Story by Michael Seguin / Photography by Frank Michael Photography
There’s a classroom at St. Clair College that is not like the others. Suite 3304, located on the third floor of the Health Sciences Building, contains no desks. Recently renovated, the 942 square foot room could be mistaken for a daycare. Young adult fiction and stuffed animals take up one corner of the room, by the window. A table is low to the ground. Against the far wall is a fully-wired interview room equipped with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment.
Since October 2018, the Windsor Essex Child/Youth Advocacy Centre (WECYAC) has seen over 116 clients in this facility.
The WECYAC provides a child-centered, safe location for children/youth to disclose their abuse to a team of professionals. Previously, children subjected to abuse were required to be interviewed by multiple different professionals at various locations. WECYAC, like other child advocacy centres, aims to minimize trauma by bringing a team together in one location, so that the child need only disclose their story once.
WECYAC was created by Lynda Ware, an Administrative Assistant for the Ontario Provincial Police. While completing a report for an OPP course in 2013, Lynda discovered that, while there were currently 700 child youth advocacy centres in the United States, there were only 6 in Canada.
After completing her report, Lynda created a Steering Committee for her future organization. Within months, she’d attracted numerous high profile Windsorites to her cause, including Dr. Sharon Pyke, a Superintendent of Education with the Greater Essex County District School Board, Joanne Barbera, the Manager of Sexual Assault Treatment Centre at Windsor Regional Hospital and Rick Derus, the retired Deputy Chief of Windsor Police Services.
“Slowly, we ended up with a board of 12, [with a member] from every service organization that supports or provides a service to children of abuse,” Lynda recalls. “We did a feasibility study and a pilot project at Windsor Regional Hospital. From there, St. Clair College was kind enough to afford us an opportunity to be housed here.”
WECYAC is the first child youth advocacy centre in Canada to be housed in an educational institution.
Lynda Ware serves as the President and Advisor of WECYAC. As this is purely a volunteer position, she maintains her career with the OPP. Michelle Oake, the Executive Director, manages the day-to-day operations within the organization.
“I oversee everything within the center,” Michelle Oake, the Executive Director for the WECYAC, explains. “From starting the renovations and coordinating with St. Clair College, to the future involvement of students coming into our center, to clients and the victims that come into our center as well. So Lynda does the vision and the long-term, and I work with the day-to-day operations.”
Michelle explains the role of the WECYAC advocates.
“When a child discloses abuse, we coordinate everybody here at one time,” Michelle explains. “We bring in the Children’s Aid Society, we bring in the detectives and the counsellors. We have an interview room right over there. There’s a camera and microphones in the walls. It’s set up like a police station, but it does not look like a police station. Because these kids aren’t criminals. They’ve been victims. When they walk into a police station, they feel like they’ve done something wrong. It’s also an intimidating environment to be walking into a police station where everyone’s in uniform. Here, the detectives come in plainclothes. It’s a very comfortable, welcoming environment.”
The interview takes place one-on-one. Everyone else observes the conversation from the monitoring room. Following the interview, the advocate takes charge of the family’s next steps. If a sexual assault crisis council is required, they put the referral through and make sure they attend their appointment. “It streamlines the child abuse system,” Michelle says. “And having a system navigator like the advocate helps the family. So it’s a much more child and family-centered approach.”
After five years of growing legs, WECYAC is beginning to make strides. However, the organization, as Lynda Ware states, is still dependent on community support for their continued operations.
“The province doesn’t fund child advocacy centers right now,” Lynda explains. “The federal government does what they can, but yeah. For example, our next year’s budget, which would be March 2020, the federal government is going to give us $80,000. Our operating budget is around $150,000 annually. Hence, why we had eight fundraisers last year. This community is very, very generous. But there’s a lot of fundraisers going on, a lot of competition. A lot of organizations that need funding.”
When asked what the most rewarding part of her five-year journey has been, Lynda returns to the children.
“What is rewarding for me… is the fact that we are supporting these children who are innocent, and who are at the mercy of their caregivers for safety, for love, for protection,” Lynda says. “And I believe we are a voice for the children and youth of abuse. I’m very passionate about helping children that are powerless and trying to reduce trauma, and trying to give them a chance at a better life. So that’s what’s propelled me. I always think about the kids, the children. When adults make decisions they realize the consequences, regardless of the decisions they make. Children are not afforded that opportunity. Choices are made for them. And they live by the consequences. It’s… bittersweet. It’s not really rewarding in a sense, because I would rather have no children of abuse and not have the center even exist, really.”
Despite the community’s best efforts, instances of child abuse are still an issue in Windsor-Essex County.
“There’s over 700 [reported] child-youth victims of crime in Windsor-Essex annually,” Lynda Ware states.
“I think the statistics are pretty powerful,” Michelle states. “A lot of people don’t realize, unless you work in the field, how prevalent child abuse is in our community. A lot of us live in our own little bubbles in our happy little neighborhoods and don’t realize that this is going on. It’s happening everywhere. And recent statistics just came out that show that 93% of all alleged offenders are in very close relationships with the offender. Usually a parent, or a person in a care position.”
However, despite the statistics, WECYAC continues to work towards the creation of a safer community for all children.
“We’ve officially been opened for a year,” Michelle says. “And what we’re seeing is the follow-through of referral services. So, the children and families who are working with the advocates directly, they’re not only attending their services, but they’re getting the help that they need in order to heal and recover from the trauma that they’ve endured. They’re getting over the abuse. We hope that as the community becomes more aware of the services that we provide, perhaps more children will come forward about their abuse.”