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Hunt makes history with national honor

PORTLAND, Ore. - American Indian and Native Alaskan children that have been abused or neglected are finding healing, self-esteem and identity through traditional methods.

Gaining acceptance of those traditional methods in the non-Indian community is the big challenge. Medicaid often doesn't recognize those methods. And Indian and non-Indian child welfare agencies seldom communicate with each other, which means a child can go from one treatment method to another as he or she moves through the system.

R. Andrew Hunt dedicates his time to bridging those gaps - to the tune of 54 on-site training and technical assistance visits this year and more than 150,000 miles flown.

Hunt, a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, was recognized for his work recently by receiving one of the highest honors in the field of social work - the U.S. Public Health Service's Social Worker of the Year Award.

Hunt was recognized for consistently achieving high standards in the practice of social work in the health care field. Hunt, a Lumbee Indian, is the first American Indian to receive this award.

Hunt, who holds the rank of commander, is on special assignment to the Indian Health Service's National Indian Child Welfare Association.

"Having Cdr. Hunt named social worker of the year is a tremendous honor," said Terry L. Cross, executive director of National Indian Child Welfare Association. "It shows the commitment and dedication NICWA and its staff have for Indian children and families."

Hunt, 40, is a native of Baltimore, Md., where many Lumbee sharecroppers like his father went looking for better work in the 1940s and '50s. His family later moved to Oregon.

Hunt attended high school in McMinnville, graduated from Linville College and earned a master's degree in Social Work at Portland State University. He was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service in 1990.

Hunt is married and has three daughters.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association is a non-profit organization contracted with the IHS through a partnership with the Center for Mental Health Services.

Over the past year, Hunt has worked on a national level in the area of American Indian/Alaska Native children's mental health as a trainer, technical assistance provider, and consultant to a number of Indian tribes.

The location and settings of these visits include remote Alaska Native villages, isolated Indian communities in Maine, Wyoming and Michigan, and urban Indian programs in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Hunt also makes presentations at regional and national meetings.

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Hunt's work isn't easy.

"The numbers (of abused and neglected children) are not decreasing," Hunt said. Reservations continue to have high numbers of children with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The latter, often associated with soldiers returning from war, has been found in children who have grown up in abusive homes, or who have lost friends in accidents or to suicide. Accidents and suicides are often the result of substance abuse.

In addition, many of today's children are being raised by parents who don't have parenting skills because they, in turn, were raised by a generation sent to boarding schools notorious for abusive discipline, Hunt said.

Many tribes and nations have turned to culturally-based healing methods. In Bethel, Alaska, the Native community has a list of traditional methods of healing that it employs and has been able to bill Medicaid. In one case, a child is being taught by a mentor to mend fishing nets.

They are able to bill Medicaid because "they can point to the self-esteem and the sense of identity the child gains," Hunt said.

Hunt works with tribes and nations to put together such plans and familiarize non-Indian agencies with how Indian agencies work with children. He has facilitated meetings and training where Indian and non-Indian agencies meet and learn to talk to each other - "professionals working together," he said.

The goals: "Children don't get bumped around from place to place," he said. And if a child is moved to a non-Indian agency, he or she can continue traditional healing methods.

American Indians are not the only people turning to culture for healing. Efforts are prominent in African American, Asian and Hispanic communities. "Kids are thirsty for this knowledge," he said.

Another example of the power of culture: In Lake Isabella, Calif., the National Park Service provided land so the Tubatulabal and Paiute-Shoshone tribes could build a cultural center.

Since the cultural center opened, however, children have been turning to the center for cultural activities, college visits, career and education planning. Children create their own traditional dance regalia for public events. They are learning to do traditional dances as well.

"The kids are really excited about the cultural activities," said Lori Pahvitse, site manager. "Something inside them hungers for it ? We want them to be proud of who (they) are."

Hunt would like to see more partnership between Indian and non-Indian agencies, leading to "a holistic approach to health and wellness."

Hunt added, "One kid could be saved by four or five agencies working together."

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at