Being a young victim of abuse or crime is traumatic enough. And having to navigate through the adversarial criminal justice system, can be intimidating and overwhelming, even for adults.
The Child Witness Centre in Waterloo Region, provides support, education and advocacy for young victims, witnesses, and their families and supports them through the criminal justice system, to help foster healing, hope, and well-being.
Since the pandemic, the Child Witness Centre has experienced a significant increase in the demand for services.
“The pandemic has brought difficulties most of us never imagined. Children and youth have suffered some of the worst ill effects in experiencing abuse and crime, while so often being stuck at home, sometimes close to their perpetrator,” said Kim Rodrigues, executive director at the Child Witness Centre.
“We’ve been in the community for over 40 years. We began in 1981 with the vision of building resiliency and helping to create strong futures for children and youth who have been affected or impacted by violence and crime. But right now, the demand is the highest it’s ever been. We’ve hit a record.”
Rodrigues said that COVID-19 has had a huge impact, not only in the numbers of those who are in need of services, but in financial resources that support the centre’s work.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that only 20 per cent of our funding comes from the ministry, and that’s base funding that we need and depend on. But the rest of the funding comes from the community, through fundraising and grants. So, we are never certain if we will have the money year after year, to continue our work,” Rodrigues said.
“We’ve seen the impact of COVID-19 and organizations who provide corporate donations. They haven’t been able to donate as much these last couple years.”
A recent request from the centre asking the Region of Waterloo to provide $50,000 to support 50 youth who've endured physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of a close family member, was denied with the understanding that money should come from the province.
Regional council instead decided it would advocate to the Ministry of the Attorney General for increased funding to allow the Child Witness Centre to address the backlog of individuals needing support.
The Child Witness Centre supported over 3,000 children and youth and their families last year in Waterloo Region, a 15 per cent increase from the year before. In Cambridge, 360 children and youth were supported last year.
“We are only halfway through this year, but we know there will be an increase to those numbers,” Rodrigues said.
According to the Child Witness Centre, more than twice daily, a child finds the courage to tell someone that they have experienced physical or sexual abuse or have been exposed to domestic violence. On an average, police press 11 charges per week for crimes directly harming a child.
If unsupported, these children are four times likely to self harm, and 26 times more likely to experience homelessness later in life. Early intervention, support, and prevention work can ultimately reduce the likelihood of being re-victimized and repeating the cycle of victimization.
“For the first time this year, we’ve had to reduce our staffing. We now have a wait list, something we’ve never seen before. We anticipate that by March 2023, we will probably have 300-400 children and youth waiting for services,” Rodrigues said.
“That just puts a knot in my stomach because what that means is that there will be children who will fall through the cracks, children who will not receive the support they need when they go to court. There are children who do not have a safe and caring adult in their life and so that will mean that they will not get to court at all. They will not get the chance to have their say.”
The Child Witness Centre helps children and youth prepare for giving a victim impact statement.
“It is so crucial for their own mental well being, and for moving beyond the trauma that they had experienced,” Rodrigues said.
“They need to be able to share what happened and to take back their power,” Rodrigues said.
This begins with the child youth advocacy centre and program.
“This is where it begins. We receive a referral from the police when a child is involved in an incident. They are the primary victim, or they have been a witness to a crime, such as intimate partner violence,” Rodrigues said.
“Our staff provides that front door support, that safe landing space, a listening ear, with advice, and general support. It is very daunting for a child or even a youth to come in and have to speak to a police officer and go through that experience. So, we are there to provide that support, and make it less daunting, explain to them about what will happen next. It’s about having someone there for them.”
Rodrigues said police are there to investigate.
“They care but they need to find out if a crime has been committed. But we are there to provide support to the child and their family,” she said.
“If charges are laid, they are referred to our child witness program. This is where our case workers provide support every step of the way through the criminal justice process. That includes advocacy, education, and preparing them for court and testifying.”
Cst. Andre Johnson, from Waterloo Regional Police Service, said that The Child Witness Centre is a vital and essential partner to the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS).
“The WRPS Youth Protection Unit works closely with the Child Witness Centre. Together with Family and Children Services of Waterloo Region, the three services form the Child and Youth Advocacy Centre of Waterloo Region, provides wrap around services to children, youth and their families who are victims or witnesses of crime,” Johnson said.
“This victim-centred approach ensures that children and youth in Waterloo Region are supported throughout investigations.”
To help children through the criminal justice process, the Child Witness Centre has also added ‘Monet’, the facility dog, to its staff.
“She is the first accredited facility dog in the criminal justice system in the Region of Waterloo. She is a tremendous support to our children and youth. She brings so much joy,” Rodriguez said
“We will often bring in Monet when a child is testifying. She helps relieve so much stress. A clean testimony is so important.”
Thanks to an Ontario Trillium Grant, the Child Witness Centre will soon open its own remote testimony space at its office on Duke St. in Kitchener.
“We are so delighted by this, to be able to have a space where children and youth can testify remotely so they do not have to go into a courtroom and be overwhelmed by the court and the worry of crossing paths with their perpetrator. Having this space eliminates any chance of that happening,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s a space that they are already familiar with. They are comfortable and they don’t have anxiety. There has been a lot of downsides from the pandemic, but this has been a positive, a silver lining. We are very fortunate here in the region, to have a court system that supports the best interest of young victims because this is not always the case across the country.”
Rodriguez said it is important for children and youth to have their day in court.
“Some people might think that they don’t want to rehash it, and certainly they don’t. But children do very much want to share with the judge and jury, to say this is what happened to them. It’s about empowering them,” Rodrigues said
“They had a moment in time where they were powerless, so for them, this is their moment at court to say this is what happened to me, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else, and this what is so important to them.”
For more information or to donate to the Child Witness Centre, visit here.