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B.C. child-advocacy centres on shaky financial ground, co-ordinator warns

Victoria Child Abuse Prevention and Counselling Centre clinical co-ordinator Judith Wright, is photographed in the child and youth soft room. The room is where victims come before they are interviewed by police.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

In a troubling report that chronicles the level of sexual abuse of children in government care, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth has called for an expansion of child advocacy centres.

But a spokeswoman for the Victoria Child and Youth Advocacy Centre (CYAC) – which the report holds up as a model – said the six existing centres in the province are on shaky financial ground and facing uncertain futures.

"I think the issue here is that there has not been designated funding for many [centres]," said Judith Wright, clinical co-ordinator for the Victoria Child Abuse Prevention and Counselling Centre, which recently opened the CYAC. "Actually, I don't know of any [in B.C.] where there is designated funding to allow them to continue."

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She said the Victoria advocacy centre, which provides counselling, support and education to sexually abused children, was given an initial two-year grant last year but no commitment of funding beyond that.

"We are on a startup [grant] and we will soon be in that difficult position of again looking for money for sustainability," she said.

The centre opened in February after getting federal and provincial funding.

"Of course, we started working long before we opened so we are probably well into that second year [of funding] already. It's already time to start looking [for future funding] so unless government decides that this is important … we are scrambling," Ms. Wright said.

"The province supports the federal government in exploring the Child and Youth Advocacy Centre model for strengthening and co-ordinating responses to child abuse investigations," the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor-General said in an e-mail.

The ministry said that since 2011, it has provided more than $500,000 in grants to support such facilities in Surrey, Ridge Meadows, Vancouver, Victoria, Vernon and the Kootenays.

But it is not clear what support the B.C. government will offer in the future. In responding to the release of the report, Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux was non-committal on the need to expand the network of centres.

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"Child advocacy centres around the province do some really good work," she said. "I don't know whether or not there is a need for more. Perhaps there is. Certainly that is work that again is constantly under way, in discussions with the providers, with the advocacy centres and the proponents of them."

In a report released on Tuesday, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, said an alarming number of girls, including a disproportionate number of aboriginal girls, have been the victims of sexual violence while in government care.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond called on the government to implement a broad strategy to address the problem, and she held up child advocacy centres as a way forward.

"There [are] a few recommendations in this report. They are not numerous. They are very focused. In particular, I'm making a strong recommendation that British Columbia invest in child advocacy centres," she said.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she has had to fight to help restore funding to child advocacy centres across the province that have faced budget cuts and none of them have stable, long-term funding.

"None of them have the luxury of hiring, for instance, a full complement of staff," she said. "They may get one-time seed money, or year-end money, and hire, for instance, a trained therapist to work with children who have been victimized, but then find their budgets [are] lost. They cannot keep staff."

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond called the centre in Victoria "very promising," noting there are two rooms for police forensic interviews and a child-friendly waiting area.

But not all victims of sexual violence are in Victoria, she said, and not all victims in the area are going to end up there. "Most of them are going to end up in a police detachment, possibly a hospital or possibly a Ministry for Child and Family [Development] office, where they're going to have to have an interview," she said. "And that interview may or may not be done with someone trained and experienced."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said sexual abuse of children "is a major, major social issue" for B.C. and there should be child advocacy centres in all regions of the province.

In addition to establishing new child advocacy centres, she said, the government should provide adequate long-term funding to the six existing centres.

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