Avalon Sexual Assault Centre workers form union

Move comes shortly after centre pauses it's counselling waitlist.

click to enlarge Avalon's logo. The sexual assault centre is open Monday to Friday, from 8:30am to 12:30pm and 1:30 to 4:30pm at 1526 Dresden Row, Suite 401.
Avalon's logo. The sexual assault centre is open Monday to Friday, from 8:30am to 12:30pm and 1:30 to 4:30pm at 1526 Dresden Row, Suite 401.
Workers at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre are unionizing. Avalon is the only sexual assault centre in the Halifax Regional Municipality–that’s an area of over 400,000 people–and is chronically under-resourced.

Avalon employees say the decision to unionize is about forming a stronger and united front to address the systemic issues that lead to a lack of resources and continuing to better advocate for policy changes.

“Ideally we’d like to have a board of directors that looked a little bit different,” says Adrienne Buckland, a therapist at Avalon and union member. “Currently we have a board that’s set up more like a model that doesn’t quite reflect our feminist mandate and our feminist values.”

The union is looking for a more community-based approach to a board that matches the overarching goal of the centre, like including staff or previous clients, “to have a board that looks more representative of the community.”

The centre offers services like therapeutic counselling, community education and forensic nursing. Last month, it had to stop accepting clients to its waitlist for therapeutic services because of an overwhelming increase in demand for services.

“Part of what we do is working to eradicate sexual violence and all that propels that,” says Buckland. “There’s the broader goal of, ideally, working ourselves out of our work.”

Through community engagement, Avalon is trying to change the current culture of how the public, police, health professionals and the government understands and responds to sexualized violence.

In 2017 Avalon signed an agreement with the Nova Scotia Health Authority for continued funding of its therapeutic counselling program to cover salaries and operational support for five sexual assault therapist positions, but it’s not enough. Avalon served 443 clients for counselling in 2018, its highest number ever and its SANE nurses service provided 402 responses, a 68 percent increase over last year.

The union is looking for more recognition and accountability from governments and better diversification of services offered in order to support the needs of all survivors. The current funding model for many community-based sexual health and mental health centres across Canada, including Avalon’s, isn’t working. Months-long waitlists and under-funding permeate: There’s a general lack of support compared to what other healthcare services receive.

“It’s time to address the discriminatory simplification of survivors’ needs, and the ongoing reliance on insufficient models and resources in the struggle to stop sexualized violence,” says Buckland.

 In 2017 the Nova Scotia government announced its sexual violence strategy, which poured extra funding into the centre for two years but has left the responsibility for continuation of care solely on the centre.

Avalon is often the go-to for organizations and individuals across the province looking for policies, procedures and how to create similar community-based and governed centres. The centre has one community educator and professional development trainer working across the entire province. “And she is also inundated with way more requests for service that is at all reasonable for one person to provide,” says Buckland.

Many of these centres in other cities operated well enough under the resources they had, but with more and more people feeling safe in reaching out to centres like Avalon, those same resources aren’t keeping up with the increased demand, which is happening nationwide.

In Nova Scotia, police-reported sexual assaults in 2017 increased by 15 percent from the previous year. In Halifax, there are on average, 36 reports in a four-month period. On average, one sexual assault is reported per day in the HRM. Statistics Canada says 2017 saw the most police-reported sexual assaults since 1998.

A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner can be reached at 902-425-0122, and 211 is able to provide confidential referrals to free legal help, SANE and counselling. A map of services offered in the province is available at breakthesilencens.ca.

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