Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 6

Building Our Capacity: Children’s Advocacy Centres in Canada

Susan McDonald Footnote 5 with Katie Scrim Footnote 6 and Lara Rooney Footnote 7

Child and youth victims and witnesses face particular challenges as they navigate the criminal justice system, such as questions too complex for their age (see Sas 2002). Many provinces and territories have established special programs for child and youth victims within their provincial/territorial victim services directorates. Some non-governmental agencies also provide specialized assistance.

Children’s advocacy centres (CACs) provide an array of services to reduce the trauma of child victims/witnesses and their families in navigating the criminal justice system. CACs also undertake research and provide training and public legal education. Budget 2010 announced new resources for victims of crime and funding to increase support for victims through the creation and enhancement of CACs across Canada ($5.25 million over five years). Budget 2012 announced additional resources ($5M over five years) to further support the development and enhancement of CACs. These resources are available through the Victims Fund under the Federal Victims Strategy.

With the announcement of specific funds for CACs, the Department of Justice Canada is helping to provide some of the means for organizations to pursue their goals, including building the capacity of service providers who work with child and youth victims. The purpose of this article is to describe how research services from the Department’s Research and Statistics Division (RSD) have contributed to this capacity building.


CACs are widely used in the United States. They were first developed in the 1980s to provide a coordinated approach to addressing the needs of children implicated in the judicial system either as victims of crime or as witnesses. CACs seek to minimize system-induced trauma by providing a single, child-friendly setting for child/youth victims or witnesses and their families to seek services, and by reducing the number of interviews and questions directed at children during the investigation or court preparation process.

In the United States, CACs are accredited through the National Children’s Alliance, but there are no accreditation standards for CACs in Canada. CACs here use varying approaches, often closely resembling the US model, to meet their clients’ needs. And while not all CACs offer the same services, the National Children’s Alliance includes the following as key components of the CAC model:

  • a multidisciplinary team (MDT), which includes law enforcement, child protection services, prosecution, mental health services, victim advocacy services, and CAC staff;
  • cultural competency and diversity;
  • forensic interviewing;
  • victim support and advocacy;Footnote 1
  • medical evaluation;
  • mental health services;
  • case review;
  • case tracking;
  • organizational capacity; and
  • a child-focused setting.Footnote 2

Other important elements of a CAC’s work are training and education for professionals, community outreach (such as training, fundraising, public education events) to raise awareness about child and youth victimization, and research. However, it must be noted that serving the clients is the priority, and undertaking training and research would depend on having enough resources.

In Canada, there have been specialized services for children and youth victims and witnesses for the past two decades, and there are several well-established organizations that provide a range of services. For example, the Zebra Child Protection Centre (known as the Zebra Centre) in Edmonton is seen as a leader in this area and is well respected for its multidisciplinary approach, and BOOST in Toronto offers mental health services and court preparation on site, as well as prevention, research, and outreach, but does not yet have coordinated forensic interviewing.

The Regina Children’s Justice Centre (RCJC), established in 1993, and the Saskatoon Centre for Children’s Justice (SCCJ), established in 1996, provide coordinated interviewing and court preparation, as well as outreach, all in child-friendly facilities with referrals to mental health services. In Regina, medical exams are done at a local hospital, whereas in Saskatoon, they are done on site. In addition, the RCJC now has a victim services responder (victim advocate) whose role is to provide information, support, and referrals from the first interview at the RCJC throughout the criminal justice and/or child protection process to the closure of a case. The SCCJ now has a mental health clinician who provides consultation and treatment services as well as referrals to community services for parents and youth over 13.

Another example is the Centre Marie-Vincent in Montreal, which undertakes research and training and provides a coordinated approach to services for children under the age of 12 who have been victims of sexual abuse and for their families. Mental health services are provided on site in a child-friendly facility.

