Blue Line

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Zebra Child Protection Centre helps physically or sexually abused children


June 18, 2012
By Anne Gray

Walk through the unassuming doors of the Zebra Child Protection Centre and your eyes are immediately drawn to a beautiful rendering of a zebra whose stripes fill an entire canvas.

A big stuffed bear wearing a pink tutu sits gracefully on the corner of the receptionist’s desk. The walls throughout the centre are either soft, muted earth tones or vibrant jewel tones.

“At the Zebra Centre, we work with children who have been physically or sexually abused. When they walk through these doors with their parents or caregivers, we want them to feel comfortable and safe above all else. I think we’ve achieved that goal,” says S/Sgt. Kent Henderson, Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Child Protection Section.

The centre also works with adult victims who are cognitively delayed and clearly functioning at a level younger than that of a 16-year-old.

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{Zebra team}

A multi-disciplinary team of professionals work together at the centre, including 17 EPS officers. Many are directly partnered with social workers from the Edmonton & Area Child and Family Services Authority.

The facility is operated by Zebra Centre, a non-profit organization responsible for addressing the integral tasks associated with supporting victims and families. It provides information and ongoing support through the criminal justice process, including court preparation and referrals to counseling and other important community services. Zebra partners include the Stollery Children’s Hospital Child & Adolescent Centre and the Crown Prosecutors Office.

Specially trained volunteers play a crucial role and provide many support services – everything from welcoming new families to accompanying children to court.

Children who have been victimized and their loved ones are interviewed by a trained forensic interviewer and gain access to the supports Zebra offers. Approximately 40 per cent of the Zebra files investigated by police result in criminal charges being laid.

{A child-friendly place}

The Zebra team is very proud of the child-friendly centre, including the warm and inviting interview room.

“Having child-friendly interview rooms results in the child being able to relax and provide us with the crucial information we require as part of our investigations,” said Henderson.

Younger children typically start their interview sitting in an armchair. In no time you will see the interviewer and child both sitting on the floor having a fact finding, neutral conversation.

“Each interview room features mics that accurately capture small, subdued voices,” explained Henderson.

“Ceiling-mounted cameras record all interviews. In files where charges are laid, these recorded interviews may be played in court. A professional, forensic interview of a child can make all the difference in whether or not a perpetrator can be convicted.”

{Going to court}

When a child must go to court, Zebra staff, volunteers and the Crown Prosecutor “all pull together,” said Henderson. “We go out of our way to ensure the child feels protected, safe and supported at all times.

A few weeks prior to the actual court appearance, the Crown Prosecutor is introduced to the child and family so they’re not facing a stranger. Becoming familiar with them is another important step toward a successful court outcome.

Zebra volunteers prepare children to testify and show them what the courtroom looks like. The child usually testifies from behind a protective screen with two monitors in front of them – one showing the face of the person asking them a question and the other showing their recorded forensic interview. This is integral in supporting the child and working toward a successful outcome. The child does not have to see the face of the person who abused them unless identity is an issue.

{Satisfying work for detectives}

Interviewing a child takes a lot of patience, kindness and expertise. “There’s no question, it can be challenging to work here,” noted Henderson.

“I’ve been a cop for a long time. I know that when a call about child abuse comes in, not everyone is eager to respond to it. Those calls are tough. Hearing a little one talk about things that no child should ever have to experience isn’t always easy but knowing that we’re making a huge difference in that child’s life is very satisfying . . . it keeps us going.”

{Conviction rate}

The Zebra Centre enjoys an 80 per cent conviction rate in cases which go to trial, with the majority involving a guilty plea by the accused.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to put a perpetrator behind bars. When we’re in court, the entire investigative package, including the child interview, may be presented by the Crown,” noted Henderson. “Defense lawyers end up plea-bargaining with the Crown due to the strength of the child’s credible disclosure interview conducted months earlier at the Zebra Centre.”

Delegations from across the country and around the world have been drawn to the centre because it has a stellar reputation for providing victim support, investigations and successful court outcomes.

The Zebra team shares a strong a commitment to supporting children and their families and putting them on the path to healing.

“Children leave here knowing they are not in trouble and with smiles on their faces and that makes all the difference in the world to us,” Henderson said.

bio

Anne Gray is Senior Communications Specialist at Edmonton Police Service. Contact her at Anne.Gray@edmontonpolice.ca for more information.