Ernestine’s Anniversary

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October 3, 2018

We first opened our doors on October 3rd, 1983. Since then, we have serviced more than 4,500 women and 5,000 children and youth. It’s a bittersweet milestone as we celebrate all that we have accomplished over the past 35 years, but recognize the fact that gender-based violence is not yet over, and we have a lot more to do in the fight to stand up for women and protect children. Children and youth have consistently been our largest demographic of clients at the shelter, and that’s why for our 35th Anniversary we chose to showcase our Child and Youth Program.

Witnessing domestic violence has many evidenced long-term impacts on children and youth, like emotional trauma and delays in language, social, and cognitive development. More than half of the mothers who experience abuse report that their child witnessed them being harmed, and in Canada, each year an average of 800,000 children witness a woman being abused. In fact, children who witness violence often grow up to be victims of violence or abusers themselves, because they receive the message that violence is an acceptable and normal way to resolve conflicts. These troubling statistics are why Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter invests so much in caring for children and youth, because we recognize that their needs are distinct from the needs of their mothers, and we believe in the importance of early intervention to break the cycle of abuse.

Our highly trained Child and Youth counsellors are dedicated to supporting children who have witnessed or experienced violence. We’d like to introduce you to our incredibly talented team of Child and Youth Counsellors at Ernestine’s – Iliana, Kamara, and Samantha. We sat down with them to learn more about their work at Ernestine’s.

These women support the children, youth, and moms at Ernestine’s in all aspects of life: from registering children in schools and day cares, to setting families up with their recreational and medical needs, planning special events like birthdays and baby showers, to advocating and supporting families involved with child protection agencies, providing group and one-on-one counselling with children, and so much more. As Kamara puts it, “We try to help them live a full life, to get on track to live a life free of violence.”

A day in the life of a Child and Youth Counsellor

Providing routines for the children is often new for many of them, as they may have missed a lot of school because of the violence in their homes. In the shelter, children will wake up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, and head to school. Due to safety concerns, they will all start new schools. This stress is not lost on staff who work with families, schools, and community agencies to support this transition.

They return from their school day, have snacks, access the homework program, have dinner and participate in evening programs. They might be participating in one-on-one counselling or group activities. The child and youth spaces at the shelter have been designed especially for them, including a separate space for older children. Both areas are equipped with age appropriate toys, books and games.

We asked the counsellors to share with us their day to day duties at the shelter, and what that can typically look like. While everyone agreed that no one day is ever the same, they mentioned that there are usual protocols for families at the shelter.

Kamara explains that “when families first arrive at the shelter, we usually sit with the mom and get to know more about what was going on in the family and what kind of supports she needs for each child. They may have gone through intense trauma so they might need some more intensive counselling, or a child may need some help with speech and language. We help mom’s find their voice [and] there are unlimited ways we support moms.”

Iliana adds that we should “think of it this way: anything that’s going to happen in anyone’s household is what we support with, plus we have the added layer of trauma on top of it because oftentimes relationships are affected, like parent-child relationships are affected because trauma existed in the house. So it’s like everything plus, to some extent.”

Going above and beyond

The children and youth who live at the shelter are our most vulnerable clients, and they make up the majority of the demographic at Ernestine’s. Each child will live at Ernestine’s for periods anywhere between four months to one year, and that’s why we go above and beyond to provide them with specialized care.

Many mothers report that they were holding onto their babies during a violent interaction with the abusive partner. This has a significant impact on both mother and child, and this traumatic experience often has an impact on attachment and bonding. That’s why our staff work with mothers and their babies to re-establish positive attachment and bonds.

We also celebrate milestones like children’s birthdays at Ernestine’s, because it’s a reason for kids to celebrate their own day and make them feel special. According to Iliana, “at least 50% of the kids who come here have never had a birthday party before, or if they had, it was shared with other kids or it’s tainted by horrible memories of violence that occurred on their birthdays, so they don’t consider it a celebration.” In addition to birthdays, we also take the time to celebrate graduations, baby showers, and the holidays to help create some happy memories for our families.

Why research and strong skillsets are required for Child and Youth Counselling

All of our counsellors have at minimum, backgrounds in Early Childhood Education and Child and Youth Development, and they continuously receive additional training to ensure that they are delivering the best possible programming for our children at the shelter.

On the importance of research, Samantha states that “within our wider culture, there is starting to be a dissemination of information around why early years are important. There is a lot of research right now on the 0-3 population, even regarding pre-birth around a mom’s experiences, which will later impact the experiences a child will have later in life and how [that child] will move through the world, what their personality will be like, and how their body will react to things.”

Samantha is currently participating in the Pyramid Model training program that’s facilitated by CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). According to Samantha, “the program focuses in on the ages 0-3, and how to build healthy environments and healthy relationships that can support positive socio-emotional development. It sets up healthy attachments and systems for a child that’s going to make [working with children] easier and equip them to deal with difficult experiences later in life.”

When asked why this training is important, Samantha says: “We as child and youth workers, and we as people in the world, and as mothers, interact with kids everyday, and usually that’s just seen as something you just do and it’s not that important, hard, or very significant. The trainings we do and the research that’s being done now is bearing weight on the fact that all those moments are really important and especially between the early years of 0-3, and especially when there’s lots of trauma and poverty and these different things going on for a kid, those interactions with children really have weight, and we want to put thought and knowledge and care into all of those moments because each one is significant for the child and so each one should be significant for us.”