In addition to these specific organizations, all jurisdictions provide victim services for children and youth. For example, in Ontario, there are eight community-run Child Victim/Witness Programs which offer emotional support to child victims and witnesses, prepare them for court, and refer them to counselling and other services. In Nova Scotia, the Child Victim/Witness Program is a core, specialized, non-evidentiary court preparation program of Victim Services. In the territories, all victim service providers and Crown prosecutors have received training on working with children and youth and the testimonial aids available.

While there is some capacity to serve child and youth victims and their families, many communities have limited resources, and their services lack the benefits of the CAC model. As a result of the Victims Fund, interest in the CAC model is growing in Canada and is gaining momentum and support among many non-governmental organizations, in many sectors and at all levels of government. To date, more than 20 communities in Canada have begun exploring the development of a CAC, have launched demonstration projects, or have enhanced the services of existing CACs. The accompanying map shows the status of the different projects and programs.

Figure 1: Map of Children's Advocacy Centres in Canada, 2012

Figure 1: A map of Canada with the location and status of Children's Advocacy Centres in 2012

Figure 1 - Text equivalent

The legend is in the upper right corner. Multi-coloured cubes mean the organization is open and offering services. A blue cube means that the organization is running a pilot/demonstration project. A pink cube indicates an organization in development and a green cubes indicates that a feasibility study or needs assessment is being undertaken.

Starting from the west in British Columbia, the map shows six Children's Advocacy Centres (CACs) in that province. With pink cubes, The Vancouver Child Advocacy Centre Project, Vancouver, and ORCA Children's Advocacy Centre Society, Victoria, are both in development. With blue cubes, Sophie's Place, Surrey, and Ridge Meadows Child Advocacy Centre Pilot Project, Maple Ridge, are both operating pilot projects. With green cubes, the West Kootenay Boundary Community Services Co-operative, Nelson, and the Vernon Women's Transition House Society, Vernon, are both undertaking feasibility studies.

In Alberta, the Zebra Child Protection Centre, Edmonton, is open and has been serving clients since 2002. The Caribou Child and Advocacy Centre, Grande Prairie, is open, while the Calgary Child Advocacy Centre, Calgary, is in development.

In Saskatchewan, both the Saskatoon Centre for Children's Justice and Victim Services, Saskatoon, and the Regina Children's Justice Centre, Regina, are open. In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Child Advocacy Centre, Winnipeg, is marked by a pink cube indicating that it is in development.

Starting in the northwestern part of Ontario, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, Sioux Lookout, is marked by a green cube indicating that it is in the feasibility study phase. In the south, the Safe Centre of Peel, Peel, the Child Witness Centre, Waterloo, and the Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, Ottawa, as well as Prévaction in Cornwall, are also all marked by green cubes indicating feasibility studies. The Simcoe/Muskoka Advocacy Centre in Orillia has a pink cube indicating that it is in development. The Child Advocacy Centre Niagara, St. Catharines, is open and serving clients. The Toronto Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, Toronto is conducting a pilot project with open doors planned for early 2013.

In Quebec, the Centre d'expertise de Marie-Vincent, in Montreal is open. In Nova Scotia, the SeaStar Centre in Halifax is running a pilot project.

In Whitehorse, Yukon, Lynx is marked with a pink cube indicating that it is an organization in development. In Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the Child and Youth Victim Assistance Program are both marked by green cubes indicating that they are at the feasibility stage.

Research on CACs

There have been numerous studies in the United States on CACs, including a series of quasi-experimental studies comparing communities with a CAC to those without. The results of these studies support the CAC model (see King et al. 2010). They indicate that parents whose children receive services from a CAC are more satisfied with the investigation process and interview procedures than parents whose children receive services from a non-CAC (Jones et al. 2007); that children who attend CACs are generally satisfied with the investigation experience and are more likely to state that they were not scared during the forensic interview compared to children in communities without a CAC (Jones et al. 2007); and that CACs use more coordinated and collaborative investigations, including more multidisciplinary team interviews, videotaped interviews, and joint investigations with child protection agencies and the police (Cross 2008; Cross et al. 2007).

