Victims of Crime Research Digest

The Court Observation Study:
Collaborations Beyond Expectations

By Pearl Rimer, Manager, Resource Development, Research and Training, and Barbara McIntyre, Manager, Child Victim Witness Support Program, both of Boost Child Abuse Prevention and Intervention (formerly Toronto Child Abuse Centre

Introduction

This article provides a summary of the collaborative approach used in this study and demonstrates that it was an effective method of developing partnerships and raising awareness about the key issues involved.

In the past 20 years, federal legislative changes have enabled the increased participation of children[1] as witnesses in the criminal justice system. Jurisdictional modifications and supports such as specially designed child-friendly courtrooms and specialized court preparation programs for children are commendable efforts that address the vulnerabilities and specific needs of children. The reality is that children have typically become involuntarily involved with the justice system; an adversarial system that is unfamiliar, scary, intimidating and anxiety-producing, and not what one would likely describe as "child-friendly." Many children have been victims and witnesses of abuse, violence, and other crimes, and are put in a position of retelling events that happened several years ago-horrific events from which they and their families have struggled to process, overcome, and move on.

Previous research studies of the experience of child witnesses in the Canadian criminal justice system have helped us to understand how changes in legislation, polices, procedures, and supports have translated into practice for children. In 1988, Bill C-15 (An Act to Amend the Criminal Code of Canada and the Canada Evidence Act) was passed, the intent of which was to improve the experience of child witnesses testifying in criminal court and to better protect children from sexual abuse through changes in child abuse prosecution. New child-specific sexual offences were introduced, and provisions were enacted to facilitate the testimony of children. The results of two studies[2] that assessed the extent to which the provisions for child witnesses were applied and their courtroom experience in the criminal justice system indicated that testifying is often a very difficult experience for children. The studies highlighted the many obstacles that continued to face child witnesses (e.g., the language and content of the questions put to children in inquiries regarding the understanding of the oath) and the importance of the need to increase the implementation of legislative provisions that takes the developmental and social vulnerabilities of children into account in order to improve their court experiences and to protect them from secondary trauma.

On January 1, 2006, additional amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada, namely Bill , C-2 (An Act to Amend the Criminal Code [Protection of Children and Other Vulnerable Persons] and the Canada Evidence Act) came into effect, in an effort to further protect children from abuse and to increase the possibility for and facilitation of child witnesses. The Department of Justice Canada wished to embark on a follow-up Court Observation Study to the previous studies to determine if the criminal justice system was implementing the new legislative reforms to accommodate child witnesses in criminal court and, if so, to examine the impact on child witnesses (i.e., are they effective for children). Toronto and Edmonton were chosen as the two cities in which to observe and document the experience of children in the criminal courthouses. The objective was to track 350 cases where children were scheduled to testify in any criminal matter and to observe a total of 100-150 cases in the seven Toronto courthouses and the one Edmonton courthouse from July 2006 until the end of December 2007.

Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention[3] in Toronto with the Zebra Child Protection Centre in Edmonton were selected to oversee the data collection. Both Boost and the Zebra Centre are not-for-profit community agencies that have a history of providing prevention and intervention services to child victims of abuse and violence, including support services and programs for children required to testify in court. Both agencies also have long-standing, successful collaborations and partnerships that include all levels of government, police, child protection, education, and private industry.

A study of this nature is very time-consuming and requires considerable coordination, particularly to ensure that efforts are not duplicated. Collaboration of court personnel, together with a pool of well-trained observers are essential for success. The experiences and relationships detailed in this article highlight the collaborative nature of supports and shared interest in improving services for children and their families drawn into the justice system.

Collaborative Agency Partners

Many aspects of the Court Observation Study depended on collaboration with community agencies and interested individuals: the formation of Advisory Committees in Toronto and Edmonton; a literature review related to the court experience of child witnesses; agreement from all courthouses to participate in the study; recruitment of cases; court observers; case follow-up; data input and analysis; and preparation of the final report.

Role of the Court Observation Study Advisory Committees

The purpose of the Advisory Committees is to provide guidance and feedback, particularly in: finalizing the Terms of Reference, Project Workplan, Ethics Protocol, and Literature Review; developing the Data Collection Form and accompanying forms; communicating with court personnel to ensure their understanding of the project and to help secure on-site participation; and assisting with the referral and tracking of cases. The Advisory Committees are comprised of representatives affiliated with:

  • Victim Witness Assistance Programs (VWAP);
  • Crown Attorneys/Prosecutor's offices;
  • The Criminal Law Policy Branch (Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General);
  • The Toronto Police Service (Child Abuse Coordinator; Sex Crimes Unit; Youth and Family Violence Division);
  • The Edmonton Police Service (Victim Service Unit; Child Protection Section);
  • The Children's Aid Society of Toronto;
  • Alberta Children's Services;
  • John Howard Victim Assistance Program;
  • Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention (Project Manager; Child Victim Witness Support Program Manager; Boost Research Advisory Committee[4]); and
  • Zebra Child Protection Centre (Child Advocacy Director; Research Assistant; Project Coordinator).

