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One Special Week in Guam

The day before our departure to Guam, my daughter Samantha sent me a text message with the worrisome title “Spider Epidemic in Guam.”  A National Public Radio news release warned travelers about a massive proliferation of spiders in Guam.  That caught my attention.  I looked it up.  Turns out Guam has been conducting a long and losing battle with a certain kind of snake, introduced years ago to control rodents.  It’s unclear whether the rodent population was brought under control, but what is evident is that the snakes have a healthy appetite for birds.  Without birds to eat the spiders, well, we imagined the worst.  I think all of us envisioned spider webs hanging from every light fixture, doorway and bed-post; hairy, eight-legged beasts lurking under every table top and chair; snakes coiled in our open suitcases and waiting expectantly in the passenger seat of our rental car.


We didn’t see many birds; those reports were accurate.  As to snakes: none.  Spiders: we found a few, but we had to look for them.  These were the first clues that our trip would be full of wonderful and unexpected surprises.


The training was arranged through the concerted efforts of “Captain Steve” Ignacio of the Guam Police Department, Peter John Camacho from the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, and the local NFJCA staff.  We spent months trying to figure out what the International Date Line meant, the number of time zones we needed to account for, what the agenda should be, and which speakers were best suited for the issues to be addressed.  Some details were never completely resolved prior to our departure so, when our plane finally touched down at Guam International Airport, we really didn’t know what to expect—we weren’t even sure what day it was.


Any jitters we had were alleviated upon our arrival.  At the airport, we were immediately greeted by what seemed to be the entire police department and Coalition participants.  We received a warm welcome complete with beautiful seashell leis.  A small army of police officers and vehicles collected our bags and within minutes had whisked our entire group off to hotels.


We spent the first two days in Guam with the Guam Police Department.  Retired detective Mike Agnew, Melissa Mack, Mehry Mohseni and I were asked to present to the department on our newly developed “Train the Trainers” strangulation course.  This course was sponsored by the Office on Violence Against Women.  On Monday in Guam – which is Sunday in most of the United States -- we were picked up by Captain Steve and transported to the Guam Police Department to train approximately 20-25 officers, a few advocates and, we hoped, some prosecutors.  I was concerned that the officers might have been “ordered” to attend the training.   Instead, we were met by the most dedicated, committed, and enthusiastic officers and advocates I’ve had the pleasure to meet. They were completely engaged from the beginning, asking questions and fully participating in every activity and role-playing exercise we provided.


My heart had tremendous hope for the victims of Guam.  The officers understood that this training could and would save lives. They wanted to step up to the plate and take on the challenge of training the entire Island with this new information.  I was quickly reminded of the power of leadership:  How one person can make positive and important changes, or, regrettably, suffocate promising ideas and ideals.  It was clear to me that Captain Steve’s leadership, and his understanding of how domestic violence and sexual assault devastates victims and undermines communities, was contagious.  His vision for the Guam Family Justice Center and the impact his unit could have on the safety of families permeated throughout his entire team. These men and women are clearly making a difference.


I was pleased to see that the local media recognized the importance of this work.  The September 26, 2012 edition of the Marianas Variety newspaper carried a front page picture of Mike Agnew speaking at the Dededo Precinct Command, accompanied by an article written by Geraldine Castillo and their local TV station.


At their own time and expense, Captain Steve and his wife provided homemade food for the officers and advocates who attended the training.  The staff of the Guam Family Justice Center went out of their way to share local food and treats with our entire team.  “Sergeant Mike” shared his favorite local spots to see, and places to eat.  Hospitality in Guam was off the charts, interrupted only slightly by an inquiry from the Coast Guard Investigative Service concerning the unsupervised exploration of Apra Harbor by an unnamed member of our travel group.