No such research has been conducted in Canada. However, several organizations have commissioned evaluations. For example, shortly after three programs to serve young victims of crime were established in Regina, Saskatoon, and North Battleford, the Saskatchewan government commissioned an evaluation (PRA 1998). User feedback from the Saskatoon Centre was extremely positive, with children saying they felt comfortable with the environment and the investigation. There was no user feedback or detailed data on costs and outcomes for Regina. In North Battleford, the enthusiastic leadership of certain individuals got the program going, but once these individuals moved on, the program evaporated. This highlights the need for long-term institutional resources and support. As is often the case with program evaluations, some questions could not be answered because the program had not been established long enough. The RCJC is also currently evaluating their victim services responder position, and the SCCJ is evaluating their mental health clinician position.

The Zebra Centre completed an evaluation in the mid-2000s (Leger Marketing Alberta 2005) which included a public opinion survey to gauge the following: public awareness, support for the Centre, and how important child protection issues are to the public; client (non-offending parent or guardian) satisfaction with the services provided by the Centre; and outcomes as measured by case tracking. Baseline data were not available, but the researchers did create a database out of paper files from the opening of the Centre to the end of the evaluation period (2002 through 2006). Each year was examined for changes such as an increase in the number of case files; for example, there were 106 active files in January 2004 and 236 in December 2006. A review of letters written by children and their parents to the Zebra Centre after the process was completed clearly illustrated the valuable role the Centre is playing in the lives of these families as they move through the criminal justice system.

BOOST began an evaluation of its victim advocate pilot project in 2011 which included basic statistics as well as client-feedback questionnaires. Overwhelmingly, the feedback from both children/youth and caregivers was very positive, and the numbers showed that there remained a strong demand for the services of the victim advocate. Other organizations are also planning evaluations to understand the impact of their work.

None of these evaluations employed an experimental design, or even a quasi-experimental design, and as such, they cannot attribute causation. No work in Canada has been done that empirically proves that CACs are responsible for increasing charges or conviction rates or leading to more appropriate sentences. Most of the criminal justice outcomes that are often cited from the US research (e.g., increases in charges laid, better quality of evidence, more guilty pleas, and higher conviction rates with more appropriate sentences) have not actually been demonstrated through empirical research (see Cross et al. 2008, 6). The research does show that investigations conducted by CACs are cost-effective. One study in the United States found that investigations conducted by a CAC resulted in a 36% cost savings compared to investigations conducted by a non-CAC (Shadoin et al. 2006). In addition, a study conducted in the United States found that the charging decision time is shorter when a CAC is involved (Walsh et al. 2008).

While the research from the US is extremely helpful, having results from Canadian experiences would be ideal for policy and program development, for governments of all levels as well as for the organizations on the ground, for many reasons. Research can identify cost savings, efficiencies, and good practices, and federal, provincial, and territorial governments can look to research findings to help make decisions regarding program and policy development, including funding. If all organizations were to collect the same data, it would be possible to provide a national picture of how CACs are operating.

Building Our Capacity Through Research

In the fall of 2010, the Research and Statistics Division (RSD) of the Department of Justice Canada began to develop, in close collaboration with the Department’s Policy Centre for Victim Issues (PCVI), a body of knowledge around child and youth victims and CACs in Canada. The following section describes the different initiatives and research projects that were included in these efforts.

