Edmonton

Edmonton's Zebra Centre sees big jump in child abuse cases

Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre, which supports victims of abuse as their cases work through the legal system, saw a 22-per-cent increase in its caseload from 2017 to 2018. 

Centre planning expansion to offer more support for victims and families

Children at the Zebra Centre can pick out a toy from this well-stocked closet after sharing their stories. (Manuel Carillos-Avalos/CBC)

Edmonton's Zebra Child Protection Centre, which supports victims of abuse as their cases work through the legal system, saw a 22-per-cent increase in its caseload from 2017 to 2018. 

More than 2,000 children accessed the centre's services in 2018.

Cheryl Diebel, the agency's CEO, attributes the increase to people being better informed about child abuse and being able to recognize it and then report it. 

"We think that's really what's motivating the increase in reporting and cases coming through our door," Diebel said.

"It's not necessarily an increase in actual abuse happening within the community."

Children who come to the centre are paired with an advocate who guides them through the police and court processes related to their case. 

The Zebra Centre facilitates police interviews in a child-friendly setting and also offers trauma counselling to victims.

The higher caseload is straining the non-profit's resources and the centre is relying more heavily on its approximately 100 volunteers, Diebel said.

Nearly 1,000 forensic interviews were conducted in 2018 at the centre in rooms such as this. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

"They're really so much of the backbone of what we do and the advocacy that we do for kids."

About 70 per cent of the Zebra Centre's budget is provided by the province, with the remainder raised through fundraising. 

"When I see the numbers growing year over year, it's hard to see and it's hard to digest," said Emma Wynters, co-founder of Ladies on the Green, a yearly event that raises money for the organization. 

"But at the same time it makes me proud that we're able to send so many more children through this centre and that those services are being utilized."

Wynters is hoping to raise $125,000 through the golf charity event at Edmonton's Victoria Golf Course on Thursday.

Wren is a support dog who accompanies children and provides comfort when they have to testify at the centre or in court. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

The centre is expanding to offer more trauma treatment services and will eventually have to grow again to accommodate the increased demand, Diebel said. 

"It's something that we can't avoid."

Volunteers and staff will often support children and their families for years. During that time, they'll see a positive change in their lives, Diebel said. 

"You see them relax and you see them let go of that anxiety and fear. That's when you know that we're having the impact that we want to have." 

The Zebra Centre is decorated with bright murals and features several play rooms to help children feel at ease. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)