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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.
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:
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
Les services sont disponibles en français sur demande.
The "Journey to Justice" Project
Handbooks on Testimonial Aids
Depending on the individual circumstances, the service will involve any or all of these components.
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.
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.
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.
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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