Sharing Knowledge to Build Capacity

A knowledge exchangeFootnote 3 on CACs was held in Ottawa at the end of February 2011. Funded through the Victims Fund, the Knowledge Exchange on Children’s Advocacy Centres brought together approximately 55 policy and program officials and researchers as well as criminal justice and CAC professionals for the purpose of developing a common understanding of the existing services for child and youth victims in Canada, the key components of CACs, and what research says about them. Pamela Hurley, a child and youth expert, organized this event and worked closely with the RSD and the PCVI as well as other participants. A Web site developed for the Knowledge Exchange provides summaries of the different presentations, delegate information, as well as the final report.Footnote 4

This event was the first of its kind in Canada, and a number of next steps were identified to continue to build capacity on serving child and youth victims in Canada. For example, participants at the Knowledge Exchange highlighted the lack of Canadian research on CACs and their impact, short- and long-term. Participants also pointed to the need to develop a network, or community of practice, of CACs across the country, to hold additional meetings like the Knowledge Exchange, and to build a CAC community in the coming years.

The development of a CAC community will require continued efforts to build capacity through the sharing of knowledge. To address this ongoing need, the RSD, in partnership with the PCVI, hosted a meeting in January 2012 with 14 executive directors (or designates) of existing and emerging CACs. The objectives of the meeting were as follows:

  • to learn about practices and gaps in knowledge for each of the CACs, focusing on the role of the victim advocate, how organizations collect and manage operational data, and research issues of interest;
  • to transfer learning from the experienced CACs to the less-experienced CACs on these and other topics; and
  • to foster a community of practice for building knowledge and capacity.

The first day of the meeting was devoted to building knowledge for both the Department and the organizations on several different topics, using directed questions and group discussion. The second day was led by the PCVI and also focused on building knowledge, using presentations and discussions on governance models and compassion fatigue as well as on the role of the victim advocate.

This event was very successful, in part because the small number of participants permitted in-depth discussions and a real sharing of lessons learned and good practices, not just for emerging CACs but also for Justice officials. One of the participants noted on the evaluation: "It’s great to see the federal government take a leadership role!"

Responding to Direct Enquiries

Regardless of the stage an organization is at, they are encouraged to touch base with the RSD if they have research questions. Questions also come from Crown prosecutors, government officials, and other stakeholders, and they range from looking for a specific resource to seeking statistics on the number of police-reported incidents of violent crime against children in a particular area. The RSD and the PCVI together have helped to connect organizations that need information with those that have it, while also acting as a repository of knowledge. Researchers take the time to respond as fully as possible, as the information provided has helped in preparing stronger applications for funding or conducting feasibility studies, needs assessments, and evaluation frameworks.

Making Statistics Accessible and Understandable

While Statistics Canada provides online access to many tables of criminal justice data, actually retrieving the data can be challenging if one is not familiar with the different surveys used and what variables are collected. For example, court data do not capture any victim or witness information. From the 2011 Knowledge Exchange, it was evident that participants want as much statistical data as possible. As a result, the Research and Statistics Division has designed a new product: a one-page document that highlights one particular statistical finding, such as the number of police-reported sexual assaults in 2011 being highest for 15-year-old girls (Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey 2011). While these data are national, the RSD researchers have also shown organizations how to access location-specific data for the UCR. Knowing such information can help an organization ensure that it understands the needs of all children and youth in their catchment area.

Making Research Accessible

Much of the research from the US can be accessed via academic journals, but this is often at a cost. In addition, interpreting results from social science research is not always straightforward. For example, one common error is attributing causation where only correlation has been shown. Using one of the RSD’s products, a researcher has thoroughly reviewed all the peer-reviewed, academic research on CACs from the US and produced a JustFacts issue that clearly articulates those findings that can be generalized. The intent is to provide stakeholders with accurate summaries of relevant, recent research from the US, Canada or other countries. Organizations can then use this information when seeking additional funding and partnerships.

Data Collection/Information Management

The RSD has developed a data collection/information management tool for CACs in Canada. It is an Excel spreadsheet with all the variables that would be desirable from a case-tracking, case-review, and policy and program perspective. This tool, along with the instruction manual, has been shared with all the CACs, regardless of the stage of their development. Some organizations already have systems in place or are required to use specific software mandated by provincial funders. A number of organizations, however, have indicated that they would be interested in using this tool, at least as they get started. The RSD has also offered to analyze the data and report on the results if an organization lacks the expertise on staff.