Recruitment of Courthouses and Cases

In Toronto, with the assistance of the VWAP Regional Manager, the Director of Programs and Community Development for the Ontario Victim Services Secretariat, and Administrative Judges in each site, all courthouses came on board. Boost project staff met with the VWAP Managers of all sites to present an overview of the study, to address any concerns or questions raised, and to invite suggestions on how to enhance the implementation of the study, including the recruitment of cases. Although a large number of child witnesses who are scheduled to testify are referred to Boost for court preparation and subsequently tracked, a Court Observation Project Referral form was developed specifically for VWAP offices so that Boost could be informed of additional cases to track. VWAPs also made every effort to notify Boost when a child was scheduled to testify in a case in which VWAP was not involved (e.g., domestic violence cases).

Chief Justices and courthouse personnel in Edmonton were informed of the Court Observation Study by the Assistant Director, Edmonton Law Courts. Crown Prosecutors, The Alberta Law Society and The Criminal Trial Lawyers Association were also informed. In Edmonton, all criminal cases involving child victims are referred to the Zebra Child Protection Centre where cases are scheduled by the Project Coordinator. Therefore, recruitment of all eligible cases for the study was guaranteed.

VWAP Personnel

Court observers, all of whom were volunteers, were instructed to check in with VWAP staff upon arrival at the courthouse for any updated information/instructions. VWAP staff were extremely supportive of the court observers in many ways: they directly provided observers with required data (e.g., date of birth or age of witnesses), especially for cases that were not part of Boost's program referrals; they often checked in with observers throughout the day to see "how things were going"; and when VWAP staff knew that a case was part of the study, they had an "open door policy" to accommodate court observers. In addition, VWAP staff provided important follow-up information (e.g., set dates, trial outcome, and sentencing information).

Volunteer Court Observers

Perhaps the collaboration that proved to be full of pleasant surprises was that of the volunteer court observers. Volunteers for the study were recruited by distributing a flyer to Pro Bono Law, community college and university programs, Boost and Zebra agency and personal contacts, and postings on the Charity Village website. After receiving the completed Volunteer Application and resume, prospective volunteers were invited to attend an initial evening orientation session that covered an overview of the project; the expectations of volunteers, including criminal reference checks; the referral process and the tracking and assignment of cases; the criminal justice process; and the Data Collection Form. At the end of this orientation session, participants were asked to confirm if they remained interested in participating in the study. Every person expressed interest in attending the follow-up evening in-depth orientation the next week. The purpose of the in-depth session was to review: the criminal justice process, courtroom procedures, and courtroom etiquette; the referral process, and tracking and assignment of cases; in detail, the Data Collection Form and other relevant forms; helpful hints for data collection; when to contact a project manager/coordinator; and the criminal reference check form and Confidentiality Agreement.

Inevitably, throughout the course of the study, volunteers moved on and two cycles of volunteer orientation/training sessions were offered in both Toronto and Edmonton to secure adequate volunteer recruitment. In total, approximately 80volunteers participated in court observation, and the range of volunteers was impressive. They included:

  • law students;
  • articling students;
  • university and community college students from a variety of disciplines;
  • civil litigation lawyers;
  • a journalist;
  • a retired business executive, and other retired seniors;
  • stay-at-home parents;
  • a city community-based case worker;
  • a part-time victim witness assistance staff member;
  • victim services advocates;
  • a 911 operator;
  • a teacher; and
  • health care professionals.

In addition, Boost and the Zebra Centre have an internship program, and the Court Observation Study allowed both agencies to expand and offer placements to 11 students from various programs: Assaulted Women and Child Advocacy; Social Services; Criminology; Bachelor of Social Work; and Police and Investigations. It also meant new collaborations with additional universities and a commitment to supervising more placement students than typically planned. Students have presented the issue of abuse and violence in children's lives in the context of this study to their classmates, raising awareness of the issues. Boost was also able to employ a student for the summer of 2006 for the study, through the government summer employment program.

