A Safe Space for All Little Warriors: Our Talk With Dr. Wanda Polzin

"When people tell their story, believe them and know how to express that."

Little Warriors is a national, charitable organization focused on the awareness, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse. The Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch located east of Edmonton, Alberta is a specialized, trauma-informed, evidence-based, world class treatment centre focused on helping children from across Canada who have been sexually abused, as well as their families. The intensive program is for girls and boys from 8-12 years old and girls between the ages of 13-16 and is a one-year combined onsite and outpatient program designed with significant input from many leading academic and clinical experts who specialize in child sexual abuse and trauma.

Dr. Wanda Polzin, MA, RSW, EdD, Clinical Director of Be Brave Ranch, has over 25 years of counselling and clinical experience working with children, youth and families across various domains including Health/Mental Health and Addictions, Children and Family Services, as well as Education. Dr. Polzin has a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D) in Counselling Psychology, a Masters Degree (MA) in Counselling Psychology and is a Registered Social Worker.  Dr. Polzin’s clinical training is multi-faceted, with specialization in Attachment, Trauma, EMDR, AAT, Neurobiofeedback, Family Therapy, Clinical Hypnotherapy, and Concurrent Addiction and Mental Health interventions. She has a deep passion and energy for working with children and caregivers, particularly in the area of attachment-based caregiving, trauma and trauma-informed care, family systems, complex case needs (dual diagnosis), evidence-based practices, supporting resiliency, and promoting wellness.

SWY: Can you give a description of what Little Warriors is? How did this organization come to fruition?

WP: Little Warriors is a national, charitable organization primarily focused on the awareness, prevention, and treatment of child sexual abuse. We also advocate on behalf of child sexual abuse survivors, so we work with children, teens, and families. Our mission is to raise awareness and provide information and evidence-based treatment for sexual abuse and sexual abuse survivors. We advocate to support and ensure the rights and needs for children who have had trauma and a history related to child sexual abuse.

Our founder is Glori Meldrum. Glori is a powerful advocate for children and for families who have a history of child sexual abuse. Glori herself was sexually abused, and she is open about sharing her story. The goal of Little Warriors is not only to provide awareness, which we do through our Prevent It! program to adults and professionals in the field, but to also provide a place of safety, security and evidence-based treatment to be able to support children and teens who may not otherwise have that specialized trauma treatment. That’s why the Be Brave Ranch came into fruition. Glori advocated and has done a lot of fundraising with our Board, as well as with sponsors and different events. We don’t have any government funding at all for our programs, so it comes from generous donors and people who support us.

"The goal of Little Warriors is not only to provide awareness, which we do through our Prevent It! program to adults and professionals in the field, but to also provide a place of safety, security and evidence-based treatment to be able to support children and teens who may not otherwise have that specialized trauma treatment."

SWY: Can you briefly describe what childhood sexual abuse is? How can it affect a young individual in various facets of their life?

WP: Childhood sexual abuse is essentially abuse related to a child under the age of 18, and in some cases, arguably, 19. There are many forms of childhood sexual abuse. The most common form, or what we think of, is physical touch; inappropriate sexual touch. Children cannot give consent for sexual contact, but childhood sexual abuse relates to more than just the physical touch. Abuse can be the power of an individual. That can be a child abusing another child if there is a power differential or a cognitive differential. Most commonly, we think about it as an adult taking advantage of a child or someone who is more vulnerable than themselves. That can be in the form of touch, but it can also be in the form of exposing a child to themselves and asking a child to touch or watch something, whether that’s pornography or using photographs. It can be in the form of child pornography itself and using children to have pictures taken of them. It can also be in the form of telling stories or asking them to listen to stories that are of sexual nature that a child may not be developmentally prepared or ready to be exposed to.

SWY: On your website you describe your goals and objectives as: awareness, prevention, treatment, and advocacy. Would you be able to expand on each of these goals and what they mean for the overall understanding of childhood sexual abuse?

WP: We provide evidence-based treatment. We work with the University of Alberta, and we evaluate our treatment outcomes. We have outcome measures for looking at things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, depression and mood disorder, substance use and substance misuse, and family stressors. All of those kinds of outcomes are measured, and we use trauma-informed interventions at our treatment center to provide support for children, youth, and families. We’re constantly working collaboratively with other community organizations and working to provide the best treatment that we can. Many of our children and teens have had other interventions before that have not produced the kind of positive impacts that they are looking for in their life, so we provide very intensive, episodic treatment for them.

The awareness-side is that we work to empower and inform adults, whether that’s family members, community members, or professionals. We work through various means, including social media and written materials. We engage and educate adults in the statistics and the myths that are out there. For example, a common awareness myth we like to debunk is that of stranger danger. There is so much evidence that of course we need to teach our children and teens about stranger danger, especially now with the internet, but really, much of the abuse that is happening is from adults, trusted or supposedly trusted adults, who take advantage of vulnerable children and youth. As well on our website, we try to keep our resources up to date. We provide local and national resources and information as much as we can to the public.

