New Brunswick

Sexual assault examination services still a priority during Omicron wave

Sexual assault examination services are still a priority in New Brunswick emergency rooms, even as the pandemic pushes the province's health-care system to its limits, supporters say.

Emergency rooms triaging sexual assault cases high, even as health-care system is strained

Hospital ERs must have round-the-clock service to provide the nurses who are specially trained in treating survivors of sexual assault. (CBC)

Sexual assault examination services are still a priority in New Brunswick emergency rooms, even as the pandemic pushes the province's health-care system to its limits. 

Roxanne Paquette, co-ordinator of the province's sexual assault nurse examiner program, known as SANE, said fewer people have been going to New Brunswick emergency rooms during the pandemic. 

"We've been looking at different stats and everything, and we've noticed we have less people presenting to the emergency department to receive care," said Paquette, who co-ordinates the program for both the Horizon Health and Vitalité Health networks.

"What's concerning is we know that the stress related to the pandemic, the isolation regarding the pandemic, would increase the intimate-partner violence and sexual assault cases."

Special training to help survivors

There are about 80 sexual assault nurse examiners in New Brunswick who've received special, trauma-informed training to treat survivors of sexual violence and administer sexual assault evidence kits.

They helped 509 patients in 2019-2020, but that number dropped down to 454 patients from 2020-2021. They've helped 329 patients so far in 2021-22.

With hundreds of health-care workers self-isolating during the Omicron wave, or staying home to care for sick loved ones, the protocol remains the same: only a SANE service nurse can administer a sexual assault evidence kit, even if it takes slightly longer than the promised one-hour wait limit. 

Sexual assault nurse examiners can administer sexual assault evidence kits. (CBC)

Paquette said survivors might be worried about contracting COVID-19 or that their situation isn't critical enough to seek care at a hospital. 

But while the sexual assault nurse examiners might work in the emergency room, the SANE program is independent of the emergency department, and staff aren't stepping away from their other duties to assist a survivor. 

"That's why it's so important to let the population know that the program is still there, even though there's a shortage of nursing everywhere, even though they tell you not to go to the emergency department," Paquette said.

She added the SANE program, which is available at 12 hospitals in New Brunswick, has a mobile counterpart, so the 80 nurses are on-call and can travel to different hospitals, depending on the health zone, to assist survivors. For example, a nurse in Zone 4 would travel to the Saint-Quentin hospital to meet a survivor.

In zones one, two, and three, an examiner can only assist a survivor at one location. A hospital needs to have round-the-clock services to be eligible for the SANE program, so a survivor in Sackville, for instance, would need to travel to the Moncton hospital to receive SANE services.Sackville's ER is not open at night.

Paquette, who's been involved with responding to sexual violence in the health-care system for 14 years, said her team will always find a way to help those survivors. 

If there aren't any sexual assault nurse examiners on call, Paquette said, she'll talk to the survivor on the phone for an initial assessment. If the survivor doesn't want to immediately have ant evidence kit administered, they can book a followup appointment to see an examiner, which can be as soon as the next day.

Survivors can also call the SANE program to book an appointment in the first place. This is helpful to survivors worried about interacting with more than one person, Paquette said. 

While volunteers from Sexual Violence New Brunswick can no longer accompany survivors to emergency rooms due because of COVID, Paquette said a friend or family member can usually sit with the survivor. Otherwise, the nurse examiner will take on that supportive role. 

Paquette said 80 sexual assault nurse examiners is a good number for a province like New Brunswick, though she'd always love to see more health-care workers receive the training. 

Registered nurses with at least two years of experience can receive the training at no cost, though Paquette said the program asks them to commit to working for at least another two years in New Brunswick in exchange.

More survivors seeking counselling 

Lorraine Whalley, Sexual Violence New Brunswick's executive director, echoed Paquette: even during the pandemic, sexual assault evidence collection and trained examiners are still available.

"Even with the situation as it is, sexual violence and intimate-partner violence are triaged very high in emergency rooms," she said.

While the organization's volunteers can't meet or accompany survivors to emergency rooms now, Whalley said the process will, hopefully, resume once it's safe.

In the meantime, more survivors are seeking individual counselling through her organization.

Formerly known as the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre, Sexual Violence New Brunswick stopped adding names to its wait list for individual counselling in December. 

The list is beyond its capacity, Whalley said, though she wasn't able to share how many are waiting.

"It's long enough that it's too long to keep adding people to that list without knowing a specific date or a specific timeframe that we could get them in for counselling," she said.

The organization has two part-time counsellors and an advocate who connects survivors to resources, whether they need mental health services, legal services, or help navigating the criminal justice system. 

The counselling services are free. The organization receives some funding through United Way, fundraising and donations, and funding for certain projects, but it doesn't receive any long-term, core funding from the provincial government.

The Sexual Violence New Brunswick support line is open every day from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and can be reached at 506-454-0437. The sexual assault nurse examiner program co-ordinator can be reached at 506-869-2996. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raechel Huizinga

Writer and social media editor

Raechel Huizinga is a CBC writer and acting social media editor based in Moncton, N.B You can reach her at raechel.huizinga@cbc.ca.

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