A program to help children and other vulnerable witnesses feel more confident when testifying during criminal cases will soon be available provincewide.
Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced Wednesday the expansion of the program, first developed by the crime victims assistance centre (CAVAC) in the Outaouais region.
"It's to give some empowerment, and to help these teenagers or these children … go in court and tell their story, tell what happened to them," Jolin-Barrette said.
The hope, he added, is that they will be more prepared and will feel like they had a positive experience when it's over.
The children get 25 to 30 hours of coaching and are taught 10 skills meant to make them credible witnesses. Topics include how the justice system works, the style of questions they may hear in court and how to ask for clarification, as well as how to express themselves with words rather than gestures.
"The more a child feels competent in their role as a witness, the more their account will be true and frank," said Kathleen Dufour, the director of the Outaouais CAVAC.
The government has budgeted $2.1 million annually for the network of victim assistance centres to run the program.
Eventually, the money will fund support programs for other vulnerable witnesses, including victims of sexual assault, victims of domestic assault, those with mental health issues, those who are mentally impaired, Indigenous people, people with autism, and those who don't speak English or French.
Jolin-Barrette says the program is being put in place based on recommendations from the provincial expert committee on support for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The importance of preparation
Andrée-Anne Perreault is a lawyer and legal counsel for the West Island Women's Shelter, and her job description is very similar to the program that is being expanded.
She helps women and children navigate the legal system and prepares them for what they might go through.
That preparation is important, she said, because — especially in conjugal violence and sexual violence cases — the victim's testimony often forms the basis of the case, so it must be solid.
"It's a whole other world that not a lot of people have experienced before. Especially for children, it can be quite traumatizing to go through the system."
Perreault welcomed the news the program is being expanded, especially since not every shelter employs a person who does what she does.
But she was hoping there would have been more consultation with organizations that work with victims.
She said there are also questions about how the program is going to be implemented. For example, she wants to make sure victims who have established relationships with counsellors like herself don't have to deal with someone new.