Nova Scotia

Sexual assault centres call for more help in wake of Avalon wait-list situation

The province's two sexual assault counselling centres outside of Halifax are joining the Avalon Sexual Assault centre in calling for more aid for people who have been subjected to sexual violence.

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax is temporarily not accepting new counselling cases

Therapeutic counselling services play a role in helping many survivors of sexual assault. (Steve Berry/CBC)

Two sexual assault counselling centres outside of Halifax are joining their counterpart in the city in highlighting a patchwork of services for people have faced sexual violence, and are calling for provincial help to bring specialized therapists to more locations in the province.

Last week, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax announced it was temporarily not adding new counselling cases to its wait-list as it struggles to provide services for an overwhelming number of people.

"What we have right now, it's not sufficient to meet the need across the province," said Wyanne Sandler, the executive director of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association.

Sandler said people who work in the field have long called for sexual assault services to be offered in more locations around Nova Scotia, and the closing of the Halifax wait-list is throwing the problem into the spotlight. 

"I think it really makes the case for why we need to have a full range of sexual assault services across the province," she said, noting the Sexual Assault Services Network of Nova Scotia has been asking for the creation of 18 sexual assault therapist positions to meet increased demand. 

Margaret Mauger counsels people at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre. (CBC)

As of the day Avalon's wait-list closed on April 15, 112 people were waiting for therapeutic counselling to help them cope with sexual assaults. Some had been waiting for two years. 

"That's definitely sad news," said Margaret Mauger, a trauma counselling therapist at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre in Truro. 

The province lists three sexual assault centres around the province: Avalon, Colchester and Antigonish. All three offer services that include professional counsellors, outreach and education.

There are also some other places around the province, such as women's resource centres, where people can access sexual assault counselling, however those services aren't uniformly available. 

The centres in Antigonish and Truro don't have the same wait-list problems as in Halifax, but neither do they have as many counsellors as Avalon.

Truro has three part-time counsellors, while Antigonish has two counsellors. Both centres have seen an increasing number of calls in recent years and say it is challenging to keep up.

Clients travelling long distances

Mauger said at the Colchester centre it's a maximum of two weeks between initial contact and getting a client into counselling.

"But we don't have a wait-list like Avalon Centre does, and I suspect that with the closing of their centre to new clients there's still going to be people looking for support and they will probably reach out to this centre. We'll try to accommodate that as best we can with the resources that we have."

Mauger said six of Colchester's existing clients already make the trip from the metro area for counselling sessions, and she also sees clients from as far away as Springhill, Amherst, Tatamagouche, Cape Breton and the Annapolis Valley. 

Two years worth of provincial counselling grants that totalled $2.5 million expired in March 2018. As well, the province allotted $700,000 to expand sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs to southwest Nova Scotia and Cape Breton in 2015.

The SANE program is meant to help clients immediately after a sexual assault rather than provide ongoing counselling. 

"I think along with SANE programs we also need to have those therapy programs so that people are able to do that trauma processing and that long-term healing," said Sandler. "I think that that would go a long way."

She said she has not heard any response from the province about expanding therapy services. 

"I think there are there are huge gaps across the province and I think that if we had a full range of services across the province we would see that reflected in a decreased reliance on services in the Halifax area," she said.  

Sandler said the number of clients seen at the Antigonish centre varies by season and year. At Colchester Sexual Assault Centre, staff saw 243 clients last year, and of those roughly half were youth.

Province looking at Avalon situation

In an email, health department spokesperson Andrew Preeper said counselling services for survivors of sexual assault are available through organizations like Avalon and through the provincial health authority's mental health and addictions services. 

"Given the increase in demand for these services, we are in discussions with our service providers on how access can be improved," he wrote.

"Specific to Avalon, they notified us recently of their challenges around increasing demand and we are in close contact to work with them to identify short and long-term solutions to strengthen ongoing service delivery."

Preeper said the department has asked Avalon for more details on how the province can provide support. 

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca