of the process.

5. In many communities the sheer number of people suffering from sexual abuse (past and present), alcohol and drug abuse and other dysfunctional patterns is far too great for a small group of program workers to "fix". In any case, healing comes from within. The process of healing related to sexual abuse requires the engagement of the community in the process of change. A lasting solution cannot be delivered as a program. It has to be home-grown from within the community.


"Responding to Sexual Abuse" is a program designed to train and coach Aboriginal communities through the process of developing an effective community response for dealing with sexual abuse.

The entire process usually takes about two years, but after the first year, your community program should be in full operation. The second year focuses on on-the-job learning backed up by our team of coaches.

In most Aboriginal communities, the program that is put in place through this process should be able to operate using existing people and resources, who are retrained and teamed together to do the work that is required.


The Responding to Sexual Abuse Program has been developed to assist Aboriginal community sexual abuse response teams to develop their own strategies for addressing the issues of sexual abuse in their communities. We advocate that a team approach is needed to bring together all the key players who must be involved in building a viable solution (such as the families involved, elders and spiritual counselors, mental and physical health workers, child protection case workers, and police officers). All of these people will need to work together with the victim, the abuser and all the other people impacted by the situation to bring about a re-balancing of community life.


It is truly encouraging to note that the approaches which have inspired this program really do work. Communities such as Hollow Water, Manitoba and Cano Lake, British Columbia have shown that when Aboriginal communities work together to tackle the problem of sexual abuse, real progress can be made and the cycle of abuse can be stopped.


What is a Community Response Team?

The key features of a community-based response team are listed below.

1. The community-based response team (CRT) is a group of community professionals and volunteers who represent the key stakeholder groups who must be involved in addressing community abuse, namely:

the community at large; child protection services; the police and court system; health services and other related agencies.

That these players participate as active members in the group is key to the success of the team effort. If the right players are not involved, there is a clear danger that the various ways of seeing the problem (i.e. philosophy, perspective) the different mandates and legal responsibilities, and the different ways of operating will clash and the overall response will not be nearly as effective.

2. The response team makes a detailed plan of how to integrate and coordinate the community and agency response to sexual abuse disclosures. The goal is to make sure that all of the needs and requirements of everyone involved are addressed. These needs include:

protection, especially during the panic-disclosure phase; healing for all who need it; reporting to the proper authorities and record keeping; coordinating the legal and healing process at the community level.

3. The response team works within a set of agreements between the key players that allows the response team to address the healing needs, while at the same time satisfying the legal requirements. Developing and implementing appropriate agreements (between the community, the police and courts, child protection services and health services) sets up the base for the response team's operation.

Steps Involved in Setting up a Community Response Team

Anticipating Cultural Issues

Setting up a community sexual abuse response team to work in Aboriginal communities requires that all the players be willing to work within the cultural framework of the community. What this means in practice is that the communities own spiritual values and ways of communicating and working together in groups must be allowed to shape the way the team operates (i.e. learns and works together). Non-Aboriginal resource people may well be a part of the team, but they must be willing to respect the community's ways of seeing and doing things. Respect cannot be a one-way street, however. Aboriginal members of the team must be willing to listen to and respect the views and needs of the non-Aboriginal members.

The key to success (in our experience) in harmonizing different cultural ways of doing things is to use a circle management system. What this means is that the circle is the leader and the members of the circle work together to meet each other's needs and build consensus.

Stage One: Getting the Right Players on the Team

As stated above, the purpose of using a team approach to address sexual abuse at the community level is to harmonize the various legal requirements and human needs that arise in dealing with sexual abuse. Essentially, most Aboriginal communities and cultures "see" sexual abuse more as a problem of un-wellness (i.e. of being out of balance) rather than as a criminal or legal problem. On the other hand, the dominant society (Euro-Canadian) tends to "see" the sexual abuse as a criminal issue for which a legal (i.e. police and courts) response is the primary need, and for which health-related intervention may be required. Both communities seem to agree that protection is an important issue and also that sexual abuse is related to the misuse of power.

Unless the representatives of the following groups are included in the team's makeup from the beginning, these sorts of issues cannot be worked out.

1. The community at large - Community team members who have dealt with most of their own addictions and abuse issues (i.e. have worked hard to resolve their own healing needs and issues ) as well as people who can bring spiritual and cultural resources to the communities reconciliation and healing process, should be included. Community representation may also include someone representing political leadership. This can be very useful in ensuring overall support and consideration for the team's work.

2. Child Protection Services - These are the agency professionals legally responsible for ensuring the safety and protection of children in sexual abuse related cases. Most often, these individuals are social workers. Child Protection Services must be reported to in all cases of child sexual abuse.

3. Legal Services - The police and the courts are required by law to investigate and deal with all cases of child sexual abuse according to the provisions of the law.

4. Health Services - Medical and mental health professionals (as well as traditional healers) become involved in helping those who need to go through a healing process (victims, abusers, spouses, etc.).

An adequate response to sexual abuse always involves all of these players if the victim is a child. In the case of adult survivors, the community, the law and health services may all be involved, depending on the circumstances.

Stage Two: Developing a working agreement and action plan between all the players, that meets both the human needs and the legal requirements, as well as, honours and respects the community's way of seeing the problem.

The agreement and plans worked out at this stage describe a process for responding to sexual abuse disclosures that addresses the needs for;

1. Assessment of the situation and validation of the abuse.

2. Protection of child victims and anyone else who may need protection.

3. Healing, i.e. helping victims, abusers and others to go through needed healing processes.

4. The legal process - involving investigation, laying charges (if appropriate), arrest (if appropriate), court appearances, trail or judgement, sentencing (or other conditions) and eventually, completion of legal obligations.

5. Follow-up and monitoring of abuse situations, victim and abuse recovery processes, legal requirements, etc.

6. Record keeping and documentation - to ensure that counselors and other health professionals document the healing process in ways that can be used by other professionals (for example, in the case of referrals) as well as can be used as evidence in court.

The essential problem of the team planning phase is to build an action plan that harmonizes all of these needs without compromising any of them.

Stage Three: Team Wellness

The essential purpose of the community response team's work is to facilitate a restoring of balance (i.e. well-being, health) to all who are impacted by sexual abuse. This implies the full spectrum of program work, including a) prevention, b) crisis intervention, c) healing and rehabilitation, and d) community wellness development. While the response team can't do all of this work themselves, they will need to provide catalytic leadership to see that it gets done.

You can't bring to the people what you do not have yourself. Therefore, the response team must work on itself in the healing of its members (especially related to sexuality and abuse) and must become a model of wellness in the way members carry themselves personally; and in the way the team operates together. Team wellness is not something that will come overnight or in a few workshops. It must be a permanent part of the community response team's work.

Stage Four: Training

Learning to be effective in carrying out community-based interventions related to sexual abuse takes training and time. Response teams should develop a learning plan that spans several years, and involves intensive workshops, practicums, field mentoring and supervision and professional backstopping.


The outline below describes a basic training program to communities wanting to develop a community-based response team. Depending on your community's circumstances, other steps may also be required. For example, in addition to a police officer and a child protection worker, a response team needs to have one or more mental health workers with training in sexual abuse counseling. While Four Worlds can certainly provide that training, it is not included in the basic package for the response team. The training package described here begins with the assumption that all members of the team are already able to perform their own roles (law inforcement personnel, social workers, elders, mental health counselors, chief and council representative's). This training will help this core group to build their collective capacity to work as a team in addressing community sexual abuse and to build an effective community response program.

Step One: Preparation Phase (two days)

1. Orientation workshop for all interested agencies and community members.

2. Developing an initial working agreement between the chief and council, police and crown attorney's office, child protection services, community elders and key community representatives.

Step Two: Training Phase (approximately 6 months)

1. Two 5-day intensive workshops spaced three months apart.

2. Supervised field practicum assignments as the team gradually learns to take on various aspects of its work.

3. Continuous connection with coaches and mentors by telephone, e-mail and field visits.

Step Three: Program Implementation Phase (2 months)

1. Team begins to take on regular case loads (with mentoring support from Four Worlds).

2. Documentation and record keeping system is tested and finalized.

Step Four: Community Involvement Phase (4 months)

1. Community awareness and education program launched.

2. Community healing workshop to give impetus to a community wellness movement.

3. Youth healing workshop.

4. First formal evaluation of team performance and recommendations for improvement.

Step Five (Recommended)

1. Quarterly (4 times a year) mentoring and technical support visits.

2. Second formal evaluation of team performance.


The "Responding to Abuse" capacity building program has been designed and developed by Four Worlds International and The Four Worlds Centre for Development Learning. Four Worlds has a long and distinguished track record related to healing and community development work in Aboriginal communities. Team members have recently authored several manuals on Aboriginal community sexual abuse intervention, and we have worked closely with many Aboriginal communities for more than thirty years on abuse issues. Our film, "Healing The Hurts" documents some of this important work. Four Worlds is well known for its culturally based way of working, based on principles and approaches that have emerged through the guidance of wise elders and that have been tested in hundreds of Aboriginal community settings over many years.


Step One: Pre-operational Phase ($4,800.00)

1. Includes fees for workshop and documentation services, and travel and accommodation costs for two Four Worlds consultants.

Step Two, Three and Four: Training, Implementation and Community Involvement Phases ($75,200.00)

1. Includes all fees for training, technical support, planning and documentation services, adoption of record keeping system, monitoring and evaluation services for year one, as well as all travel and accommodation costs for Four Worlds team members.

Step Five: Follow-up Support Year ($25,000.00)

1. Includes quarterly visits to the community and monitors and supports the team's work and an annual evaluation.

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This program is designed for communities that are ready to take effective action against abuse. If you would like to find out more, please contact:

The Four Worlds International Institute for Human and Community Development

347 Fairmont Boulevard, Lethbridge, Alberta T1K 7J8 Canada

Tele: (403) 320-7144 Fax: (403) 329-8383 Email: 4worlds@uleth.ca