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Child Witness Project

Helping Courts Hear the Evidence of Children

The Child Witness Project serves child, teen and other vulnerable witnesses to help them communicate evidence to the court without being traumatized by the challenging process of being a witness.

Project Overview

The Child Witness Project recieves police referrals for any child or teen (under age 18) who might have to testify in a criminal case in Middlesex County (Ontario). Cases typically involve child physical or sexual abuse, peer violence, teen dating violence, or the witnessing of an assault against one's mother. Preparation ranges from three to eight sessions, as needed by each child. The protocol includes education, stress reduction, coping strategies, emotional support and advocacy.

There are two overarching goals of court preparation:

  • to facilitate the conditions necessary for a victim/witness to provide a full and candid account of the evidence without compromising a defendant's right to a fair trial, through
    • individual court preparation
    • assessment and expert evidence for the courts
    • advocacy on behalf of youth with special challenges or needs
    • training for justice officials
  • to ensure that young and vulnerable witnesses are not traumatized by the legal process

Other goals of the project are to develop and refine an innovative service model, provide a high-quality service, identify the individuals needs of each youth, work cooperatively with other involved agencies, provide advocacy for individual youth on issues such as testimonial aids, make referrals to appropriate services, share information and experience with other agencies, conduct training, and provide uesful resources.

Une brochure en français

The Child Witness Project: Services préparatoires pour les enfants et adolescents témoins

Les services sont disponibles en français sur demande.

JUST RELEASED!

Helping a child be a witness in Court

Helping a Child be a Witness in Court: 101 Things to Know, Say and Do (2011)
by Alison Cunningham & Lynda Stevens

Across this large and diverse county, a variety of people support child and teen victim/witnesses as they wait for the resolution of a criminal case and perhaps when they are called to testify in court. In most urban areas, court-based victim services assist crime victims to understand and play a role in criminal prosecutions. Where no court-based victim service is available, as in some remote or rural areas, pre-court support can be provided by police officers, school teachers, counsellors, child protection workers, shelter staff, or maybe parents. This guide is a convenient overview of essential information needed to support a testifying child. It could also be a training tool for people entering the victim-support field or for victim-support workers who have historically worked with adults. The Centre is grateful for funding from the Department of Justice to support the development and distribution of this resource across Canada in both English and French.

The "Journey to Justice" Project

Journey to Justice in the North

The Journey to Justice: A Guide to Thinking, Talking and Working as a Team for Young Victims of Crime in Canada's North (2009)
by Alison Cunningham

This 90-page guide is a follow-up to the "Full and Candid Account" series from 2007. It takes the basic principles of helping children and teenagers testify in court and adapts them for use in Canada's three territories: Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The material is aimed at a wide range of professional groups including judges, justices of the peace, prosecutors, police, witness coordinators, victim service workers, shelter staff and educators. Sections also address the needs of witnesses with diagnosed or suspected fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Development and distribution of this resource was funded by the Policy Centre for Victim Issues, Department of Justice Canada. Also available in French.

Handbooks on Testimonial Aids

Overview of Issues Related to Child Testimony

A Full and Candid Account: Using Special Accommodations and Testimonial Aids to Facilitate the Testimony of Children (2007)
by Alison Cunningham & Pamela Hurley

Seven concise resources to help prosecutors, victim-support workers, judges, police and others understand and meet the needs of children who testify in court. The goal of these efforts is to help the witness provide complete and accurate evidence, or "a full and candid account." Topics covered are: overview of issues related to child testimony, testifying outside the courtroom (e.g., via CCTV), witness screens, video-recorded evidence, designated support person, hearsay evidence and children, and children and teenagers who testify in domestic violence cases. Development and distribution of this resource was funded by the Policy Centre for Victim Issues, Department of Justice Canada. Also available in French.

Service Components

Depending on the individual circumstances, the service will involve any or all of these components.

Individual Assessment

Staff of the project are experienced therapists and the process begins with a thorough intake to assess a youth's individual situation, special needs, and personal concerns related to testifying. Questionnaires developed by the Project help identify the children's most salient fears about court and their knowledge of the legal process. An in-depth interview with parents, as well as standardized psychometric tests, assist in assessing current emotional functioning of the youth.

Court Preparation

The education component of the prepartion centres on court procedure and etiquette, oath taking and legal terminology. Innovative aides such as a model courtroom, puppets, a judge's gown, books, and videos are used, in particular with the younger children.

The stress reduction component includes deep breathing exercises, deep muscle relaxation and cognitive restructuring.

Coordination with Other Services

Case coordination among the mandated agencies is an integral part of the process. The investigating officer and the Crown attorney are kept apprised of each child's needs, emotional well-being and feelings about court. Project staff work closely with the Victim Witness Assistance Program to ensure that families are kept informed about court dates and adjournments and that the youth has a tour of the courtroom in advance. Any concerns about a child's ability to testify are communicated to the Crown Attorney's Office. More in-depth consultation with the Crown prosecutor, in respect to testimonial competency and the need for testimonial aids, is provided on a case by case basis.

Expert Assessment and Testimony

The Project's mandate includes the provision of expert evidence about children's testimonial competency, the need for testimonial aids (e.g., closed-circuit TV), Khan applications (hearsay evidence), children's disclosure patterns in sexual abuse cases, and memory and suggestibility. Opinions may also be sought on the impact of victimization, and understanding of which can help the court devise an apprpriate sentence.

Support for Parents

Having a child go through the court process is usually a very stressful time for parents. We answer questions, address concerns, and ensure they understand the process. The extent to which children are able to cope with the aftermath of physical and sexual violence, as well as the additional stress of testifying, depends much on the support received from their parents and other family members.

Referral

The nature of the service dictates that involvement with the Child Witness Project is time-limited and cannot involve discussion of the events that led to charges being laid. However, when appropriate, referrals are made to other services for on-going counselling or advocacy.

Community Collaboration

A local advisory committee, with members representing the Crown Attorney's office, the Victim/Witness Assistance Program, law enforcement, and the local Children's Aid Society, meet on a regular basis. Issues discussed include legislative changes, judicial precedents and challenging clinical issues. Advocacy and complete service for all child witnesses within the system is the goal. We also participate in a network of child victim/witness projects in southern Ontario and are a member of the local Domestic Violence Court Advisory Committee.

Who Funds the Child Witness Project?

The Child Witness Project began in 1988, as a three-year demonstration project funded by Health Canada to evaluate the effectiveness of different methods of preparing children for court testimony. In 1991, the Ontario Attorney General undertook responsibility for funding the Project's clinical court preparation services. We receive annual funding to accept referrals for children and youth who face the prospect of testifying in criminal court in Middlesex County.

Referrals are also accepted on a fee-for-service basis outside this geographical area.


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