For the wounded and broken who come to this fourth-floor office in northwest Calgary, from newborns up to age 18, this is their safe haven. The waiting area is known as Child Space and there are toys and games to share, books to read and videos to watch. It is a comforting room with natural lighting and expansive views of downtown Calgary and the Rocky Mountains. And it's here that more than 95 professionals – from members of the Calgary Police Service and the RCMP to Crown prosecutors; from health experts to child services – work together to assess, treat and seek justice for physically and sexually abused children.
While there are other centres in Canada helping kids, the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre is unsurpassed in scope and efficiency with its highly co-ordinated, fast-track approach that eliminates bureaucratic hurdles to do what is best for children, 24/7. This approach is drawing interest from across the country as all levels of government seek better ways to address a costly problem.
"If we can reach kids and deal with the abuse now, we've got a better chance of turning their life around," Sheldon Kennedy says.
Kennedy has been the face of child abuse in Canada since 1996 when he went public about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his coach, Graham James, while playing junior hockey in Swift Current, Sask. James is currently serving a five-year sentence for abusing two other players, including former NHLer Theo Fleury. Kennedy's attempts to shine a light on child abuse have made for strong allies, including Minister of Health Rona Ambrose and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was at the official opening of the centre in 2013.
"Look at my career … I ended up in a secured mental-health hospital in Rockville, Md., while in my first year in Detroit [with the NHL Red Wings]. I was in mental-health hospitals in Calgary," Kennedy says. His story could have had a different ending: "We need to do this because prisons are filled [with people who were abused as kids]," he says.
Here's how it works: Each morning at the centre, representatives from the on-site organizations review new referrals reported to the Calgary Police Service, RCMP, Child and Family Services and Alberta Health Services. Following this triage meeting, case plans are developed with police and child protection and health services, and include the initial interview with the child.
As the child is being interviewed by one police officer, another officer and a Crown prosecutor watch via a monitor in an adjacent room and are able to feed additional relevant questions so the child is only interviewed once.
Once the interview is over, the child is taken to a small room filled with toys, stuffed animals and Calgary Flames merchandise. "We tell them, 'You're welcome to select and bring home whatever you like,'" says Detective Andy Nguyen, one of two officers assigned to the centre. "It gives the child control."
The Sheldon Kennedy centre not only has services assembled in the same location, but changes to the province's Children First Act made it possible for those services to share information. It's a radical shift that both protects the child's privacy and prevents revictimization.
"When I was in the Child Abuse Unit, the police would do their interviews with the child. The social workers would do their own interview. Then I'd contact the clinician … then they would contact a physician. Each agency had its own policy procedures for sharing information. And every time a child is asked what happened, it retraumatizes them," Nguyen explains.
"We operate by putting children in the centre, then building around them and their needs," says Bonnie Johnston, the Sheldon Kennedy centre's chief executive officer. Since its opening in 2013, the centre has seen an average of 122 a month.
Dr. Amy Ornstein, medical director of the Child Protection Team at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, hopes to emulate the approach at the Sea Star Child and Youth Advocacy Centre.
In October, Sea Star received $339,000 from the federal Department of Justice to bring health and police services together, making it the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada. "In Nova Scotia, the Department of Community Services and law enforcement were already working together with joint protocol. It just wasn't broad enough," Ornstein says.
With 10 specialists, the Sea Star program has seen 360 children in less than two years. The goal is to reach even more.
"There's no question there's a need for this," Ornstein adds.
Kevin Berube can attest to that. He is the director of treatment services with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, which works with 31 First Nations communities in Northern Ontario. He was contacted by the Ministry of the Attorney-General's Ontario Victims Service Secretariat and asked to conduct "a needs assessment for a CAC."
With a feasibility report completed, the health authority is now preparing a proposal for the development of a child and youth advocacy centre, which Berube hopes would receive some of the $10.5-million in federal funds allotted in 2010 for "new or enhanced Child Advocacy Centres."
"The Sheldon Kennedy centre is a model that can be used in other parts of the country in the development of new Child Advocacy Centres," Berube says. "We're hoping that the federal government will consider full or partial funding for a CAC, but we're not at that stage yet."
While Calgary has set a high standard for CACs in Canada, it is not a finished project. To further improve how it operates, and to set transferable standards for measuring success, the Calgary centre has brought in management-consulting firm KPMG. In March, representatives from advocacy centres across the country will convene in Calgary with Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre representatives to establish national CAC standards for child interviews and other practices.
Kennedy himself continues delivering speeches and connecting with business leaders, telling them that what works in Calgary can work elsewhere – and should.
"This was about creating a different culture, a different environment, a different practice and a different outcome for kids," Kennedy insists. "You have to keep pushing all the time."