Swift Current documentary puts spotlight on child abuse
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/05/2016 (2456 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy arrived in Winnipeg Tuesday for the premiere of Swift Current — a documentary that delves into the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his former coach, Graham James, and his recovery — an all-too-familiar story was breaking: King Yeung, a 57-year-old Winnipeg taekwondo instructor, is facing charges after allegedly abusing two former students.
It’s the worst kind of coincidence, one that underscores the importance of the documentary as well as the work he’s doing through the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary. These stories, like the one involving the taekwondo instructor, are still happening too frequently. And, Kennedy says, those are only the ones we hear about.
(Yeung, currently being held in custody, faces several sexual assault charges. The charges have not been proven in court and he is presumed innocent.)
Kennedy tells me the centre, which works in partnership with law enforcement, social workers, pediatricians and Crown prosecutors, conducts 125 child abuse investigations every month. Of those, 68 per cent are sexual abuse cases. Forty-seven per cent are abused by a parent or caregiver, and 98 per cent know their abuser. They are harrowing statistics he recites, though he doesn’t do it with ease. He sounds angry. And sad.
Kennedy, now 46, has first-hand experience of ravages of early childhood trauma. He went public about James — a sexual predator whose powerful status in the Swift Current hockey community allowed his behaviour to go unchecked — in 1996, paving the way for other survivors to do the same. But Kennedy’s road to recovery has been hard, punctuated by self-destructive behaviour and substance abuse. Swift Current tells that story, but that is only part of it.
“The point of the film is really to connect the dots,” Kennedy says. “That’s what I’m excited about, to be able to have that conversation.”
Tuesday night’s screening, which will be attended by Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon, Premier Brian Pallister and Mayor Brian Bowman, will also include a discussion period during which Kennedy hopes to discuss the impact of early childhood trauma.
“Forever our systems have been set up to deal with the outer layer of the onion. We have an addiction crisis. We have a mental health crisis. We have a suicide crisis. And yet, we never want to look at ‘how did we get there?’ Our best defence is empowering the bystander. How do we give the knowledge to the adults and to the people who are around these situations, where the people who are hurting our kids are operating.”
Kennedy says the biggest gap when it comes to addressing the impact of abuse lies in training. “Teachers don’t get any training. A nurse gets very little. A social worker gets some; young police officers get none,” he says, adding that it’s not usually for lack of caring that bystanders fail to intervene. “I think people turn a blind eye because they don’t know what to do. We need to give people the confidence and a clear path on where exactly to call and what to do.”
To that end, he praises Sport Manitoba’s Respect in Sport, a mandatory training program that helps coaches identify and act on abuse, harassment, bullying and neglect. “There is no other province that has taken that kind of leadership,” he says.
Which is kind of incredible. Mandatory training programs shouldn’t be exceptional; they should be expected. As Kennedy points out, sport, art, music and any other extracurricular activity plays a big role in the development of healthy, happy kids. What that also means is coaches and instructors have a big responsibility: they are often the only trusted adult in many kids’ lives. “If a child discloses, do we know what do to?” (Kennedy says that rarely a day goes by in which someone doesn’t disclose to him. Sometimes they just thank him.)
Of course, that’s not the only issue that Kennedy wants to raise awareness about. He wants to talk about the invisible damage of childhood abuse, and what happens to kids who grow up with toxic stress. Researchers have published a number of studies over the past few years looking at how stress, adversity and trauma change the hardwiring in a developing brain.
“We have a data collection system at our centre in Calgary, so we know all the presenting issues of the kids that walk through the doors,” Kennedy says. “With 4,000 kids, 68 per cent of them present three or more of the following: self-harming behaviour, suicidal ideation — that’s the highest — depression, addiction, sexualized behaviour. If the science allows us to know, today, that when kids are hurt here, that’s what’s filling our systems out there — whether it’s homelessness or prisons or crime. We need to make it a priority, not just a box check.”
Indeed, kids who experience abuse as children are at a greater risk of experiencing homelessness, dropping out of high school, or developing serious addictions to alcohol or drugs. “Do we keep dealing with the addiction? Or do we get to the core of the problem?”
When he agreed to participate in Swift Current, which was directed by award-winning filmmaker Joshua Rofé, he didn’t want it to be The Sheldon Kennedy story, nor did he want it to be about his pain and his pain alone.
“For me, personally, there are things in my life I’m not proud of. The drinking and the drugging — I had to live my life a certain way to deal with what happened to me. But the film had to show hope. There has to be hope. We have to show people solution. Too many times what we do with these issues we get stuck in the weeds and we only talk about how people are hurt, and they’re hurt, and they’re hurt, and they’re hurt. We don’t talk about recovery. There are lots of people living in good recovery. We can’t just focus on the pain. We have to focus on the way out.”
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.
Updated on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 8:21 PM CDT: Adds photos