Research Projects

Several small research projects have been undertaken to help build our body of knowledge. One is a compendium of CAC-like organizations around the world from countries as diverse as Cuba and Croatia to South Africa and Australia. Information was compiled primarily from the Internet with some follow-up with organizations. There are many good practices that are now documented.

Another project has been to determine how different organizations, including organizations in jurisdictions where there is no CAC and no plans for one, fulfil the role of the victim advocate and why they chose the particular approach. There are different models across the country that range from the use of one dedicated person who is part of the multidisciplinary team to using community volunteers who assist the client at a specific stage of the proceedings (e.g., court preparation, court accompaniment).

In addition, the RSD has used Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to map the location and status of organizations across the country, as in the accompanying map. This has proved to be an excellent communication tool for the Department, and the map will continue to be updated as organizations change their status and new organizations emerge.

Multi-Site Study

Finally, working with the Department of Justice’s Evaluation Division and the PCVI, a multi-year, multi-site study has been launched that will explore how CACs are working. Five sites in different stages of development are included—Grande Prairie, Whitehorse, Regina, Cornwall, and Halifax—and the study will be conducted over approximately three years. The study includes interviews with children and youth and a caregiver after the forensic interview, as well as follow-up questionnaires for those individuals whose cases do go through the criminal justice system. Staff and other partners will also be interviewed. This study will provide a great deal of information for the organizations involved, and it will also be very useful for other developing organizations.

In Conclusion

The community of CACs in Canada remains small, and there is a great opportunity to learn from the experienced organizations and to share knowledge with organizations that are just emerging or are less developed. By increasing knowledge and understanding of good practices, of the nature and scope of child and youth victimization, and of different CAC models across the country, organizations in development are building their capacity to better help young victims of crime and their families. At the same time, a community of CACs is being fostered to ensure that this capacity can be nurtured and sustained. In the longer term, the RSD and the PCVI may not always play such a role, but in this nascent stage of development, research has clearly contributed to capacity building for government officials, criminal justice and child protection professionals, as well as CACs at different stages of development.


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  • Cross, Theodore P., Lisa M. Jones, Wendy A. Walsh, Monique Simone, and David J. Kolko. 2007. Child forensic interviewing in children’s advocacy centers: Empirical data on a practice model. Child Abuse and Neglect 31:1031.
  • Jones, Lisa M., Theodore P. Cross, Wendy A. Walsh, and Monique Simone. 2007. Do children’s advocacy centers improve families’ experiences of child sexual abuse investigations? Child Abuse and Neglect 31:1069-1085.
  • King, David N., Cindy Markushewski, and Muriel K. Wells. 2010. Annotated bibliography of the empirical and scholarly literature supporting the ten standards for accreditation by the National Children’s Alliance. National Children’s Advocacy Centre. Accessed September 24, 2012, from
  • Leger Marketing Alberta. 2005. Zebra Child Protection Centre, Victims of Crime Fund grant program evaluation report. Internal report shared by the Zebra Child Protection Centre.
  • PRA, Inc. 1998. Evaluation of three child abuse response models. Final report. Internal document shared by the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General Saskatchewan.
  • Sas, Louise. 2002. The interaction between children’s developmental capabilities and the courtroom environment: The impact on testimonial competency. Ottawa: Department of Justice Canada. Accessed September 5, 2012, from
  • Shadoin, Amy L., Suzanne N. Magnuson, Lynn B. Overman, John P. Formby, and Ling Shao. 2006. Executive summary: Findings from the NCAC cost-benefit analysis of community responses to child maltreatment. National Children’s Advocacy Center.
  • Walsh, Wendy A., Tonya Lippert, Theodore P. Cross, Danielle M. Maurice, and Karen S. Davison. 2008. How long to prosecute child sexual abuse for a community using a children’s advocacy center and two comparison communities? Child Maltreatment 13:3.
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