Ottawa

15-year study tallies toll of sexual assault in Ontario

More than 52,000 sexual assault victims visited emergency rooms and hospital clinics across Ontario over the past 15 years, according to new research from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. 

Researchers scoured hospital records from 2002-2016

Katherine Muldoon is a senior research associate at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

More than 52,000 sexual assault victims visited emergency rooms and hospital clinics across Ontario over the past 15 years, according to new research from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. 

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, combed through hospital records between 2002 and 2016. It found 90 per cent of sexual assault cases treated in Ontario hospitals involved young females, with the highest rate among those ages 15 to 19. 

"Women and girls are consistently documented as having the highest estimates of sexual and gender-based violence," the report notes.

The researchers found the highest rate of assault involving male victims occurred in children under five. 

Katherine Muldoon, senior research associate at the Ottawa Hospital, says 52,000 cases of sexual assault were treated at Ontario hospitals over 15 years. 1:07

"It's a deeply disturbing finding," said Katherine Muldoon, senior research associate at the Ottawa Hospital.

Muldoon noted the reported cases represent only a fraction of the sexual assaults that occurred during that period.

"There are thousands more who either don't come to the hospital ... or they don't want to have hospital-based care," she said.

Only about one-third of sexual assault cases result in visible physical injuries, according to Muldoon. Some of the reasons victims go to hospital include "drug-facilitated" assaults, concerns about sexually transmitted infections, HIV, or pregnancy, or to have forensic evidence gathered for police investigations.

Melissa Heimerl is executive director of Ottawa Victim Services. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Victims include men, elderly

Melissa Heimerl, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services, was involved in the study and said she suspects there are many more male victims of sexual assault than the study suggests.

"There is still a gap when it comes to men. We know that men don't typically report sexual violence, but the numbers in this particular study were exceptionally low," Heimerl said.

The study also uncovered more than 900 cases of elder sexual abuse. 

"There hasn't been a study before looking at sexual assault across the lifespan ... all the way up to elder abuse over 70 years old, amongst men and women," Muldoon said. 

Researchers at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa were able to count about 40-thousand extra cases of sexual assault that were treated in Ontario hospitals between 2002 and 2016. In this hour, a conversation with the lead author of that study. 8:47

Challenging rape culture, building a society that doesn't tolerate sexual violence and improving sex education are all areas that need work, according to Muldoon. 

"There needs to be information and education going out to children and care providers,"she said.

Heimerl agrees education is a "huge piece" of the puzzle, but said responsibility also falls to parents, neighbours and friends to educate each other.

"Make the conversation more normalized so that children do feel that they can come forward and talk about it to anybody that they need to," she said.

Geographic differences

The study also looked at geographic differences and found the highest prevalence of sexual abuse patients seeking hospital care was in northern Ontario, where there were 180 cases per 100,000 people, compared to a province-wide average of 50 to 80 cases.

There are fewer services such as sexual assault centres in the North, Muldoon said, so victims might be more inclined to seek help from a hospital or clinic. Still, she said, research has shown that northern and rural areas tend to have "very heightened levels of sexual violence." 

This study period ended just before the global "MeToo" movement went viral in October 2017. Researchers believe the next study could show different results. 

"Research has identified an increase in police reporting, internet searches and new workplace regulations on sexual assault and harrassment after #MeToo," the report notes.