Edmonton's Zebra Centre is helping more child victims of abuse. Here's why

One of the interview rooms at Edmonton's Zebra Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, which is seeing an increase in the number of children it supports with its services. (Ariel Fournier/CBC - image credit)
One of the interview rooms at Edmonton's Zebra Child and Youth Advocacy Centre, which is seeing an increase in the number of children it supports with its services. (Ariel Fournier/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton's Zebra Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, which helps child victims of abuse, says an increase in "complex cases" is contributing to a rise in its caseload.

Another factor is an increase in overall reporting of instances, Zebra Centre CEO Emmy Stuebing said in an interview.

The centre saw 2,362 children in 2019 and 2,844 kids the following year.

In 2021, the cases increased again, to 3,844.

So far this year the number of children supported has been roughly on par with numbers for 2021, Stuebing said.

About 60 per cent of the young people the centre saw last year were victims of sexual abuse, she said.

"We believe there is an increase in reporting. People are more aware and they are less afraid to report," she said.

"The other reason why we think numbers are increasing is that we are seeing an increase in complex cases.

"For example, when it comes to internet crime and internet cases, there might be one person who is connecting with dozens or upwards of 100 children."

Stuebing cited a case from 2021, when about 100 children were brought into the centre to be interviewed about one adult who was approaching children online.

"We are generally not open on Saturdays but we ended up having to open up six Saturdays in a row to accommodate all those extra children coming in," she said.

Stuebing said the centre is starting to see more files like that.

Pandemic's contribution

The restrictions phase of the COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to a rise in abuse, according to police and advocates.

Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said some children were more isolated and more vulnerable.

"I think there were a lot of kids and a lot of adults confined in homes where there was abuse happening," James said.

Teachers are often the first ones to notice and report abuse of children, but due to online learning they were not able to do so. "That's the problem," James said.

Ariel Fournier/CBC
Ariel Fournier/CBC

The Zebra Centre works closely with medical professionals, specialized assessors and law enforcement.

Supt. David Hall, officer in charge of the RCMP's serious crimes branch in Alberta, said RCMP have seen an increase in the number of interviews they conduct with child victims of abuse.

"Really rough numbers, I would say between 2020 and 2021 we almost doubled the number of interviews that the RCMP investigators were doing," Hall said.

He attributed the rise to a shift in the nature of offences. He said RCMP are increasingly getting files about children being lured online, or their images being shared on the internet.

He said the increase in reporting might also be due to an RCMP policy change in 2019 where children who come forward are now almost always interviewed by a trained forensic interview specialist.

"I think that's a large part of why we've seen an increase," he said.

The Zebra Centre is one of four child advocacy centres in Alberta — others are in Calgary, Lloydminster and Red Deer —staffed with RCMP members.

Hall said the Zebra Centre is by far the busiest of the four.

Ariel Fournier/CBC
Ariel Fournier/CBC

The centre, a registered charity, opened in 2002. In October it marked its 20th anniversary.

It is tackling the growing demand for its services by hiring more staff and looking for a bigger space.

"We need more space," Stuebing said. "We need more interview rooms. We need more family waiting rooms. I would like to create a whole toy room instead of a toy closet."

She said she hopes the centre can move to a larger space sometime in the next few years.