An open letter to parents about sexual abuse in sport.
Karyn Kennedy responds to the CBC’s Investigative Report on child sexual abuse in amateur sport.
As a trained therapist and professional who has worked in the field of child abuse and trauma for over 35 years, I was saddened but not surprised when I heard the numbers. An investigative report released earlier this week by the CBC revealed staggering numbers related to child sexual abuse in amateur sport. Combing through hundreds of court documents going back 20 years, they revealed over 220 convicted coaches and more than 600 child victims across Canada. These numbers are tragic and likely just the tip of the iceberg.
This week’s reporting has focused on the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in sport; on the lack of coordinated provincial and federal oversight and on the gaps in administration. While all of these are important factors that must be addressed to help keep children safe, I do not believe that this is just a story about sport. This is actually a story about all kids. Though it focusses on amateur athletes and their families, this story speaks to the vulnerability of children everywhere.
I don’t mean to sound the alarm and instill panic in parents and caregivers. I am not fear mongering. My intention is to share what I believe to be helpful information and practical tips for parents, coaches, volunteers – anyone who currently works with, cares for or cares about kids. Anywhere.
The reality is that the most effective child abuse prevention does not start with a policy or a police check. It begins with healthy communication between parents and their children.
Started at an early age, healthy and ongoing communication demonstrates to children that they can come to you with a problem or a worry and that you’ll hear them out. Research indicates that a common barrier to children disclosing abuse is their fear of not being believed. Having a proven track record of listening to and helping your children with their problems from an early age sets a good foundation for trust in the future. Open dialogue about bodies, healthy sexuality, personal boundaries and consent helps children and adolescents make personal decisions about what they are comfortable with. It also provides an opportunity for healthy discussion helping to eliminate the stigma and embarrassment sometimes associated with these topics. If the first time a child needs to talk to you about their body, sex or sexuality is to tell you about something that makes them uncomfortable, imagine the challenge they face.
Another protective factor is the messages we give our children about touch. We need to teach our children that there are different kinds of touch and that sometimes people touch others in ways that are not okay. Empower your children by assuring them that they are the ones who decide how they are touched and how a touch makes them feel. Part of this empowerment is supporting children’s decisions. For example, if your child tells you that giving goodbye kisses to extended family members makes them uncomfortable, assure them that their decision will be respected. Help them navigate the potentially awkward moment at the door by saying “Lisa prefers high fives to say goodbye” and model that behavior. Let your children know that if they feel uncomfortable, it is always okay to say “no” and tell you or another trusted adult. Acknowledge that it might be too scary to say no, and that’s okay – tell them to talk to an adult they trust about what happened, even if you couldn’t say “no” in the moment. Above all, make sure they understand that touching should never be kept secret – all touching can be talked about.
Conversations about getting help can also empower children. Let your children know that they can come to you with any kind of problem but that your feelings won’t be hurt if they talk to someone else. Sometimes children are embarrassed about a situation, and don’t want to go to their parents. They may also worry about making you sad and want to protect you. Tell them that although you hope they would come to you, it’s okay to go to another adult they trust for help. Help them identify who these adults are.
Remember – one discussion is not enough. Children learn best through repetition and reinforcement. Keep the lines of communication open and be sure to listen. Talk to your children every day about what’s going on in their lives (e.g., school, friends, and activities). Try to listen to their stories without offering judgment, commentary or solutions, until asked. This will strengthen your relationship.
In addition to the trust, communication and plans to get help that we establish with our children, we, as parents, also need to know that the adults we entrust with our children every week have the necessary knowledge and training to keep them safe. It is vital that the adults in any child-serving organization are trained to identify signs of abuse, document their concerns and especially important, understand and are committed to their moral and legal obligation to report any suspicion of abuse to the authorities. When you sign your kids up for activities, ask the organization about their reporting policies, about the training their staff receive and what the level of supervision will be. A good coach or organization will be happy to walk you through this information.
The reality is, there is no quick fix or easy solution to child abuse prevention. It takes time and patience and sometimes going outside our comfort zone.
If you want to learn more about child abuse, your duty to report suspicions of abuse and how we can keep kids safe, please visit www.boostforkids.org.
Karyn Kennedy, President & CEO
Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre
Many evidence-based interview models exist. There is no one interviewing model or technique that is considered to be ‘the best’. Common principles underlie each model.
Here are two examples of Forensic interviewing practice in Canadian Centres.
A Blended Model of Forensic Interviewing is practiced at the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, Calgary, where interviews are conducted by law enforcement or specially trained forensic interviewers.
Dr. Sarah MacDonald with the SKCAC since 2017 provided the following information about their practice.
- At the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre (SKCAC), interviews are conducted with children as young as 3 years old up to age 17. Special considerations are taken with preschoolers and interviewers are cognizant of their shorter attention span, language abilities, and developmental considerations.
