An environment of hope and healing provides support for victims of child abuse

Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre wait room

The Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre is approaching its first anniversary after opening its doors to help sexually and physically abused Calgary children and their families.

The not-for-profit centre opened its doors in early 2013 to assist children and youth who have suffered severe physical and sexual abuse. In April 2013 the advocacy centre was named after Sheldon Kennedy, the former NHL player who accused his junior hockey coach of sexually abusing him for five years.

Bonnie Johnston, CEO of the Child Advocacy Centre, says victims are feeling more comfortable about seeking help and she suspects in the near future the centre will deal with more cases because of an increasing awareness of child sexual abuse. However, the Centre’s hope is that eventually there will be fewer cases of abuse once people start learning about the issue.

How it came to be

Johnston says the plan for the Centre was developed four years ago when Kennedy toured Ralston House, a smaller child advocacy centre in Colorado. She says Kennedy was quite impressed and upon his return he asked Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson if Calgary could do something similar.

Kennedy relates to the centre on a personal note because his junior hockey coach sexually abused him when he was 14. Kennedy went public with his story after his former coach was convicted in 1997 for sexual assault. In his book Why I Didn’t Say Anything, Kennedy recounts his struggles with substance abuse and his journey to overcome his problems. He is now a national advocate for ending child abuse.

Chief Hanson welcomed the idea of a similar centre in Calgary, Johnston says. “He did, I believe, a very strategic move at that time. He brought together the four organizations that have the legislative mandate for child abuse. These are the organizations that every day have to be doing this work under provincial and federal legislation.”

The centre combines four institutions under one roof to help treat child and youth victims of abuse. The advocacy centre includes Alberta Health Services, the Calgary Crown Prosecutors’ Office, Calgary and Area Child and Family Services, and the Calgary Police Service. Spanning over 25,000 sq. feet in the Child Development Centre at the University of Calgary, the Child Advocacy Centre is the largest and most comprehensive centre of its kind in Canada.

High need for support

kennedy playareaChildren and youth can wait for services at the centre’s colourful play area.

Photo by Caroline FyvieAccording to a 2011 Statistics Canada profile on family violence, police reported nearly 95,000 victims of family violence, and 18,300 child victims of family violence across the country. Statistics Canada also reported there were 2,078 child and youth victims (aged 0-17) of police-reported family violence in Alberta in 2011.

But not every victim ends up at the centre, says Johnston, because they work case-by-case.

“Every morning the systems triage and they decide which cases are coming over to the centre. For the most part we handle the sexual abuse cases here, we handle the most, or more severe, complicated cases.”

From April 1, 2013, when the centre opened its doors until Feb. 28, the Child Advocacy Centre has faced a total of 917 severe cases. Of those 917 cases, two-thirds were managed at the centre, and the rest were dealt with through other community services.

Community support

A variety of companies and individuals helped contribute to the centre, with the founding sponsors each donating $1 million. Founding sponsors include ARC Resources Ltd., Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Cenovus Energy, Allan Markin, and MEG Energy Corp.

Vicki Reid, director of community investment at Cenovus Energy, says the company got involved after meeting with Chief Hanson to discuss the facility.

“One of the appealing things was that it was a really collaborative approach,” Reid says.

“They explained to me that if a child is abused the poor child and family has to visit the police to report the story, visit the doctor to report the story again in a totally different part of town, and go to a lawyer or justice,” Reid recalled. “The poor family and child were interviewed multiple times, and it probably wasn’t the best process.”

Johnston says she was pleasantly surprised to see corporate Calgary step up to sponsor the centre despite the delicate issues the facility tackles.

“Child abuse has been a subject that many people do not like to talk about. It has been what we call the ‘underbelly of society,’” says Johnston. “And even two, three, five years ago people were not talking about child abuse. So for us sitting at the table to have the support of corporate Calgary was absolutely huge.

“Child abuse belongs to the community,” she added. “It’s a community issue.”

“It takes everybody to deal with this issue,” Johnston says. “It has to be dealt with in a very open community, going forward [with the] response. If you keep it hidden we are never going to move ahead. “

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Terry Gill, senior vice-president of corporate services at ARC Resources Ltd., says he believes the Child Advocacy Centre’s staff is making a great difference by creating a comfortable environment for kids when they arrive at the centre. ARC recently committed another $500,000 over five years to support the centre’s operations.

“The functioning of the facility is really well thought-out and it is designed in such a way to create a sense of comfort,” Gill says. “These kids are dealing with very traumatic situations, so they have done a great job in designing the facility, and equally important is that they have done a fantastic job when you look at how they have structured the staff and the resources.”

The advocacy centre has an inviting, colourful atmosphere. As children, youth and their families enter they are greeted by a fun and warmly decorated room filled with various activities and toys for children of all ages.

“The centre is about hope. This is not about doom and gloom, this is about helping and moving forward,” says Johnston. “So that kids can be successful in their lives, around hope and fulfilling their dreams, and having all the opportunities that any other child would have.”

For more information on child abuse, read the Alberta Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect.

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