Volunteers were really invested in this project. Some took vacation days to go to court or spent their vacation time to observe cases. Although there was a formal process of assigning cases, many volunteers called or emailed asking for cases. Court observers were required to be in the courtroom only when children testified; many volunteers, however, were so interested in cases and outcomes that they called wanting to go back to observe the remainder of the case. On many occasions, if a case did not proceed in court, volunteers would go on their own volition to the VWAP office to inquire if there were any other cases involving child witnesses that may have been overlooked. In fact, data was collected for a number of such cases. In a few cases, the court observer learned that there was more than one child witness identified and took the initiative to gather data. In another case, there was an adjournment and the volunteer subsequently learned that another trial with a child witness was proceeding in French; the volunteer speaks French and decided to attend and gather the data. Although court observation for this study was to end in December 2007, several cases are scheduled to continue into the New Year, and many volunteers have asked if they can attend court to complete data collection. Several individuals asked if they could also assist in other volunteer capacities. At Christmas time, one volunteer took the opportunity at a holiday party for friends and legal colleagues to raise awareness with respect to child victims of abuse and violence, thanks to a toy drive and fundraising for Boost.

Everything possible was done so that the volunteer court observers participating in the study had a positive experience. Because of the nature of the cases that volunteers would be exposed to, there was the possibility that some individuals could experience distress associated with details given during testimony, unexpected occurrences during court proceedings, and/or past experiences of the volunteers. Court observers understood that their role was to collect data in a non-intrusive manner; volunteers were instructed to sit quietly in a designated area of the courtroom and not to interact with anyone unless approached by court personnel. It was emphasized that no one should stay in the courtroom if they were experiencing difficulty with a case. Mechanisms were put in place at both Boost and the Zebra Centre to address any issues that may have arisen, including outreach to individuals who were gathering data on particularly horrific cases. Volunteers coped extremely well, and it appeared that difficult situations were managed effectively. For example, a defense lawyer challenged a child witness questioning him if the person in the courtroom (i.e., the volunteer court observer) was a lawyer hired by the family to take notes of the criminal proceedings for the purposes of family court. The volunteer remained calm and focused on collecting data, and waited until court was adjourned to speak with the Crown attorney to clarify her role in court, which was then brought to the attention of the defense lawyer.

Participation in this study was instrumental in shaping the future of several volunteers. As a direct result of student placements and participation in the study, three students have decided to further their education in the field of criminology. Four volunteers have gone on to assume volunteer positions as child advocates. Several individuals asked for reference letters to assist them in securing employment and as a formal submission for their required professional development. A law student, during an interview for an articling position, spoke about his experience and the knowledge he had gained surrounding Bill C-2 and child witnesses as a result of his participation in the Court Observation Study. Apparently, this impressed the interviewers and he was offered the position. Project staff were aware of and concerned that some volunteers would withdraw from the study due to burnout; however, it appeared that volunteers moved on as a result of reasons that did not reflect burnout at all (e.g., to go back to school, to accept full-time employment, personal family commitments).

Conclusion

Every aspect of the Court Observation Study has relied on the collaborative nature, goodwill, and commitment of agencies and individuals who are dedicated to research in order to further understand the experiences, needs, and requirements of child witnesses; the impact of legislative changes on these vulnerable witnesses; and how the judicial system can continue to facilitate the success of children in court. The design of this study has clearly illustrated how collaboration and volunteer participation can be a winning approach to a resource intensive necessity of data collection. The partnerships for this study will result in the tracking of approximately 600cases and data collection for approximately 355child witnesses. Court observers have collected a wealth of anecdotal data that will undoubtedly add to the richness of study results and our understanding of the experiences when children testify. The collaborations have had a "trickle effect" that has resulted in many more individuals and groups gaining an appreciation of the need to continue to advocate for children who are exposed to the judicial system.

A final report on the Court Observation Study is expected to be completed in early summer 2008. It is anticipated that this report will offer further insight into how the justice system can effectively benefit children and their families. It is hoped that the report will also be instrumental in encouraging collaborations of this nature to increase supports and services for child witnesses.


  • [1] For the purposes of this document, children are defined as individuals under the age of 18.
  • [2] The first study, "I'm Doing My Job in Court, Are You? Questions for the Criminal Justice System," was carried out in 1999; the second, "When Children Testify: A Court Observation Study," in 2001. For more information on these two unpublished studies, please contact Pearl Rimer at rimer@boostforkids.org.
  • [3] Formerly Toronto Child Abuse Centre.
  • [4] Boost Research Advisory Committee is comprised of representatives from York University, the University of Toronto, Dalhousie University, and the Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect (SCAN) Program at the Hospital for Sick Children. The role of the committee for this study is to provide feedback with respect to the Ethics Protocol and Final Report.
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