Child witness conference gives tools to heal

When the region’s first Child Witness Conference wrapped up Wednesday at Quetico Centre near Atikokan, social workers left armed with a program to help counsel children who have witnessed domestic violence.
The conference, hosted jointly by the Atikokan Crisis Centre and Family Services Thunder Bay, brought together about 65 representatives from women’s and children’s agencies across the northwest to learn about the 10-week program and to deliver it in their own communities.
Family Services Thunder Bay has been running a child witness program in one form or another for 11 years now. It was for that reason they were asked to help run the conference, which opened Monday.
“We made up our own manual,” noted Marla Hollingsworth, the child witness co-ordinator at FSTB.
The program brings mothers and their children who have left an abusive situation together to talk about their experiences. The mothers are in one group together while the children are divided into groups by age: four-six, seven-nine, 10-13, and 14 and over.
Each week they talk about a different issue—from self-esteem and safety plans to feelings and how to express them appropriately.
Before entering the program, each child goes through a pre-interview. They take the same test again at the end of it.
“What we do know is their self-esteem has improved, they’re not blaming themselves, they’re not blaming mom,” Hollingsworth said. “They have a much better understanding of violence.”
And those are, after all, the goals of the program.
“I think there’s a lot of goals: to learn to live a life free from violence, to know they’re not to blame, to express their feelings, to bond with mom in a different way,” Hollingsworth added.
Nancy Chamberlain, executive director of FSTB, said the two main lessons for children to take way from the group are “violence is not OK, and it’s not their fault.”
Children often think the violence would not have happened if they did better in school or if they were better at sports, she said. The program teaches them they are not to blame.
It also takes away the shame and secrecy of the experience, Hollingsworth noted. “The group helps them. It’s a safe place to talk about the issues,” she explained.
“Being in a group format, you know you’re not alone,” said Rob Barrett, executive director of the Catholic Family Development Centre in Thunder Bay. “Mothers are often overwhelmed with guilt and isolation.”
Mothers also get a chance to witness how the domestic violence has impacted their children.
“Moms often think the children don’t know,” Chamberlain said, because it happens after they’ve gone to bed. “Rarely do the kids not know.”
“I haven’t had one mother who hasn’t been surprised” by what her child had witnessed, Hollingsworth noted.
“They’ll often say, ‘I didn’t know my child had seen this’ or ‘I didn’t know it affected them this way,’” noted Sabrina DeGagné, a staff member with the Atikokan Crisis Centre.
“It’s a real wake-up call for some of them.”
“That’s a big breakthrough for mom to know that. It breaks the secret,” agreed Chamberlain.
Each week, the children and mothers discuss similar issues in their groups, and then are given homework.
“When they go home, they have that whole week to talk to each other about what they’ve done in group,” DeGagné said.
“It starts giving the moms language to talk to their kids about what has happened,” echoed Hollingsworth.
And if a child or family has needs that go beyond the scope of the program, the facilitators can identify those needs through the group and provide additional assistance.
“It opens up many more doors to providing the family with what they might need to heal,” Hollingsworth added.
One of the most important aspects of the program is flexibility.
“We’re always talking about flexibility and best practices,” DeGagné said. “What works in Fort [Frances] may not work in Atikokan. You find out what works in your community.”
Hollingsworth said what’s unique about Thunder Bay is there’s a wonderful partnership among FSTB, CFDC, and the women’s shelters in Thunder Bay and the two in Geraldton and Marathon.
“We all run the groups differently. Some have a big meal, some offer healthy snacks,” she noted. “It depends on who the agency is and the community’s needs.”
Food is an important part of the program, and each session begins with all the children, mothers, and facilitators together doing a group activity.
“Food is a great connector for the kids,” Chamberlain noted.
“We’ve had a lot of really wonderful feedback,” said Hollingsworth, noting they always end the last session with a celebration. These can include skits, a large meal, or the exchanging of gifts.
“There are some wonderful, wonderful stories about what the group has done for them,” she said.
“You can feel the energy of those children in the building, and it changes,” agreed Chamberlain, noting they tend to be quiet at the beginning of the program.
But by the end, “they take over the place,” she laughed.
Some families even ask to go through the group again, or come back for family counselling, because they feel comfortable with the staff and the environment, Hollingsworth noted.
The 10-session program is delivered over 10 weeks, though some have said they’d like to see it spread over 12 weeks. “It’s a lot of information to put out over 10 weeks,” admitted DeGagné.
So far, the ACC has run two groups in Atikokan and one in Fort Frances. It also has the program at Big Grassy and Stanjikoming First Nations, though they had to compress the entire program into three days because of the distance involved.
“We cut it down to a three-day weekend,” explained Shawna Griffiths, an outreach worker with the ACC.
But despite the short timeframe, they were able to cover all the material.
“We’ve had nothing but positive feedback,” she said of the experience. “Because we were in a First Nation community, we put in some aboriginal crafts and some of the culture.”
The goal of the conference at Quetico Centre is to train social workers from the various agencies to deliver the program themselves, on their own timeline.
Hollingsworth was chosen to be one of the main presenters at the workshop.
“It’s to provide people with an opportunity to discuss clinical issues—the things that happen in the group, the challenges of running the group,” she said.
“It’s nice to take a step back and share our ideas,” she added.
Some of the workers at the conference have had some experience with the program already.
“Each community has its own challenges. What are some of their solutions so people aren’t reinventing the wheel all the time,” Hollingsworth remarked.
While reps from Fort Frances, Dryden, Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay, Marathon, and Geraldton, as well as many area First Nations, all will leave with new information and strategies, they will not be left on their own to put their new knowledge to work.
“The Atikokan Crisis Centre is the lead agency and will continue to help the agencies or communities when they need it,” DeGagné stressed.
Barrett said he was impressed with the work the ACC staff and its executive director, Donna Kroocmo, had put into the three-day conference.
“It’s a close, collaborative approach. It’s wonderful to be a part of that because we all win,” he enthused.