In terms of prevention, we have our Prevent It! program. This program has been in operation for about ten years, and it’s run with no cost to people who want to inform themselves. We have 4,000 participants who are trained by volunteers, kind of in a train-the-trainer format, to deliver the in-person Prevent It! workshops. As a result of COVID, we have also increased our online delivery, so we provide a certificate for that and all of the information is up to date. We even created more of a culturally informed prevention workshop for Indigenous groups. We want to equip as many adults across Canada and the world; the Prevent It! program has reached out to Europe and different places, and people can access it free of charge through the workshop, either online or in-person.

We also encourage and share our clinical research and studies. We take our information and evidence and publish it in scientific literature and journals, and through that, we advocate to politicians and changemakers to support therapeutic, evidence-based interventions to help children and families that have a trauma history, specifically with child sexual abuse.

SWY: Little Warriors has the Be Brave Ranch as a treatment center for those who have been affected by childhood sexual abuse. What types of treatments do you provide, and can you speak on the importance and effectiveness of attaining these treatments?

WP: We work in a multi-disciplinary team. We have clinical social workers, psychologists, clinical transition coordinators, specifically trained art therapists, and music therapists. We all work in collaboration, recognizing that an individual child or teen may benefit and engage in specific treatments different from others. Because we know that healing really occurs within the context of safe, healthy relationships, we work very hard to help children develop relationships, not only with our staff but with their own families, as well as other children that come here. Children that come and stay and have the intensive, episodic treatments, they begin to recognize, “Hey, I’m not the only one. My negative beliefs about myself are being challenged here because there’s a really cool other kid that I see, and I didn’t know that other people were abused. Also, I can be strong, and I can build resiliency if I’m given the proper support.” Our treatment program is very mindfully thought out. We have individual, family, and group therapy, art therapy, expressive therapies, and animal-assisted therapy. Our therapies are based on leading evidence in the field. With our adolescents, for example, we have more of a Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) informed treatment that we offer. That might be a little different from our children’s programs. We have an overarching clinical program that is evidence-based, but we also support the individual needs of the child, teen, or family themselves.

SWY: What are the main things that we, as a society and community, can do to reduce instances of child sexual abuse?

WP: Learning and talking about it. It’s important to be informed about the myths and realities that exist, and to know what the warning signs are for children and teens specifically. It’s also crucial to be really aware and trauma-informed in terms of what to do if somebody is reaching out in some way. When people tell their story, believe them and know how to express that. Those are the key aspects of it. Specifically in regard to children and teens, there are some red flags for child sexual abuse. These include changes in mental health, changes in hygiene, and talking about things that seem much more developmentally advanced than what the child chronologically would or should know. We should also support people with recognizing healthy and unhealthy relationships. Supporting children in being able to say no in a healthy way and to set clear boundaries. There are many ways that we can all offer support at different levels.

SWY: If you could say one thing to a child who is a victim of sexual abuse, what would it be?

WP: I believe you.

SWY: Statistics Canada reported a 30% increase in sexual violations against children from 2015 to 2016. What would you attribute this increase to, and what sorts of interventions can reduce these numbers?

WP: I think the statistics are increasing for a variety of different reasons. The #MeToo movement has created further awareness, so people are asking questions differently and recognizing abuse in a different way than we ever realized before. Things in the past that people might not have thought of as actually abusive or inappropriate, they’re now realizing, “Wait a second, they are infringing on my boundaries.” Being more clear about the different aspects of what abuse can be, whether that’s physical abuse or internet abuse, and people developing more awareness, I think that will increase the number of reportings as well. However, there’s still stigma attached to it for different populations and different age groups and gender. All of that I think is beginning to change as we’re talking and having open conversations.

SWY: How can our readers get more involved with your cause?

WP: There are so many ways to get involved and a lot is included on our website. People can get involved individually just by being aware and informed. They can read the information available on our website or related websites, take a Prevent It! workshop (it’s only 90 minutes long), become a Prevent It! facilitator and support other training in-person for other groups, advocate from the perspective of political and other aspects, or donate. We have volunteers and people from all across Canada who reach out. We all bring value, all of us. So, if we can identify our value, there are so many ways to contribute based on that. If someone is a quilt-maker, they can make a quilt for one of our kids. If you’re a child and we’ve had children do this, they can donate their birthday presents to our treatment center. People can also support us through social media.

Starts With Youth would like to sincerely thank Dr. Wanda Polzin from Little Warriors for taking the time to speak with us about the incredible work being done to support child sexual abuse survivors! Be sure to visit Little Warriors Instagram and Facebook pages, as well as their website for more information about the programs they offer.