This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2021

In crisis

Canada’s sexual assault centres face chronic underfunding and cuts leading to long waitlists and staffing issues. How centres are dealing with a crisis of their own

Sohini Bhattacharya

Art by Valerie Thai

Catherine was in her mid-forties when she began looking for sexual assault centres (SACs) in Oshawa, Ontario. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) She was in panic mode as she combed through search results on the web. “I felt like my reality was crashing around me,” she said. She was at a point in her life when she dreaded acts of intimacy with her current partner. “As I get to that spot and think, ‘let’s go forward, let’s be intimate,’ I stop myself, and end up with all these triggers,” said Catherine. When aroused, her body would freeze with tremors and spasms. The voice and words of an abusive ex-fiancé kept popping into her brain.

During a previous three-year relationship, she’d caught her ex-fiancé engaging in sexual acts, like the time she caught him sniffing her underwear in the laundry room, and the time she found him “humping the mattress.”  When she questioned him about it, he’d deny what she’d seen or get violent. Other times in their relationship, he would force her to have sex with him.

“I wouldn’t fight him…. I’d just lay there. My M.O. was to freeze. I would let them do whatever. Sometimes, I would yell at them. And they would just leave or something,” she said, struggling to remember if that something was when the rapes occurred. She cited multiple rapes she’d endured as a nine-year-old, when Catherine was habitually sexually abused by her babysitter’s father.

“Those tapes were constantly playing in my head,” she said. When the abuse was too painful to bear, her brain would shut down and stop recording.  But her body remembered that she had been raped by her ex-fiancé, even though she didn’t think so at the time of the relationship.  Her body remembered the abuse she faced as a child.

Catherine often questioned the veracity of her truncated memories of the abuse she experienced as a child and adult. Avoidance was her only way to cope with her crippling flashbacks. She devoted herself as a full-time caregiver to her ailing dad and support for her daughter and granddaughter.

Frustrated, she reflected, “It took me 28 years to understand what the hell I went through.” She needed help to fill the blanks in her fragmented memory.

In 2016, when Catherine found the Durham Rape Crisis Centre’s (DRCC) services during one of her online searches, she decided to call them. On her 15- to 20-minute intake call, she was told that the centre had a waitlist of six to seven months for its free abuse and trauma counselling.

After 30 years of waiting, “I was frustrated that it would take another six to seven months for me to come in and see someone. What else is new? It’s a government-run thing,” said Catherine.

Lack of annualized funding, limited resources, high staff turnover due to long hours and low pay, and increasing demands on service delivery have become endemic to SACs in Canada. In the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi case, #MeToo, and the Time’s Up movement, agencies across the country have been recording an alarming surge in reported rapes and disclosures of historic sexual assaults. The pandemic has seen those cases grow exponentially. Agencies have not been able to keep up and meet the demand.

In December 2019, Regina, Saskatchewan, reported a wait of up to nine months. In Halifax, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre froze its waitlist when cases reached about 100. The average wait list in Alberta is between four and nine months. As of writing this article, on November 11, the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre terminated all staff and temporarily shut down, according to reports. After delivering services for 46 years, the centre’s five-member board vaguely cited IT challenges and need for structural refurbishments to the building as reasons for closure. While they hope to reopen next spring, 45 survivors remain on their waitlist, and existing clients are left feeling “sad and confused.”

Canada does not have a unified system tasked with recording and compiling nation-wide waitlists for sexual assault centres. “Each individual agency compiles their own waitlist and service delivery statistics,” said Nicole Pietsch, of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC), which advocates for 31 English-language rape crisis centres in the province. “Agencies provide it voluntarily,” she said.

Desperate to talk to a therapist, Catherine used up her yearly employment benefits to pay $150 per session with a psychotherapist while awaiting her turn at the DRCC. During the first six months of waiting, the DRCC offered her four walk-in sessions as a “stopgap” solution, so they could keep her file open.

But, she says,“my psychotherapist wasn’t somebody who could deal with me the way I needed him to. He’s not there for me. And that’s fine. He can deal with everything else outside of the abuse. I go to DRCC for the abuse.” However, the DRCC’s shortage of resources pushed Catherine further down the waitlist—from six months to a year. Counsellors, she said, were taking extended leaves. Replacements were hard to find.

