What I’ve learned about child abuse: Advice from a child protection detective

In 2016, 588 files were referred to the Zebra Child Protection Centre.

While the survivors and their non-offending families are supported by the Zebra Centre team, it’s the duty of our law enforcement partners at the Centre to investigate each file so survivors are given justice and healing.

Edmonton Police Service Sergeant Christa Laforce has been involved with the Zebra Child Protection Centre since 2011 – first as a constable with the Child at Risk Response Team, an investigating detective and now in charge of training and development for the Edmonton Police Service Child Protection Section. In her time at Zebra Centre, she has investigated more than 230 child abuse files and has conducted nearly 300 children, witness and suspect interviews.

What has Christa learned about child protection from her six years working at Zebra Centre? Read more to find out.

Do we still need to teach our kids “stranger danger” or is there now more to the conversation?
The stranger offences that make the news skew our view of who is offending against children. Although stranger offences do still happen, last year nearly 90 per cent of the children and youth supported by Zebra Centre knew their offenders. While teaching our children to be cautious of strangers will always be important, there is more to the conversation we need to be having with our kids. This includes allowing our children to establish personal boundaries with their bodies, introducing them to the concept of consent, understanding healthy relationships and identifying safe adults.

Is there one group of individuals more likely to offend on children?
There is a common misconception that the individuals offending on children fall within a certain mold we have created for them as a society. In reality, child abuse knows no boundaries or demographics. We can’t turn a blind eye to child abuse in our community – it could be happening to the child next door, on our kid’s sports team or through our child’s smartphone.

What is the biggest issue facing today’s parents who are looking to keep their kids safe?
There is an increasing number of children and youth whose abuse is perpetrated online – whether they are targeting in chat rooms or apps or their abuse images are shared online. We live in an ever-evolving digital world where technology is changing so fast it can be hard for parents to keep up with. To combat this, parents need to keep themselves informed on what websites or apps their children are using, how these sites function and any safety features they can enable.

What are the types of files that stick with you?
Infant maltreatment and abuse files are tough investigations because of the emotional response that is triggered by seeing an infant with physical injuries. These are the children who are too young to have a voice. It’s upsetting to see how a moment of frustration for an adult can have devastating consequences on a child who has no say over what has happened to them. As investigators and child advocates, we know that by dedicating ourselves to these files, we are lending our voices to the children who haven’t yet found theirs.

What is grooming and how can I recognize this as a parent?
Grooming is the slow and escalating process of building trust and comfort between a child and an offender. In the beginning of the grooming process, behaviours can seem harmless – developing a special friendship with the child, buying toys and gifts – and move toward more inappropriate and abusive behaviours as the relationship is established.  

Parents need to be engaged with their children – know what they are doing and who they are hanging out with. Get to know their friends' parents. It’s also important to maintain open communication with your child so that they can feel safe telling you when something doesn’t feel right without being shut down. Lastly, follow and trust your instincts and encourage your child to do the same. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.

How do we empower our kids to speak up when something doesn’t feel right or makes them uncomfortable?
The biggest hesitation I hear from the kids I’ve interviewed is “What if no one believes me?” The best thing a parent can do is allow their child to express their feelings freely without the fear of receiving judgment, anger or suspicion from you. In this, you are letting your child know that their voice matters and is worth listening to. In addition, teach your child the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships so if abuse occurs, they are able to identify it right away.

What is the most frustrating thing to see as an investigator?
It’s incredibly disheartening to see a child who lacks support at home. As much as we do to ensure a child is on the path towards justice and healing, parents and caregivers play a major role in this process too. A child needs to know they are believed and did nothing wrong, but sometimes the cycle of abuse has been within families for generations and parents become desensitized to it happening to their own children. There is no better feeling when a child walks out of the Zebra Child Protection Centre feeling strong, brave and empowered – feelings that you know will continue at home as well.

How are you able to go home at night after investigating some of the most horrific crimes and be present for your children?
If I can be a voice for one child, I know I have done by job. Although difficult, our subject matter makes me passionate about my own kids’ safety, health and happiness.

What’s the most satisfying thing about your job?
Being part of a team whose members are equally passionate about being a voice for children. Seeing the children leave happy and feeling supported – it’s why each of us continue to come to work every morning.

What can we do as a community to respond to child abuse?
Many turn a blind eye to child abuse because of the assumption that if it’s not happening within our families or to our children, it isn’t our problem. Child abuse is everyone’s business. As law enforcement professionals, we can’t know what’s happening in everyone’s home, schools or smart phone and need to rely reports made to us by concerned individuals. Despite all of our work, child abuse is still one of the most underreported crimes – with 90-95 per cent of it continuing in secrecy. Adults in Alberta have a legal obligation to report child abuse and need to serve as the eyes and ears of our community. Together, we must make reporting and believing survivors of child abuse our biggest priority.

To learn more about reporting child abuse, click HERE.