- All forensic interviews are audio/video recorded. This preserves the child/youth’s statement and documents the demeanor displayed in the interview. Recording of the interview reduces the number of times a child needs to tell their story.
- Most forensic interviews at the SKCAC are conducted by Calgary Police Services and the RCMP. Many of the police officers have extensive experience and significant expertise in the area.
- Sarah MacDonald, a Forensic Psychologist, upon request, conducts forensic interviews for Calgary Police, RCMP, and on occasion, for other police organizations in Southern Alberta. She is trained in the NICHD protocol, NCAC Advanced Forensic Interviewing and StepWise guidelines.
- At SKCAC, two Children’s Services assessors provide forensic interview services as part of their role on the Joint Investigative Child Abuse Team (JICAT). Both have extensive interviewing experience. The addition of these new forensic interviewer roles, with Sarah’s position, has shifted the Centre’s approach towards a blended model of forensic interview practices (i.e., interviews are conducted by law enforcement or specially trained forensic interviewers). All forensic interviewers are required to participate in training prior to completing interviews with children
- All forensic interviews, whether conducted by law enforcement or a forensic interviewer, are monitored by a police officer, typically the primary investigator on the file. This allows for the interviewer to take breaks to consult with law enforcement and to ensure all criminal elements are covered off.
- Interviewers (law enforcement and forensic interviewers) at the SKCAC participate in an in-house peer review session every month. An interview is brought forward by a member who identifies a 15-20 minute section they have struggled with (e.g., perhaps the transition from introduction to the reason why the child is there). After that section is played for the group, all members have the chance to provide feedback and ideas. Peer review is essential for maintaining skills and is beneficial for all who attend.
- Sarah notes that Joint training in forensic interview best practices facilitates inter-agency collaboration and fosters an understanding of each other’s roles in a child abuse investigation.
Best practice forensic interview training is established in the literature to be narrative based.
Forensic Interviewing at Snowflake Place, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cheryl Martinez, Executive Director of Snowflake Place describes Forensic Interviewing at their Centre.
Specialist skills and training:
Two highly skilled and experienced forensic interviewers, core staff of Snowflake Place, conduct child victim and witness interviews. They participate in multiple trainings and learning activities to enhance their knowledge and skills in best practice child forensic interviewing. They have developed an internal process for peer review and self-review of transcripts and video recordings of interviews to further develop and strengthen their skills. They also participate in a structured peer review process with an external reviewer with expertise in child interviewing.
Police throughout Manitoba refer children to Snowflake Place for interviews. Interviews are scheduled through a collaborative process with police, child and family services and victim services. The forensic interviewer positions complement the investigative process through provision of neutral, unbiased and high quality child interviews that support the criminal proceedings for child abuse cases. The specialization of the interviewers benefits the children and youth who receive their service and also police and child and family services workers who learn from observing their interviews. The interviewers provide presentations to partner agencies on their role at Snowflake Place and best practices in child interviewing. Cheryl reports a positive response from the crown prosecutors noting consistency in technique, style and quality of interviews.
In British Columbia, the Child & Youth Advocacy Centres Working Group is currently working on Best Practices in Forensic Interviewing.
Resources that can be utilized to build capacity and skills in forensic interviewing include:
- Webinars provided by Boost
- Peer Review services provided by professionals
- Conferences such as: San Diego International Conference, Crimes Against Children Conference (Dallas); The International Symposium on Child Abuse (Alabama), and the International Investigative Interviewing Research Group Conference (rotating location).
Brubacher, S., Roberts, K., Cooper, B., Price, H. Barry, L., Vanderloon, McKenzie. (2018). A Nationwide Survey of Child Interviewing Practices in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Volume 60 Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 34-68. https://utpjournals.press/loi/cjccj
This study surveyed 200 professionals who interview children in Canada about the guidelines and techniques they use, their perceptions of their training and interviewing arrangements, and the needs and challenges they face in daily practice.
National Children’s Advocacy Center. (2016). Position paper on documenting forensic interviews. https://calio.org/images/position-paper-documenting-fi.pdf
Newlin, C., Steele, L.C, Chamberlin, A., Anderson, J., Kenniston, J., Russell, A., Vaughan-Eden, V. (2015). Child Forensic Interviewing: Best practices. In Juvenile justice bulletin (pp. 1-17). Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention website: https://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/248749.pdf
This bulletin consolidates the current knowledge of professionals from several major forensic interview training programs on best practices for interviewing children in cases of alleged abuse.
Rachel Braden, London Family Court Clinic, Kim Gramlick, Delta Police Victim Services, and Barbara McIntyre, Boost CYAC, provided information and photographs of their Facility Dogs, for this article.
The following are key points on how specially trained courthouse facility dogs are presently used in Canada and the US. See below for links to organizations, articles and also case law about their use.