Counselling trauma is hard work, according to Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). Psychologists are trying to heal survivors, mostly children and women, who’ve faced extreme violation of their human rights. “There’s a very high turnover of staff, not because they don’t like the work, or they didn’t like their boss. It’s because they need to make more money,” said James.

DRCC has an annual staff turnover rate of 30 percent. An ideal fix, said DRCC’s Executive Director, Gemma Broderick, is to be able to hire more staff. “Even with just one full-time counsellor, we would see the impact on a community with a waitlist,” said Broderick.

In her more than 20-year career working with sexual assault survivors, Debra Tomlinson, CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS), knows that “if you go to a private practitioner, they may not have that expertise.” Most survivors cannot afford it, said Tomlinson, even with insurance, because insurance coverage does not carry beyond four or five counselling sessions. “If you have been sexually assaulted, you need more than that,” she said.

What Tomlinson and counsellors across the country have not seen change over the past couple of decades is the conviction rate for sexual offenders. 95 percent of sexual assault crimes go unpunished, according to a 2017 AASAS business case report. “Our criminal justice system has a lot of work to do,” said Tomlinson.

Between 2009 and 2014, there were 117,238 police-reported sexual assaults in Canada “where sexual assault was the most serious violation in the incident,” according to a Statistics Canada report. These figures make up only five percent of police-reported sexual assault cases in Canada, according to a five-year General Social Survey.

In 2016, Ontario centres responded to 50,000 crisis calls, an increase from 30,000 in 2009, according to reports. Statistics Canada found that sexual assault in the province increased from “7,434 police-reported incidences in 2016 and 8,782 in 2017 to 10,634 in 2018—revealing a year over year increase of almost 19 percent.”

After a year of waiting, Catherine was finally taken off the waitlist and assigned to Lynn Cohen, the centre’s counsellor and public education coordinator, to begin her 16-session counselling at the DRCC. “Sixteen sessions are a drop in the bucket for so many of these folks. It’s not nearly going to address the years and years of historical abuse and violence,” said Cohen.

Cohen says she feels their service capacities are being stretched with an increasing demand to assist survivors in navigating the meandering and often conflicting paths of the criminal justice, mental health, medical, and psychiatric systems. “All of those different systems can often have a negative impact on the folks that we’re working with,” she said.

“The reality is that if we had more counselling staff, our waitlist would move more quickly. But our funding is only willing to give us a certain amount of money,” said Cohen. With 189 clients and 1,025 individual appointments in 2019/2020 alone, DRCC’s annual report listed six counsellors on staff, one of whom was on extended leave.

Funded primarily by Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General, the DRCC, like most SACs, has had to get creative with finding funding from private donors and competitive grant programs to mitigate their wait times and increase their program offerings.

A Justice Canada study highlighted that sexual violence and other sexual offences cost Canada $4.8 billion per year. However, on March 9, 2020, the OCRCC released a statement calling upon the Ministry of the Attorney General’s decision to not renew a “one-time” funding of $1 million, agencies received in spring 2019 to reduce wait times. The statement highlighted that “The One-time Funding Resources to reduce services wait-times did not eliminate any waitlist for sexual violence support services across the province.”

Facing backlash, the Progressive Conservative government quickly announced a $2 million boost to Ontario SACs “working with survivors of sexual violence impacted by human trafficking.” While a step in the right direction, it still does not reduce wait times for victims of marital rape, intimate partner violence, childhood sexual abuse, and other sexual offences that do not qualify as human trafficking.

Centres in underserved rural and remote communities face greater barriers to service delivery. Jenna Van Hoek serves as an Aboriginal sexual assault/abuse crisis counsellor at the Women in Crisis shelter in Algoma, Ontario, where Sarah Paciocco is also a counsellor. They said that with a three- to six-month waitlist, they have seen 352 sessions between April and September 30th, 2020. Housed within a shelter, the centre struggles with space and accessibility issues. Its staff of three counselors and a family court support worker conduct one-on-one sessions with clients, in person and by phone, out of two rooms. “One of those rooms is a rec room for women that are staying in the shelter. This takes the space away from the women that are in the shelter,” said Van Hoek. Sometimes, their counselling sessions are held in a big board room with a table that seats 12. Other times, they rent banquet rooms in hotels for their one-on-one sessions with clients. “It’s just not a conducive and appropriate space to see the amount of [sexual abuse] clients we see in a day,” she added. The centre also offers at-home counselling to victims who cannot drive to the centre.

