F or the first time since 1996, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre has temporarily stopped accepting new clients.
The Dresden Row centre, offering specialized sexual assault care and support, announced it has become overwhelmed by their caseload after several years of increasing numbers of requests for help. The plan is to assess the needs of the 112 people on the waitlist and create a strategy for future sustainable operations before opening to new clients again.
"Front-line service providers here are really struggling to continue to meet the needs," says Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon. "We're all working at full capacity, but are not adequately resourced."
The centre will still accept calls from anybody who needs help, and offers referrals, support and information for the time being. Still available is the team of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, specially trained professionals who offer medical guidance and evidence collection after a sexual assault occurs.
Public conversations like #MeToo mean the stigma of speaking about sexualized violence is fading and some survivors of sexualized violence feel safer seeking help. "We're seeing this resurgence of people accessing services and so it's affecting sexual assault services across the country," says Stevens. "People who never had waitlists suddenly have waitlists." Avalon served 443 clients for counselling in 2018, its highest number ever. SANE nurses provided 402 responses, a 68% increase over last year.
Not surprising—Statistics Canada says 2017 saw the most police-reported sexual assaults since 1998.
Each client has a unique situation, often requiring long-term services. “Not everybody’s needs are the same, and so Avalon over the years has really focused on trying to better respond to marginalized survivors…organizations need to be able to better respond and continue to respond, because these issues are ongoing,” Stevens says.
Without enough long-term resources, some of these clients are left without any support at all.
The South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre usually refers clients to Avalon. While the waitlist is closed, they cannot. "A sexual assault centre not being able to accept new clients, that is a crisis," says Carmel Farahbakhsh, an education and administration coordinator at South House. South House’s stance encourages funders, governmental and private, to respond to the clear need for sustainable, core funding for Avalon Centre.
This sentiment was echoed by NDP status of women spokesperson Lenore Zann in a press release issued Tuesday. “The time is long overdue for government not only to increase funding to existing services, but to ensure there is sustainable core funding so sexual assault services across the province can be expanded,” says Zann.Stevens says Avalon has tried many ways to accommodate the surge of clients, from hiring additional staff to changing the way they deliver service, but none have proven to be a solution. "We just aren't able to provide the variety of services within our current resources and staffing and infrastructure," she says.
She hopes all groups—society, government and organizations—will work together to find a way to support survivors. "As a province, as a community, how are we going to better provide access to services and support in a long-term basis for all survivors of sexualized violence?" she says.
The centre won't know how long the waitlist will be closed until it's assessed current needs.
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.