Imagine being asked to tell a secret you’ve never shared with anyone before – something painful, embarrassing or even shameful.
Now imagine you’re being asked to tell a complete stranger.
While most adults would shudder at the thought, it’s a stark reality for thousands of children across the province who are victims of abuse, and who need to share their stories.
But thanks to a collaborative effort between a range of partners around the community and beyond, Surrey is now home to a child-advocacy centre that provides specialized services to children who have been abused physically, sexually or mentally.
Sophie’s Place is a collaboration between the Surrey RCMP, Ministry of Children and Family Development, Ministry of Justice, the City of Surrey and The Centre for Child Development, and provides a safe, child-friendly place for young victims of abuse to come and meet with officials to discuss their situations and receive support and counselling.
And with the help of a famous rock ‘n’ roll progeny, word of Sophie’s Place and the unique approach it takes to helping children around the Fraser Valley is starting to spread.
The centre, which is housed within Surrey’s Centre for Child Development and opened in February 2012, is named after its patron, Sophie Tweed-Simmons, daughter of legendary KISS member Gene Simmons and Canadian-born actress/model Shannon Tweed. The youngest of the Tweed-Simmons clan appeared with the rest of her family – including older brother Nick – on the hit A&E reality TV show Gene Simmons Family Jewels from 2006 to 2012.
Tweed-Simmons – who turned 21 this summer – said her involvement with Sophie’s Place is the perfect opportunity to help children who may not have had the privileged upbringing that she had as the daughter of two celebrities.
“I grew up really blessed – I never had to worry about coming home and not knowing what was going to be there,” Tweed-Simmons told Indulge this summer, during one of her many visits to the Lower Mainland. “Growing up in L.A. and going to school with friends who are in similar situations, their lives are great, my life is great, that’s how I thought the world was.”
When she was in her early teens, Tweed-Simmons began volunteering with underprivileged kids and their families around the world, which she described as an eye-opening experience.
“I realized that I wanted to give children a chance to grow up the way I grew up, to give them opportunities for education and a career,” she said. “That’s why, when Mayor Dianne Watts approached me about the project, I was so on board with it.”
As the initial architect behind the collaborative advocacy centre several years ago, Watts was in search of the perfect namesake to represent the important work that would be done there. After she was introduced to Tweed-Simmons by a mutual acquaintance, she knew the young philanthropist would be the perfect fit.
“Her youthfulness, warm spirit and commitment to children makes her a great role model,” Watts told Indulge by email. “And obviously, as a well-known television personality, having her name attached to the centre has had an enormous benefit of bringing international profile to the project.”
For her part, however, Tweed-Simmons is far more than just a name on a building. Throughout the project’s development process, she’s been heavily involved, doing whatever she can to raise funds and awareness about the centre’s work and is well-versed in the inner workings of Sophie’s Place.
“I’m not qualified to be working one-on-one with abused children – I haven’t had that training,” she said, “but I am good at bringing attention to Sophie’s Place. It’s a hard topic to talk about, because no one wants to talk about it. And it is sad, but a lot of what we do isn’t sad. It’s rehabilitation, it’s getting convictions, it’s helping that child move on. There is a silver lining that I think people aren’t seeing.”
Although Tweed-Simmons and the team at Sophie’s Place wish the facility wasn’t needed at all, it clearly is.
The numbers detailing child-abuse cases across the country are staggering. In 2008, there were 85,440 substantiated cases of child abuse in Canada and another 17,918 that were unsubstantiated but remained suspect.
It is estimated that one out of every three female children and one out of every six male children will be subjected to an unwanted sexual act before they reach adulthood.
At Sophie’s Place, all the players who would be required to work with young victims of abuse come together under one roof in a setting that helps children to feel at ease. Painted in bright, cheery colours, complete with a fun teddy-bear mural and comfortable furniture, it’s not a place one would associate with potential criminal investigations.
“Before Sophie’s Place, kids were interviewed at the RCMP detachment, which isn’t the most child-friendly place,” explained Dr. Brian Katz, the centre’s director.
Having everyone in the same place at the same time allows the victim to tell his or her story only once, whereas in the past, children would have to repeat what happened to them several times to several different people.
“You can imagine, for a kid, that it really has the potential to re-traumatize them, having to tell over and over again this terrible thing that has happened to them,” Katz said. “We strive to reduce the number of times a child has to tell their story.”
Members of the RCMP’s Child Abuse Sexual Offence unit (CASO), child-protection and victim services work collaboratively to interview children, and offer any services and support required to the victims and their non-offending family members.
As the first child-advocacy centre of its kind in B.C. – and only one of a handful across the country – Sophie’s Place is still very much a work in progress, Katz said. However, initial feedback from families and team members has been extremely positive.
Earlier this summer, an expansion was approved that will allow Sophie’s Place to take over the entire second floor of the Centre for Child Development, enabling all of the working partners to be housed on-site permanently.
“Everybody knows this is a better way to do it, so we have a really great commitment from all of our partners to being here and making this work,” he said.
For Tweed-Simmons, her commitment to helping others is something that she said was instilled in her at a young age by her parents, both of whom are involved in various charities.
“They’re very supportive, they try to help out as much as they can,” Tweed-Simmons said, when asked what her parents thought of her latest philanthropic venture.
“I actually didn’t tell them I was involved in Sophie’s Place until after we had opened it, because I didn’t want them to make it their own. I wanted it to come from a child’s perspective, and I was only 18 at the time, so I felt like I was better suited for that.”
Her work with the centre is one of many endeavours that Tweed-Simmons is involved in – she’s in the midst of a religious-studies program at Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., she coaches girls volleyball twice a week, she’s working on writing and recording music for an album she hopes to release next year and she has a budding acting career in the works, recently filming a small role on the CBC’s Republic of Doyle.
She is also a diehard Vancouver Canucks fan and has her own good-luck seat at Rogers Arena for when she’s in town to catch a game.
“My dad is notoriously bad luck for the Canucks,” she laughed. “Whenever he’s at a game, they lose – or even just watching a game. So we just don’t tell him anymore.”
Amid everything else in her busy life, Sophie’s Place remains an important priority, and Tweed-Simmons hopes to work in a more full-time capacity with the centre once she’s finished school. Being involved with such an institution, she said, has been life-changing.
“It means everything to me, and I know that’s kind of selfish, cause it should mean everything to the people we’re helping, and I hope that it does,” she said. “We’re hoping that someday, no one will need us at all.”