Ontario's sexual assault support centres say they are stretched thin and need more funding

Sexual assault support centres in the province have seen an increased demand for their services in recent years, but many are stretched thin. Survivors who reach out for help are having to wait months to receive counselling or other one-on-one supports.

81% of centres saw increased demand during COVID-19 pandemic, survey says

In 2018, the provincial Liberal government promised an increase to base funding for Ontario's sexual assault centres. That was not implemented when the Progressive Conservatives were elected, and since then demand for service has only grown. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Ontario's sexual assault support centres say they are stretched thin and don't have enough money to support the increased demand for services.

Survivors of sexual violence are reaching out more than ever, but core funding from the province has not kept up with the increased demand.

"Many of these centres are funded at a 1990s level, but they're seeing service demands that are more reflective of reduced stigma and more people wanting to talk about sexual violence today," said Nicole Pietsch, a writer and advocate with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.

The coalition is a network made up of 31 sexual assault support centres from across Ontario.

A survey the coalition conducted earlier this year found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, 81 per cent of Ontario sexual assault support centres saw an increase in calls to crisis line supports such as phone, text lines and crisis chats.

Highest wait list in centre's 33 years

Sara Casselman, executive director of the the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, said her centre was already dealing with a much higher demand than it could handle pre-pandemic.

Since the pandemic, her support centre has seen a 58 per cent increase in the demand for individual counselling services. It has more than 260 people on a wait list for counselling and other one-on-one supports.

Sara Casselman, executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, says the Ontario government provides her centre with less than $440,000 a year; its annual budget is $2 million. (Submitted by Sara Casselman)

"We've seen crisis on crisis — to the point that today, 33 years into our history, we have the highest waiting list that we have by far ever had," Casselman told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

She and Pietsch said long wait lists can deter survivors from reaching out in the first place. Sometimes sexual violence survivors don't come back after being told of the wait.

Piestch said it's even worse in rural and northern centres, where survivors face even bigger barriers to access.

More core funding needed, advocates say

Most sexual assault support centres are not-for-profit and rely on core funding from the province, donations from community members or grants from local organizations.

Pietsch said progress has been made to introduce action plans and policy changes — such as sexual violence prevention on post-secondary campuses. Those initiatives often come with funding, but they usually have a time limit and lack substantial increases for front-line organizations that work with survivors on a daily basis.

Casselman said the funding her centre receives from the Ontario government is less than $440,000 annually; its annual budget is $2 million.

That provincial funding covers the basics, she said, such as counselling, group supports, public education and the centre's support line.

Nicole Pietsch is a writer and advocate with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres. (Submitted by Nicole Pietsch)

"We're not even seeing basic increases for inflation from the government, let alone to the increase in demand. Something has to shift," she said.

The previous provincial Liberal government promised sexual assault support centres a 30 per cent increase in their funding to help address the demand. That money never arrived after the Progressive Conservatives were elected in 2018.

"Basically that funding would have helped us hire two full time counsellors," Casselman said, adding other funding that was supposed to come from the government would have gone to hire a court support worker.

Not receiving that funding in 2018 put many centres behind, Pietsch said. It was money that could have supported centres during the pandemic when many expanded their services to virtual and in-person.

Calls to action

In the 2022 Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres's budget submission to Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, Pietsch advocated for an increase in funding to sexual assault support centres.

That document called on the province for stable, core funding that meets existing service demands, as well as money to invest in community-based prevention programs.

"The underfunding of sexual support centres ... has been something we have been advocating about, the need for increased resources, for as long as I have been working in rape crisis centres — and I have been in this field since the early 2000s," Pietsch said.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo asked the provincial Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties for comment on their commitment to sexual assault support centres. Neither party replied by deadline.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres website also has a list of support centres across Ontario.