VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
How to answer kids' questions about the trial
Children will sense tone of Pickton event from media coverage, psychologist says
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Parents should expect their children may have questions about the trial of Robert (Willie) Pickton when the jury begins hearing evidence Monday.
With more than 300 journalists accredited to cover the legal proceedings, there will be intense and widespread media coverage during the opening days of the trial, which has already attracted national and international attention.
Stephen Hart, a forensic psychologist and professor at Simon Fraser University, said children often pick up on the media coverage of troubling events, even though parents try to keep them insulated from it.
He has first-hand experience. He recalled travelling in Scotland with his then four-year-old daughter around the time of the 1996 massacre in Dunblane, where a man killed 16 children and a teacher at an elementary school before shooting himself.
His daughter asked him one day: "Why did that man kill those 16 children?" Hart was momentarily stunned.
He had been staying with family friends near Dunblane and tried to shield his daughter from the media blitz about the mass murder, but somehow she had learned about it.
"I told her this man didn't know any of the kids but he was sick in the head at the time," he recalled. "I told her it doesn't happen very often." He also assured her she was safe and not to worry about it.
That seemed to satisfy his daughter, who might have just been curious about why a man would do such a terrible thing, Hart said.
Nikita Crook, a psychotherapist who specializes in child stress and trauma, said if a child has a question about the Pickton trial, it's important to listen to the question.
"Don't assume you know what they're asking," Crook explained. "Explore their question before you jump in and answer."
Discussing the question before you answer, she said, allows a parent to find out how much the child knows.
"Only give them a tiny bit more [information] than they ask," Crook said.
She suggested older children will have different questions and teenagers will hardly ask any questions at all "because they don't think their parents are an authority on anything."
So it's important for parents of teens to take the lead in having discussions to help them understand the trial process and media coverage, Crook suggested.
She also said if a parent is stumped for an answer to a question, it's okay to admit it and tell your child you want to think about it before answering.
Hart pointed out that gruesome evidence at trials, including disturbing photographs, can have psychological effects on jurors and others in the courtroom who will hear the evidence.
The Pickton trial judge, B.C. Supreme Court Justice James Williams, warned prospective jurors during jury selection last month that the evidence will be graphic and disturbing at times.
"I think this trial might expose the juror to something that might be as bad as a horror movie and you don't have the option of turning off the TV," the judge advised.
Some Canadian provinces and U.S. jurisdictions now routinely provide counselling for jurors, which was done at the trial of Ontario sex killer Paul Bernardo in 1995, Hart said.
"For most people, what's actually traumatic is going through the gory details," he explained, adding that even hearing descriptions of gruesome subject matter can create horrifying images in a person's memory.
"Being exposed to this kind of material leaves a lot to the imagination and can be intrusive, leaving images not directly based on experience," Hart explained. "That is something that will be a problem for some people."
A professional counsellor will be available at the courthouse during the Pickton trial for the families of the missing women, said Susanne Dahlin, executive director of Victims Services, a division of the ministry of public safety and solicitor general.
"There is a room at the courthouse and another off-site location where families can talk to the counsellor," she said.
Dahlin said victim services workers have met with police and the Crown to discuss the evidence that is expected to emerge at trial.
"Victim support workers have met with each of the families in their home communities," Dahlin explained, "and tried to connect them with professional support in their own community." There are 150 victim services support programs across the province, she said.
If families' members wish to speak to the media during the trial, victim services workers will assist to make it as "respectful as possible," she said.
She explained that victims' families have said they want the media to treat their loved ones with respect. "They want them to be treated as individuals."
Many family members have expressed concern the women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside are often lumped together as a group of drug-addicted prostitutes.
But in reality, each woman had a family and a unique life before ending up in vulnerable circumstances.
Many had children who are now in their teens and may be affected by the news coverage about their mothers.
Victim services worker Rita Buchwitz said families have been given a handbook to help explain the court process.
Travel and accommodation arrangements have been made for members of each family to attend the trial for a week at a time, she added, similar to what was done for the families of victims in the Air India bombing case.
Dahlin said some family members may be called to testify at the Pickton trial and probably won't wish to talk to the media until after their testimony.
Family members do not want to say anything publicly that will affect the outcome of the trial, she said.
Each family is in a different stage of grief, she added, depending on when the relative went missing.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007
Updated: August 21, 2016