October 11, 2018

StarMetro Halifax

HALIFAX—A national symposium in Halifax this week is helping put a spotlight on child abuse, an issue the event’s keynote speaker is calling a Canadian public health crisis.

The ninth annual Canadian Symposium on Advanced Practices in Child Maltreatment focuses on current and emerging issues in responding to child abuse. It’s geared toward medical clinicians and multidisciplinary professionals who respond to the suspected abuse and neglect of children.

“One in three Canadians is affected by child abuse. That’s a staggering number of Canadians who are affected by this issue. It has an immediate impact on the well-being of a child, but it also has a long-term impact for mental and physical health,” said Sara Austin, CEO of Calgary-based Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre and founder of Children First Canada.

“It really has a long-term impact for physical and mental health, and so we’re really hoping through forums like this to put a spotlight on this difficult issue and to really challenge Canadians to come to terms with this as a public health crisis in Canada that needs urgent attention and needs urgent action.”

Austin is the event’s keynote speaker. She said the symposium, which wraps up Friday, provides an opportunity to bring together front-line professionals from across the country to raise the bar around the care and treatment of children who’ve been affected by abuse.

“It’s important to stress the urgency of this. … The one in three Canadians (affected by child abuse) has been a fairly static number, and we’re not seeing any sense the numbers are going to be dropping any time soon,” Austin said.

“Certainly (among) the child advocacy centres that are serving kids, we’re seeing that our numbers are growing, and we believe that we’re just scratching the surface in terms of the number of children served.”

Austin said the majority of children don’t disclose their abuse as children, and then as adults many don’t seek help.

“It’s really critical that we end the cycle of abuse early, that kids get that early care and support and more importantly that we prevent it,” she said.

“There is so much stigma and taboo associated with it and it’s important that we bring it out of the shadows and into the spotlight and really confront this issue.”

Since opening its doors five years ago, Austin said Calgary’s Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre has served more than 7,500 children.

“It’s a staggering number of children, particularly because our centre focuses solely on sexual abuse of children and severe physical abuse,” she said.

“We are looking at the top 15 per cent of the worst cases and a staggeringly high number of children in our community, and those numbers would be similar in communities across the country.”

Austin said there are only 20 child advocacy centres in Canada. Such centres are designed to respond to abused children and youth in the most trauma-informed and co-ordinated way.

The national network forming across the country allows for greater professional collaboration and opportunities, which in turn helps those children and youth who need help.

“The network of child advocacy centres across the country works together very closely on developing national guidelines and strengthening our practices,” Austin said.

“It’s important that we provide this type of care and support to kids close to home. Wherever a child lives in our country, coast to coast to coast, they deserve the best possible care and support and it’s through this growing national network that we are able to provide resources and support to kids.”

In Halifax, the SeaStar Child & Youth Advocacy Centre has been serving the community out of the IWK Health Centre. It’s the only program of its kind in Nova Scotia.

Since its 2012 inception, SeaStar has served more than 1,200 children and youth between the ages of two and 18 years old. Of those, 53 per cent experienced sexualized violence, 37 per cent experienced physical abuse, and 10 per cent are listed under “other,” which would include things like witnessing a crime or internet luring.

A total of 95 per cent of the affected children and youth were able to access one-stop services through SeaStar. In that space, professionals from law enforcement, child welfare, health care, mental health and the justice system are brought together to create an integrated approach to investigation, assessment and treatment of suspected violence or abuse.

“It really is a wraparound centre to respond in a co-ordinated way to the child and their family, so it puts them really at the centre of the process,” said Dr. Amy Ornstein, medical director of the IWK’s Suspected Trauma Abuse Response Team and organizer of the national symposium.

“We are nowhere near as far along in our developmental trajectory for the centre, but we definitely have big dreams and big hopes for Nova Scotia.”

Ornstein said while professionals now come to the IWK’s SeaStar space to respond to cases of suspected child abuse, she’d eventually like all services to be in a co-located facility using the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre model.

Although there continues to be a growing need for such services, Ornstein said she’s seen “a little bit” of progress. She’s particularly encouraged by the fact that in recent years, there is a greater willingness to publicly talk about mental health.

“Mental health issues, some of them do have their roots in terms of childhood trauma and negative childhood experiences. So that ability to have a more open conversation about mental health I think has also allowed us to shine a light on where some of those problems may have started,” Ornstein said.

“I think as professionals, when we are faced with a situation where a child maybe has experienced violence that it really is important that we come together in a co-ordinated way and respond in a trauma-informed, seamless way so that some of the negative consequences may be mitigated or softened in some way.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on health and environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ydentremont

Sara Austin, left, CEO of Calgary-based Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre with Dr. Amy Ornstein, medical director of the IWK Health Centre’s Suspected Trauma Abuse Response Team. The pair are among those participating in a national symposium about child maltreatment being held in Halifax this week. (YVETTE D'ENTREMONT/STARMETRO)