Partner Highlight: The Treehouse Child and Youth Advocacy Centre

Q&A with Leah Zille, Executive Director at The Treehouse

The Treehouse Child and Youth Advocacy Centre exists to help Vancouver children and youth who have experienced abuse get back to feeling like kids again. The Treehouse co-locates a number of services and support workers, including social workers from the BC Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) and Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS), police from Vancouver Police Department (VPD), and victim support workers from Family Services of Greater Vancouver (FSGV). A representative from the child protective services unit at BC Children’s Hospital is not embedded but does refer back and forth as needed.

Together under one roof, these experts provide sensitive and immediate support to children and their family members. Trained in best practices in child abuse investigations and interventions, The Treehouse team keeps the child’s needs front and center every step of the way.

To learn a bit more about the vision behind The Treehouse, FSGV sat down with Leah Zille, Executive Director at The Treehouse.

How did you get involved with The Treehouse?

I was at Family Services for just over 15 years and saw so many great things at the organization during that time. I knew that we were moving towards establishing a child and youth advocacy program – one of many start-up, seed ideas emerging from Family Services.

At the same time, I served on the police board in Port Moody and attended one of my first conferences in Toronto, my first intersection with the policing sector. The sessions were all on social services – topics like homelessness, addiction, and the intense social problems impacting individuals. I remember thinking “why are we doing this in isolation? Where are the other sectors having this conversation?” It was only from a policing perspective.

The Executive Director position at The Treehouse was just coming up, and I knew it was exactly what we needed – that blend between policing, social services, and victim services and bringing everything together so the sectors are now talking to each other to support individuals.

What does your co-location model mean for children and youth who have experienced abuse?

It’s about what The Treehouse is allowing the agencies to do better. If you look at a child who has experienced abuse – prior to a coordinated response like what’s provided through a child and youth advocacy centre – when the report of abuse came in, the child would have had to go to the police and then to the child protective services. You can see the repeated points of trauma, and they would have gone into environments that weren’t necessarily trauma-informed and safe. They would be handed a brochure for victim services, but without follow-up.

At The Treehouse, children are greeted by a member of the team, and victim services will be here from the beginning. If we’re lucky, Isis is here with Nessa, our facility dog to meet and greet the family. Then, our police and social workers will come in, but it’s done in a really gentle, casual way. It’s not a daunting experience for the child, and they are here to connect with the child. Everybody is here to support the child, and decisions are made for each child’s unique set of circumstances.

We exist to create that environment. We help kids heal from abuse, become productive members of society, and heal in a healthy way.

What keeps you going?

You have to believe. All the evidence is there, research that shows that children impacted by trauma can heal. You believe people can help, you know people can help, you see the evidence that people can heal. Without a doubt, I believe this work is going to make a difference for individuals.

The biggest challenge right now is that there is a limited number of children in the Lower Mainland who access this service. That’s what keeps me going. We know how to operate this service and there are opportunities to look at how we bring this to other communities in the Lower Mainland.

A staggering 1 in 3 children in Canada have experienced abuse. What do you wish more British Columbians knew about this issue?

Child abuse is tolerated in this country. We know that home is not a safe place to be. The pandemic did shine a spotlight on the real challenge that’s happening for a lot of kids, and there are communities where child abuse reporting rates are lower than other communities because of the stigma attached to the issue. It’s not something people are comfortable talking about.

It’s important to know this is a problem that transcends so many of the challenges of our society today. We address the crisis of homelessness, trying to solve it today, but we aren’t looking upstream of the problem. The Treehouse is upstream. We know the impact of unresolved childhood trauma and we’re here to solve that problem. There are solutions in place. We need to continue down this path so that all children have access to this.

Can you share a success story?

Children can open up when they come in here, where in a different environment they wouldn’t be as likely be able to, to be open, to share their experience.

A young girl was really, really scared to come in. She was outside the door, crying, terrified. Isis showed up with Nessa. Because of her work with the girl outside the door, and the connection to Nessa, they were able to come in and go through everything they needed to go through. The girl came out and wanted to stay and play. It’s really the magic of the team that works here and their ability to connect and know what a child needs in the moment.

Learn more about The Treehouse
Learn more about FSGV’s Victim Services