176 people on waitlist at Waterloo region's sex assault centre while funding remains in limbo

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region had plans to hire two new counsellors with funding announced by the province more than a year ago. That funding has not shown up.

'I’ve never experienced anything like what we’re experiencing now,' centre's executive director says

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region currently has about 176 people on its waitlist for services. The centre had planned to hire two new counsellors using money promised by the previous Liberal government, but that money was never transferred. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region has been waiting more than a year for funding from the province to hire two new counsellors to help with a massive number of people on their wait list, executive director Sara Casselman says.

There are currently 176 people on the waitlist, Casselman says.

"Four years ago, if we had 40 or 50 people on our waiting list, we would have said that we were in a crisis situation," she said in an interview.

On March 1, 2018, the former Liberal government promised to increase funding to sexual assault support centres across the province.

"For the first time in our history, and this year's our 30th anniversary, there was going to be a significant infusion of funds to sexual assault centres across the province, something in the realm of 30 per cent increase because our community has changed and the need has changed," she said.

Casselman says the money would have been used to help hire two new counsellors. The salaries for the jobs would have also been supported through fundraising revenue.

"We had our new job descriptions all ready, and we were ready to post, and we were just waiting for the funding to come through," she said.

The money was not transferred to the centres before the election. The current Progressive Conservative government has not said when — or if — the centres will get the funding.

Sara Casselman is the executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region. (provided photo)

'We've experienced a cultural shift'

The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres has asked the provincial government to give centres some insight into whether the funding will arrive.

Nicole Pietsch, head of the coalition, told CBC News the rise of the #MeToo movement has meant a higher number of women are seeing out the services offered by the centres.

The promised funding "would have made a really great difference in terms of these organizations' ability to meet, I would say, explosive demand in the province of Ontario that really reflects the kind of public context around sexual violence in the last few years," Pietsch said.

Casselman agrees there are a number of factors that have led to more women coming to them. Including high profile sexual misconduct cases, more discussion about sex assault on campus, sexual harassment cases in law enforcement, and information shared about how police respond to sexual violence.

"We've experienced a cultural shift. There is more dialogue about sexual violence, more awareness than there was previously over the last four years. It's tangible, and we're on the front-lines of that in the community," Casselman said.

"I've been doing this work for many, many years, and I've never experienced anything like what we're experiencing now."

24/7 support line remains open

Casselman says she doesn't want news about the waitlist to deter any survivors from coming forward.

She noted the centre has a 24/7 support line for immediate help that is run by volunteers. They also have groups and workshops that are open to people on the waitlist. The centre can also make referrals to other services in the community, and if there's an immediate situation — for example, a person going to court and facing their attacker — they work to get them support as soon as possible.

Casselman has met with local MPPs and says they've taken the issue back with them to Queen's Park, which resumed sitting this week.

Brian Gray, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, wrote in an email to CBC News that the government is reviewing services for victims to ensure investment decisions are "effectively meeting the needs of those who use them."

With files from Meagan Fitzpatrick