By Alejandra Pulido-Guzman - Lethbridge Herald on November 18, 2023.
The Chinook Sexual Assault Centre celebrated Friday the grand opening of its Chinook Child and Youth Advocacy Centre after many years in the making.
Dozens gathered to celebrate the important milestone with MP Rachel Thomas, MLA for Lethbridge East Nathan Neudorf and Mayor Blaine Hyggen among them.
One theme was common among those who spoke during the ceremony – they all congratulated CEO Kristine Cassie and her team for their efforts and for not giving up on making the centre a reality, even with major setbacks.
Cassie spoke to reporters after the ceremony and said the day was not only an important celebration for them, but for the whole region, as many children will be able to benefit from it who do not live within the city limits.
“It is a phenomenal day for the whole region to have the capacity to have a centre that can do the child forensic interviews, that can actually work with kids from the time of disclosure on, (it) really reduces the trauma they can experience and really builds a better society at the end of the day, so we are so privileged to have this opportunity and to serve our community,” said Cassie.
She said one of the many benefits the centre is being able to provide a space where children and youth can feel comfortable and safe, without stress and possible intimidation that may exist elsewhere.
Â “People don’t always have the best experiences when they go to crisis centres, so this provides a neutral child-friendly culturally appropriate centre for children for them to be able to come and tell their story just once,” said Cassie.
Â She said being able to capture a really good interview means the child does not have to tell their story repeatedly to other authorities, and therefore relive trauma.
When it comes to the process, Cassie said they first became involved five years ago after a feasibility study was done that showcased the need for a centre south of Calgary to be able to serve the communities of southern Alberta.
“We discovered three major factors. Not having enough child therapists who really wanted to see kids when they were involved in a court process which could take two or three years, having families going broke when they were going up to Calgary, that they just sometimes couldn’t make that long term commitment for that, and then the other one being that we had no one South of Calgary that was fully trained as a child forensic interviewer,” said Cassie.
She said for them the building of capacity is really necessary for the region, as kids in our community should have access to services just like they do in the larger centres in the province.
“We are primed as a helping community to be able to coordinate these systems and to get it going, so before this build was done,” said Cassie.
Â She said in November of 2021 they started triaging cases and started to work through protocols and figuring out how they were all going to work together, and it has evolved to the building being completed.
Â “We’re happy that we have a place to call home, and that we’re all working together. We know there’s lots more growing pains that we have to go through, but we’re excited about where this is going to lead,” said Cassie.
Lethbridge Police Services Inspector Russel Lawrence told reporters after the ceremony that from an investigator’s side of things, the centre helps make the process easier on everyone, especially victims and therefore the investigation itself benefits.
Â “It’s a great thing to have it open, not only for the community, but for officers as well. The child and youth advocacy centre gives our officers another option with the sensitive files with children victims of abuse, to come off-site and be able to utilize a great facility like this, to conduct our investigations and assist,” said Lawrence.
He said being able to have victims in a space where they feel safe and calm, helps investigations immensely because the victims are able to tell their stories more openly which is very helpful for the investigation process.
Cassie said that is one of the reasons why the centre is designed and decorated the way it is, to help children feel calm and therefore make it easier for them to share their stories.
The centre showcases white walls, with a mixture of calming blue, grey and soft yellow tones, with mountains and flowers in some of the walls that reflect the area where they live.
“We really wanted to have an open feel to it, and a minimalistic design, and in a way that we can move furniture around so we can evolve with what the needs are as we grow over the next couple of years. Our first child that came in actually twirled around in the family space and said this is just beautiful, and that was just wonderful that they came in felt welcomed, could relax and we could just break down some of those barriers that may exist,” said Cassie.
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