The Canadian Experience
In recent years, there has been a growing acceptance in Canadian courts for facility dogs to provide support for child, youth and vulnerable adult witnesses. In 2014, the first dog to officially support a young witness while testifying was “Hawk” from the Calgary Police victim services unit. Soon after, “Wren” an accredited service dog from the Zebra Child Advocacy Centre, Edmonton, was permitted by the court to support a child witness. “Caber” from Delta Police Services BC has a long resume. In an oral judgement the Court in Surrey, BC noted that Caber, as an accredited assistance dog, trained by the Pacific Assistance Dog Society, was an appropriate animal to assist a witness. (R. V. JLK  B.C.J. No. 1055). The Supreme Court of British Columbia, allowing an application pursuant to s. 486.7 of the Criminal Code, noted that the presence of service dogs such as Caber has a calming influence, and allows witnesses to “effectively communicate the evidence without creating interference or distraction”. (R. V. Marchand,  B.C.J. No. 1912). (See attached oral ruling)
Vulnerable adult witnesses have also benefitted from the support of a courthouse dog. In Brampton, Ontario the Court noted the right of victims to request a testimonial aid under s.13 of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights – “Gordon” was considered a type of testimonial aid. (R. V. C.W  O.J. No. 5647).
Since 2015 there have been numerous other examples of dogs supporting young and vulnerable witnesses in courtrooms across the country. Courthouse Facility dogs have been highlighted by the media in their own communities.
Many Child Advocacy Centres are waiting for dogs to complete training and become part of their support team. Training of these dogs can take up to two years, and the dogs are essentially trained from birth.
The following Canadian organizations provide specialized training and accreditation for dogs:
- Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (https://pads.ca/contact/)
- National Service Dogs (https://www.nsd.on.ca/)
- Dogs with Wings (https://dogswithwings.ca/)
- The Mira Foundation (https://www.mira.ca/fr/)
- Cope Service Dogs (http://www.copedogs.org)
Courthouse Facility Dogs – In sum
- Although there is no specific section in the Criminal Code at the present time, applications for a court facility dog to support a witness have been made under s. 486. Also, the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, s. 13, providing victims with the right to request testimonial aids, has been used in support of applications.
- Terms are used somewhat interchangeably to describe Courthouse dogs including: Service Dog, Facility Dog, Courthouse Facility Dog or, Court Support Dog. It is generally agreed that the term Therapy Dog should not be used.
- There is general agreement about standards of behaviour including: dogs must be unobtrusive in the courtroom or testimony room; must be able to remain still and calm for several hours; and, must not react when a witness becomes emotionally distressed. The majority of CAC/CYACs have chosen professionally trained, accredited dogs.
- The courthouse facility dog typically sits at the feet of the witness during testimony.
- The child will meet the dog at least once, and usually two or more times, before the court date.
- Most handlers are professionals in the justice system, and have received training for this role. Handlers should be skilled in working with vulnerable victims, have familiarity with the legal system and aware of appropriate courtroom behaviour.
The US Experience
Courthouse facility dogs have been used for many years in the United States, supporting young and vulnerable adult victims and witnesses during their involvement in the justice process.
In 2015, Arkansas became the first state to pass legislation allowing child witnesses to be accompanied by a certified facility dog while testifying. Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho Illinois and Oklahoma recently enacted similar legislation.
Courthouse Dogs Foundation, the largest organization in the US, strongly recommends that facility dogs used in the court environment should be professionally trained, certified, and come from an accredited service dog agency. Their comprehensive website includes training standards and CAC’s best practice document.
Training standards for courthouse dogs can be reviewed at
Courthouse facility dogs across Canada
There is a fast growing number of courthouse facility dogs in organizations across Canada. Many organizations are awaiting dogs to complete their training and become part of the support team.
Dellinger, Marianne. 2008-09. Using Dogs for Emotional Support of Testifying Victims of Crime. Animal Law 15:171-192.
Ha, James and McConnell, P. Facility Dogs (2017)
The Best Practice for Assisting Vulnerable People in the Legal System
London Family Court Clinic: Courthouse Facility Dogs (2017)
McDonald, Susan., & Rooney, Lara. (2014). Let’s “Paws” to Consider the Possibility: Using Support Dogs with Victims of Crime. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rd7-rr7/p4.html
Over the past several years, there has been extensive work done by the National Network of Child Advocacy Centres/Child & Youth Advocacy Centres with the Department of Justice Canada to develop Best Practice Guidelines.
In order to complete this work, Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre coordinated expert working groups for each of the guidelines, with members who have knowledge and expertise with a CAC/CYAC model and experience working with a Multidisciplinary Team. The role of the groups was to review the current guidelines and make any necessary changes based on practice, research and policy. Justice Canada commissioned a literature review, and later an updated version, to ensure the guidelines are based in current research.