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Inquest spurs better care

Quicker trauma treatment for abused kids

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Manitoba children who have been sexually or seriously physically abused will soon be able to visit a "one stop" location to be treated by doctors, interviewed by police, talk to therapists, meet with CFS workers and be guided through the inevitable legal process.

It's an idea spurred, in part, by recommendations in the inquest report into the suicide of 14-year-old Tracia Owens, a ward of Southeast Child and Family Service who hanged herself in 2005. She had previously disclosed she had been sexually abused from an early age.

After a year of consultations and brainstorming, the children's justice and advocacy centre is scheduled to open in Winnipeg in 2010.

The organizing committee estimates up to 1,000 Manitoba children a year will benefit from the centralized service.

"This is based on the principle 'one child, one place'," Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said Wednesday. "It's to reduce the traumatization (of) a child -- who has been so traumatized by sexual assault or the physical assault. We want to guard against the systems then continuing a trauma, or building on the trauma, (with) so many diverse agencies and services.

"The idea was to have a one-stop place for the child and caregivers to go to for the investigation and supports."

Mackintosh, referencing the Owen inquest report, said the need for more effective and efficient responses to the disclosure of sexual abuse was considered a link to that child's eventual suicide.

The Winnipeg centre will be a child-friendly building, likely located near the Children's Hospital, although a location has not yet been chosen. It will house a variety of agencies, all of them dedicated to guiding damaged kids through the medical, social and legal systems.

Plans are also afoot for a rural/northern centre.

Although Mackintosh and his committee, which includes a police officer, the medical director of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program and the executive director of the Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network (ANCR), could not put a precise figure on the centre, it is estimated to be "in the many millions."

Much of that money will go to capital costs. The cost will be shared between the province and a foundation set up by local investment advisor Leigh Cunningham, who is seeking money from the private sector.

The only money now on the table will go to hire a coordinator to pull together the project. That position will be posted shortly.

Mackintosh said the research of similar programs in the United States show these centres can increase the chance of prosecutions. There are some programs already in place in Canada.

A centralized American system deals with the cases of 250,000 children annually.

"It really is more than anything respecting the eyes of the child and building services out from that," Mackintosh said. "Rather than saying 'how are things going? How are we as adult services doing?' It's how well are we doing according to the child's eyes and working backwards from that."

Committee member Dr. Keith Hildahl, the medical director of the WRHA's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program, said the new centralized location will help children deal with their trauma.

"If you're a child coming into the system right now, you come to the hospital, the police come to you, you have Family Services, a little later the Crown gets involved and then maybe somewhere down the road someone remembers to send you for some mental health help," Hildahl said.

"The change here is you bring the child to a single place. They get all of their services in one place that is set up for kids. The staff and the interventions are done in a single place with a group of people who aren't phoning to track each other down and leaving voice mails. They're working in the same physical space."

Hildahl called the new centre "compassionate" in its mandate.

"The driver for this is the kids," he said. "We look at kids who are being traumatized, seeking justice if you like, seeking treatment where the system is set up in ways that will re-traumatize them because they have to repeat their story."

Mackintosh said the goal is to establish a centre that does not resemble a hospital or a police station.

Leigh Cunningham said she believes it's critical that the private sector become involved in child welfare issues.

"I think this is a start instead of an answer," she said. "I think this community needs to raise enough money that we get this centre built."

Mackintosh said the repercussions of the proposed centre could change child welfare in Manitoba.

"This may lead to more disclosures," he said.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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