On Wednesday morning, we met with detectives from the Guam Police Department to review a cold case involving a strangulation that took place in 1987.  We, of course, were hopeful we could “solve the case.”  After a full briefing and many questions, it became obvious that the Guam Police Department had already solved the case – what they need is a prosecutor with the courage and conviction to take the case forward.  While we did not see anything that the Guam Police Department missed, we were honored to be asked.  Thank you for making us feel special.


We spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday at the annual Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Conference sponsored by the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence.  The Coalition had invited their sister coalitions to share their experiences.  Our team spent time with Gloria Terry from the Texas Council on Family Violence, Sue Meuschke from the Nevada Coalition, Vanessa Timmons from the Oregon Coalition, Rebecca Thomforde-Hauser and Katie Crank from the Center for Court Innovation, and Alu Luli from the American Samoa Alliance Against Domestic and Sexual Assault.   Mike Agnew shared his expertise on safety and security as well as lethality.  Candace Heisler shared her experience with elder abuse and working with victims with disabilities.  Jim Henderson from the Battered Women’s Justice Project presented on victim-centered interviewing and holding batters accountable.  I shared what I have learned about best practices from coordinated community response, safety audits and Family Justice Centers.


Our last day in Guam was scheduled to be our Family Justice Center day with all the Guam Family Justice Center partners, including their visionary Cecilia Morrison from the Governor’s Office. The meeting was a reminder of what can happen when a small group of committed people join forces, develop a vision for their community and stick together.  Guam’s vision for a Family Justice Center started in the early nineties thanks to Cecilia Morrison and Father Mike.  It was particularly rewarding to see the commitment from the Governor’s office staff to learn as much as they could about best practices.   Dwaine Sanchez, a Program Coordinator from the Governor’s office, told me he and others got up at 3 am Guam time and climbed razor-studded walls to watch a NFJCA webinar.  Now, that’s dedication.


Although we spent most of our time in Guam working, I loved every minute.  We did get to enjoy a few hours of sightseeing—though we specifically avoided Apra Harbor.  Highlights included the “Old Spanish Bridge” (which, though hardly “old,” is cool to see); the Fort Soledad ruins (Mehry really did move the canon); Jan Z’s restaurant (the burgers are as delicious as Sergeant Mike predicted); and the Inarajan Natural Pools (Melissa could not be induced to take the plunge despite the overtures of two friendly marines).


Never someone to cower from adventure, Jim Henderson introduced our party to “Tuba,” a homemade alcohol made—Jim claims—from fermented coconut juice.  Perhaps this fueled his advocacy in convincing seven of us that we should squeeze into a rental car made for four in order to visit one of Guam’s famous outdoor markets.  Apparently the Guam Police Department does not rigorously enforce vehicle occupancy laws and the outing was successful.


Besides the outdoor markets, I also recommend The Beach Bar near Two Lovers Point.  The bar offers spectacular views of Guam’s always-changing sunsets.  I do strongly suggest that swimmers at this locale stay close to the shore.  Both times we were there; overly-enthusiastic military personnel had to be assisted by the Guam Fire Department:  the riptides and currents in this area are unforgiving.  The Landshark beers, however, were excellent.


Final note:  We were able to convince the Coast Guard that my husband, Jan, was not a spy and he was released from the clutches of the Coast Guard’s security apparatus without incident.


From all of us “mainlanders,” thank you Guam for your warm hospitality and commitment to helping hurting families in your community.  You inspired and re-energized us. You will always be in our hearts.



  • Mike Aguon Tuesday, 16 October 2012

    A warm Hafa Adai, to you all from the FJC in Guam.
    It is great to know you all enjoyed yourselves here and we are even more delighted that there were no snake findings to report. I would like to thank you for all the great things you had to say about our island and that we look forward to having you all again. The knowledge you have provided our officers and advocates can only be shown in the detailed reports they now can provide for victims of strangulation and the way we now pay more attention to our victims to ensure that they are being cared for and not being re-victimized. It is a true testament to the training they have received.
    We all know that knowledge is power, armed with this power we can prevent further violence and find justice for the victims. So that one day we can stop it all together.

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