- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The new executive director of Alaska’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault stepped into her new position and a new office space simultaneously on May 1.

L. Diane Casto is still settling into the council’s new digs in Juneau, although she represented the council even before her official start date, at the Take Back the Night event in April.

Casto has spent a number of years working for the state of Alaska in a variety of positions, including as director of the Office of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Most recently, she served as the Behavioral Health Policy Advisor in the Department of Health and Social Services.

She got her start in the nonprofit social services arena with her first job after college, however, working with neglected and abused children.

“One thing I will say, in all the work I’ve done - from prevention to intervention, working with families and communities - they all tie together,” Casto said. “The reality is, how do we deal with these issues? They are all interconnected.”

She joked that her mother worried that her degree in anthropology would be useless in the job market, but that instead it laid a perfect foundation. Cultural anthropology, after all, is all about looking at cultural norms and how societies deal with issues, Casto said, adding, “It has served me every day of my life.”

Casto has spent most of her career with Health & Human Services, working on behavioral health and Medicaid reform. She said she has really enjoyed focusing on policy change, calling it “good work, gratifying work.”

But, she said, her skill set is better suited to macro-level work, such as facilitating “population-level change” on issues.

“I want to make a change in how people think about domestic violence and sexual assault, but it has to be from the ground up - it has to be,” Casto said. “People in the community have to drive that change. That’s my roots - community work.”

To sustain change, Casto argued, it has to become so deeply embedded that it is not susceptible to, say, loss of infrastructure funding.

“You have to change the norms” to combat societal acceptance of domestic violence, she said. “We have to change that mindset. I love prevention programs so much because we need to start earlier. . Working with young people - that’s how you change attitudes.”

Casto cites the Coaching Boys Into Men program - a comprehensive violence prevention curriculum for coaches and their athletes - as a perfect example of starting early in developing a lack of tolerance for domestic violence.

It also makes sense to partner with state agencies like the Division of Juvenile Justice and the Office of Children’s Services she said, adding, “Those kids are in the system for a reason.”

It takes generations to see long-term change in how community members think and behave, and sometimes that reality can be difficult to absorb, Casto noted.

“There are days when I feel we haven’t made any progress at all,” she said. “But you have to focus on the incremental changes. We will continue to see a downward trend with the numbers.”

Casto looks to collaborate, focus on data-driven programming

Casto acknowledged she was initially hesitant to apply for the executive director position, left vacant after Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan asked the previous ED, Lauree Morton, to resign.

At the time, Monegan told the Empire, “We need to change the paradigm on what we do. We need to get more preventative, we need to get more awareness built, we need a lot of things, and we’re looking for somebody who can carry the banner higher and faster. Domestic violence and sexual assault are issues that we’ve been infamously too long at No. 1 and we need to fix that.”

Alaska leads the nation with 122 rapes per 100,000 residents, according to 2015 FBI statistics. The national average is 38.6.

Monegan said he and the governor wanted the council to go in a “different direction” instead of “business as usual.”

“I think any time there’s an administrative change, there will be some changes in direction,” Casto said. “Lauree Morton did amazing things, she was a huge advocate who made great strides, but they felt there was a need for some new blood.”

Casto acknowledged that she might be seen as an outsider to the domestic violence and sexual assault service world, but maybe her broader social service expertise will be an advantage.

“You can’t solve any one social problem in and of itself,” she said. “Substance abuse, mental illness, cultural beliefs - they’re all tied together.”

As part of the new direction Monegan and Gov. Bill Walker seem to be looking for, Casto said she will look to prevention and a broadening of partnerships.

“My approach is going to be a thorough review of what we’ve been doing, to look at the data and decide, are we doing everything we should be doing - or can afford to do - or are some things not really working,” she said. “I’m a real data-driven person. I want to make sure we address issues that are not showing progress. I want to open the doors to a lot of ideas . and then figure out a clear path to move forward.”

Casto said she did not have any specific issues or programs in mind during her review, adding, “I don’t know that our strategies will change all that much.”

The new executive director said she wants to be open to new collaborative opportunities and new ways of doing things.

“I really want to make sure our approach is comprehensive,” she stressed. “Government alone is not the right place to make huge change - there has to be broader involvement for true, sustainable change. I do think we’re on the cusp . but we still have a lot to do.”

Listening to the community is vital, Casto said.

“I want to get the lay of the land,” she said. “I want to be clear on what our communities need. I don’t want to sit in Juneau and dictate what communities need. I want to hear what they think, and build partnerships.”

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com


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