Advocates worry about sustainability of sexual violence services as grants expire

Groups that support survivors of sexual violence in Nova Scotia are preparing for the worst now that government funding is set to expire.

Nova Scotia's strategy included 3-year community grants set to run out in March

Community support network grants are part of the province's three-year, $6 million sexual violence strategy, which were announced in 2014. (CBC)

Community groups that support survivors of sexual violence in Nova Scotia say they'll likely have to turn people away when provincial funding expires this spring.

Several organizations were able to hire therapists and counsellors who have specialized training to work with victims, thanks to community-support network grants introduced in 2014 that were part of the Liberal government's three-year, $6-million sexual violence strategy.

But those grants run out at the end of March, and advocates like Bernadette MacDonald argue it's "unethical" for the province not to offer a long-term solution in their place — especially since more victims are coming forward.

"We've proved more and more and more that this is an issue that needs specific attention, and it is incumbent now on the government to honour, I would say, the agreement," said MacDonald, executive director of the Tri-County Women's Centre.

Jackie Stephens (from left) and Georgia Barnwell, co-chairs of the Sexual Assault Services Network of Nova Scotia, called for continued funding at a meeting in December. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

The Department of Community Services told CBC News that even though community grants are ending, ongoing funding will be available for some services. The department didn't say where that money will go, or how much there will be. 

But MacDonald and others say no details have been communicated to their groups. 

"It's really shameful, and it's not because they haven't heard from us — they have heard from us."

Grants a 'game-changer'

The grants were distributed to nine regions across the province, with many choosing to spend them on therapeutic counsellors because those services largely didn't exist outside Halifax.

"It's been a real game-changer having a therapist that specializes in sexual assault in our community," said MacDonald.

For Helen Morrison, executive director of Cape Breton Transition House in Sydney, it meant $100,000 was available to hire two in-house support staff. 

"To lose that, I'm angry," Morrison said. "I'm very angry about that, and I think our community should be angry as well."

The Breaking the Silence report promised to enhance community-based response in nine areas of Nova Scotia. (Department of Community Services/Breaking the Silence report)

Community groups always knew the money wouldn't last beyond a couple years, Morrison said, "but you know, my response to that was we're going to prove that this program is so needed in our area that the government will have no choice but to fund it in some way."

Not continuing to fund the work that we do … is a gross oversight.- Robert Wright, of  ManTalk

Longtime social worker Robert Wright said the funding meant he was able to hire a full-time case worker for the Halifax-based ManTalk, a service he developed to help male-identified victims of sexual assault.

In 2017, they saw more than 100 clients, he said. 

"Not continuing to fund the work that we do at the People's Clinic and the work that's happening in HRM related to male-identified victims is a gross oversight," he said. 

The Sexual Assault Services Network of Nova Scotia told the standing committee on community services in December that sustained funding for therapists is desperately needed.

Helen Morrison is the executive director of the Cape Breton Transition House in Sydney. (CBC)

But time is running out, said Lucille Harper, a member of the network and executive director of Antigonish Women's Resource Centre. 

"When we know that funding is coming to an end, what it means is that we can't take on new people because we … have to be able to get them to a place where they're ready to be in the world, and to feel stable and feel steady within themselves," she said.

The strategy has in many ways done what it was intended to do, said Harper. But with more awareness about sexual violence, more people come forward.

Jackie Stevens, the executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, is worried survivors will lose trust in the services if they stall. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, said the majority of people seeking help are first-time clients who've suffered a recent sexual assault.

"People are finally getting to a point where they feel that it's OK for them, it's safe for them to access sexual assault services and they are going and having their needs met. And then suddenly that service is gone. You know, it does re-traumatize," Stevens said. 

Future funding under wraps 

The Department of Community Services said in an email that "it was communicated at the onset that networks wanting to carry out activities past the term of the grant would need to find a way to sustain the work, as the grants were time-limited."

But the department also said it has committed to ongoing funding in other areas, including for prevention innovation grants, to help organizations with therapeutic counselling services, and to support victims navigating the legal system.

When CBC News asked which organizations would receive money to keep therapeutic counsellors, a spokesperson said the department can't provide that information as the details aren't yet finalized. 

About the Author

Emma Smith

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Emma Smith is a web writer and radio producer from B.C. who fell in love with the East Coast. She's interested in reporting on rural communities and Indigenous issues.