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Child abuse case team seen as way to cut delays

Mar 31 2012

A special child abuse investigation unit proposed for Greater Victoria would reduce court delays and prevent tragic cases like the one highlighted this week, in which sexual assault charges were stayed against a father on the Lower Mainland, organizers say.

Fred Ford, project manager for the ORCA Children's Advocacy Centre, said the 2010 case shows the need for a team approach when investigating serious child sexual and physical abuse.

"This is a high-profile case, and we're all shocked to hear about it, but kids are falling through the cracks every day," Ford said. "There are too many cases like this one and many more that never even get to court."

B.C.'s representative for children and youth issued a report on the case this week. Mary Ellen TurpelLafond detailed how a man charged with sexually assaulting his daughter avoided trial because police refused to spend $40,000 to translate and transcribe witness statements in English. A judge stayed all 13 charges against the man, ruling that the police failure to translate key evidence led to unnecessary court delays and denied him his right to a fair and timely trial.

Ford said the proposed ORCA Centre would have police, child protection workers, victim assistance staff and Crown prosecutors working together as a multi-disciplinary team - most of them based in a single location.

He said there's no way that a unit like that would allow a case to drag on for months because of budget issues or delays getting witness statements translated.

"It would not happen, because you'd have all these other people that are focused on looking after the needs of the child," he said. "This is a model that's in place in jurisdictions across North America. In places like Edmonton, where the Zebra centre operates, everyone that's involved in the case has a voice in decisions that are made at every step of the way."

Ford said specialized child abuse investigation centres have been proven to reduce costs, shorten court cases, and result in more charges, better evidence, more guilty pleas, higher conviction rates and more appropriate sentences. In addition, they reduce victims' trauma by eliminating the need for them to repeatedly tell their stories, he said.

ORCA Children's Advocacy Centre Society has been working for years to get the centre established. But Ford said he's more optimistic about the centre's future after a recent meeting with Justice Minister Shirley Bond to press for her endorsement and financial support.

"We were really pleased that she understood the issues," he said. "She was very receptive to hearing about the efficiencies in the system and the fact that these cases do get dealt with more quickly."

Bond was unavailable for an interview Friday, but she issued a statement backing the society's efforts to establish the centre.

"In fact, we recently provided $50,000 from the Civil Forfeiture Crime Remediation and Crime Prevention Grant Program to support ORCA in the development of formal partnerships and a sustainable funding plan," she said. "The province supports this model for strengthening and co-ordinating responses to child abuse investigations."

Ford said the society hopes to secure permanent operating money for the centre by the fall, possibly by drawing on the 15 per cent victim surcharge the province collects on fines.

"We've been at this for a long time now," Ford said. "We just need to get the pieces to come together."

The society recently used money from the Steve Nash Foundation to produce a public service announcement about the need for children's advocacy centres.

You can learn more at the society's website at www.orcacentre.ca.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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