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In Bemidji, Aria Trudeau leads a team lifting heavy burdens off children

Aria Trudeau pauses and thinks momentarily, quietly reflecting on a career full of children and families. “There is something just great about having a parent say to you ‘Thank you so much for existing. I’m so appreciative we could come here. I wish this place could have been around when I was a child’ Parents make comments like that, all in different contexts, that always leave the same feeling in your heart,” she says.

Aria Trudeau
Aria Trudeau

“We’re a medical model facility, meaning we do forensic interviews and medical exams of [abused and neglected] children, and there is something so powerful in seeing a child walk out of that exam room and have this weight lifted off their shoulders. I don’t know how to explain it, except that it’s this sense of airiness like they left a heavy load behind. That’s what fuels my passion. I like to see that,” she continues, adding, “If we can be that place, what better kind of job is that?”

Trudeau’s job consists of managing the Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota and conducting forensic interviews of abused and neglected children. Although the Center varies its name versus the more common “child advocacy center” moniker, Trudeau’s Family Advocacy Center shares the same goals, responsibilities, standards, and values of any CAC.

Trudeau’s career has been spent working with domestic and sexual assault violence, first in county attorney offices and then for the past seven years working at the Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota. “We have three primary programs here. One is a child advocacy center, but we also have a sexual assault nurse examiner program and an intimate partner violence program based on our medical model. Ultimately all of our programs provide treatment and medical documentation of incidents,” she says.

Trudeau is also one of two representatives of all Minnesota CAC’s serving on the Minnesota Children’s Alliance Board. “Being in Bemidji, far north of many other centers, I tend to think the perspective of rural and northern Minnesota communities rests with me,” she says. “There’s push for diversification among our leadership, and part of that is a diversification in lifestyle. Here in Bemidji, we work with a large Native American population – about 52% of the kids that come here are native. That’s something we’re sensitive to. Plus, rural life is just different,” she says.

She and the Board’s work have accelerated over the last few years. “It wasn’t quite the Alliance it is now seven years ago when I started. Things changed when we turned to hiring an Executive Director and growing the Alliance into its own organization,” she says. “What comes to the forefront of my mind is how great [Executive Director] Marcia [Milliken] was in securing legislation and funding for the Alliance and CACs. That was a huge step for all of us. It impacted our existing centers, helped create new ones, and ultimately better serves abused kids in Minnesota.”

Trudeau and other Alliance members are also moving forward with a constantly changing and shifting culture and political environment in Minnesota and nationally. When Department of Human Services assistant commissioner Jim Koppel recently discussed a new report detailing Minnesota’s rising rate of child abuse and neglect many people winced at the Department’s encouragement that families de-stress through exercise, leaning on friends and family members, and “to be patient” with children. The Department’s remarks felt unrealistic and sounded unsympathetic to many.

Trudeau absorbed those remarks like everyone else, but says, “I think all types of ideas are worth exploring. Adults always have a responsibility to keep kids safe. De-stressing is a part of that, but it’s also important for everyone to know the signs of abuse. If you witness abuse, you need to know what to do at that moment,” she says.

Recent increases in opioid abuse have also become a glaring problem in many households. The perception is these problems happen in more southern and middle-America states than Minnesota, but as Trudeau points out, “We always check for any drug exposure. Any CAC would tell you that when we do forensic interviews we’re always assessing the overall safety of the child. We’ve always recognized if a child is exposed to drug use, no matter what the drug is, it’s a safety concern. It’s a topic that is routinely addressed and discussed among Alliance members and has been for years. The Governor’s Task Force and DHS’s overall announcements on abuse and neglect aren’t surprising to us. It’s something we deal with every day,” she says. “It’s not that abuse and neglect are suddenly increasing dramatically. This has always been happening. We just know about it now because it gets reported more.”

“That’s why it’s everyone’s responsibility in this world to know how to keep kids safe,” Trudeau says.