The need to move toward a trauma-informed approach to dealing with sexual assaults in Canada is dire. Certainly, Cheralee von Gunten’s experience with the RCMP bears testament to that fact.

From 2014 to 2019, von Gunten endured five years of domestic and sexual violence in her marriage. In August of 2019, after being sexually assaulted by her husband twice within a week, von Gunten finally decided to seek medical intervention without reporting to the police. The sexual assault nurse found visible signs of vaginal abrasions and bruising on her cervix and encouraged her to consider a forensic rape kit. This meant reporting to the RCMP. The constable who came to the hospital decided that the kit would not be completed. He said it would have no evidentiary value because the perpetrator of the sexual assaults was her husband.

“To come forward and ask for a sexual assault kit to be completed, and then be denied by the responding officer, is an injustice that cuts deeper than I could ever convey. His attitude and actions caused an immense harm that I think is difficult to define,” said von Gunten.

Eventually, Charity Hamm, her counsellor at the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre (CASASC) in Red Deer, arranged for von Gunten to speak with a female constable in the domestic violence unit, who believed her and administered the kit.

Von Gunten’s journey with SACs began back in May 2006. Then a 26-year-old single mother, von Gunten was raped by one of two men she and a friend had met at a pub in Edmonton. She only knew her rapist’s first name. With no family support, she wasn’t sure if she’d be believed by the police. She was convinced that going to the police with this information would not bring her justice. Back then, crisis lines at the CASASC didn’t exist. The pain, isolation, and desperation brought on by her rape finally made her go to the CASASC without an appointment, two weeks after the rape.

After first speaking about her assault to the executive director, von Gunten was “shuffled around” before being assigned to Hamm, with whom she has maintained on and off sessions since 2006. Von Gunten said it was hard for her to keep counselling appointments without being able to afford child care. Over the 14 years, von Gunten feels that the biggest barrier in the CASASC’s service delivery for victims is the shortage of counsellors to meet the demand.

“They do have a couple of weeks or longer wait time, which maybe isn’t that bad compared to other places. I’ve heard, over the years, that bigger centres might have longer wait times to get in, which is horrible because you need to see somebody right away [after a sexual assault]. Everything’s just turned upside down for you to try and have to handle that alone for days, weeks, months on end, depending on how long the wait is to get in,” she said.

With three counsellors on staff, between 2017 and 2018, the CASASC’s new client intake grew from 405 to 504, an increase of 24 percent in one year. In 2018 alone, the centre clocked in 3,438 client sessions.

Tomlinson says that the root of the problems facing Canada’s SACs goes back to how law, policy makers and the public, at large, addresses sexual assault. It stems, she says, from a victim-blaming society and myths about rape.

“There seems to be this common misperception that [a victim of sexual assault] must have done something to contribute to the harm caused to them,” agreed James. “That it couldn’t possibly be committed by a family member or someone that’s held in higher esteem [like a husband].”

When in fact, 80 percent of sexual assault survivors know their assailant, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

“No one is immune to those myths,” said Tomlinson.

Not even Catherine. It took a 40-minute solitary car drive to work for her to realize that her ex-fiancé had raped her.
“I remember screaming in my car. ‘This was fucking rape.’ I actually had to say this to myself over and over, almost like a mantra,” before she believed it, she said.

An AASAS report clearly states that “immediately following a sexual assault, survivors face the betrayal that someone they know (and often someone they know and care for) chose to sexually assault them. Next, they must acknowledge that they live in a world where many people will not believe them—yet another betrayal. It is unacceptable, therefore, and yet unavoidable in the current funding climate, that when survivors finally build the courage to reach out for help—they are told they have to wait—sometimes for as long as 9 months. This is the ultimate betrayal.”

Until we can change those perspectives, there’s not going to be any change in terms of survivors entering the criminal justice system, choosing to report, and survivors getting a fair deal in the criminal justice system, according to Tomlinson.

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