Iliana shares her perspective as well, as she says: “We’re the first point of intervention for some families [after they move in to the shelter], and a lot of the times our job is building rapport and relationships with the moms and the kids. And when you make these families comfortable around you, they start disclosing things that they probably have never told anyone else, and as a professional, you have to be able to respond appropriately and be supportive. You must have training to deal with the complex trauma that happens in people’s lives. Of course as a human being you can respond as best as you can, but as a professional who is doing this work day-in and day-out, you do need to have awareness and training on working with children and youth who have experienced trauma.”

The best part about being a child and youth counsellor at Ernestine’s

We asked the counsellors about their favourite part of their jobs, and Kamara said: “Being able to be one of the first really stable person in a kid’s life is really meaningful. You can see the impact of you just being present in a kid’s life and really listening to them.” In her newly designed role as Child and Youth Outreach Counsellor, she is able to continue being a stable person in these children’s lives after they move out of the shelter and into their own homes.”

To that point, Samantha agreed with Kamara and added that “it’s a significantly exceptional and different kind of privilege to work in someone’s’ home and be a part of a child’s life on a daily basis, and to have the privilege of seeing them everyday and see them change over a period of time is pretty amazing. Whether it’s a baby growing up in their first year where there’s massive changes, or changes in a child’s behaviours – sometimes changes are really small or sometimes they’re really big – but getting to be around while that stuff happens is really cool.”

What motivates them to do this job?

“What motivates me to do this work is the people. Sometimes when you come into the shelter, and the kids call your name and run to you and hug you – what other jobs do you get to do where you get that type of greeting when you come to work? It’s pretty amazing.” – Kamara

“Working at Ernestine’s has made me feel powerful for the first time in my life. The ability to make such an enormous difference and impact on a child’s life by being a trustworthy role-model makes me feel powerful and exceptionally privileged.” – Samantha


Celebrating Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter’s 34th Anniversary

October 3, 2017

With a special letter from our Executive Director, Sharlene Tygesen
She shares a story that she will never forget . . .

We first opened our doors in 1983.

When I first started working at Ernestine’s in 1991, I was employed as a Child and Youth Counsellor.  At the time, there was a family of 5, consisting of four young children and their mother, residing at Ernestine’s. The family (lets’s call them the Romney family) was new to Canada and had arrived in the dead of winter from a much warmer climate. I remember thinking how overwhelming it must be to arrive in a new country with very cold weather while experiencing family violence. The Romney family’s story resonates with me for many reasons, but most importantly because they were the catalyst for our agency’s paradigm shift – to truly recognize that children have needs that are separate and distinct from their mothers.

The Romney family had been in the country for only 3 months when the violence that had plagued them since arriving escalated to police involvement. The police officers brought the mother and her children to Ernestine’s.

The children started at a new school while at Ernestine’s, and they all actively engaged in the programs that Ernestine’s provided. Back then, the shelter only had an occupancy of 22 women and children residing in 6 bedrooms. Here was this mom residing in a bedroom with all four of her children, which sadly was not uncommon for us at the time.

One of the children was a 9 year old named Steven, who was always fascinated with electronics. He loved figuring out how they worked and how to fix them. Radio Shack was still around at the time, and we were able to get him kits to support this curious fascination with electronics. Staff would get hold of broken VCRs, tape decks, boom boxes, and whatever else we could find for Steven’s use. He would spend hours taking them apart and fixing them. Taking apart and putting together electronics was very cathartic for Steven, and was how counselling session often took place. He expressed his hurt about the family’s situation and explained to us that he had liked his stepfather and had gotten on very well with him until they made plans to head to Canada for a better life. In Canada, something changed in his stepfather; he had become more controlling of their mother, and began to take a more authoritative and disrespectful approach with the children. Steven expressed confusion, sadness, and fear about his family’s future.

Fortunately, Steven and his siblings were thriving at Ernestine’s. They slept peacefully, they were safe, and they adjusted to their new schools well, while the shelter provided normalcy and a structured routine that included going to school daily. This is worth mentioning because children who live in conflict and who are exposed to domestic violence miss more school days compared to children not exposed to or living in crisis.

Sadly, Steven and his family had to be transferred to another shelter very suddenly. This happens for many reasons, the most serious one being that they have been located by their abuser. You can only imagine what relocating means for a family and children, in particular.

The Romney family was relocated on a Sunday afternoon when I was not working. Steven’s mother inquired if Ernestine’s staff could call the Outreach counsellor, as she was quite distressed and the Outreach counsellor would continue to support the family after they had left the shelter. The counsellors made the call and connected the mother to the outreach counsellor. On the other hand, Steven asked to speak with myself or my child and youth advocate partner, and though Steven was assured by the staff that we would be informed of his move on Monday, we were never called.

When I arrived at the Shelter on Monday and heard about the sudden move of the Romney family and about Steven’s futile request to speak with a Child and Youth Counsellor, I was very upset. This incident set in motion the agency’s review of how we support our most vulnerable clients – the children.

The history of the shelter movement really began when women would hide their girlfriend’s and sisters within their own homes. It was not until the 1970s that these same women advocated for funding for “real” spaces for abused women to escape. The shelter system was designed to support women fleeing violence, but it has historically neglected the needs of the children who join their mothers at the shelter.

However, children need more than just being kept safe.  They need specialized counselling and advocacy. Most importantly, they need a voice of their own. This incident with the Romney family sparked within us the realization that we needed to reconceptualise how we work with children and recognize that they had distinct rights, separate from those of their mothers’.

34 years after our doors first opened, we reflect on how our Shelter has evolved to suit the needs of each of our clients. Today, we are proud to stand up for women and protect the rights of children.

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