Canada

Sexual assault centres struggle with limited funding as more women come forward to say #MeToo

When a survivor has the courage to come forward but they're not able to access support, it's a contradictory message for society to send, says advocate

Waiting lists for therapy and other support services range from weeks to many months

Judi Coyle holds a photograph of her daughter Kassidi, who was put on a months-long waiting list when she sought counselling help after being sexually assaulted. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The difference between Kassidi Coyle before and after she was raped was "night and day," her mother says.

The 20-year-old was at a Canada Day celebration in Barrie, Ont., in 2016, when a man she'd just met came into the room and assaulted her while she slept at a house party.

"After the rape, she was like a totally different person," says Judi Coyle, adding that her daughter had traumatic flashbacks. "You could see it wash over her face, that black cloud, and she'd go pale and go to her room and she'd stay there for hours and hours."

In the months that followed, the once happy-go-lucky young woman attempted to take her own life three times. She was referred to a local sexual assault centre, but was not able to get an appointment to start regular counselling until four months after the assault.

Kassidi Coyle died by suicide on Oct. 30, 2016, just weeks before that first counselling appointment.

Since her death, the pressures on many sexual assault centres across the country have gotten worse and the waiting lists for counselling at many centres have increased.

In Regina the waitlist in December was between 70 and 90, and many faced a wait of up to nine months for an appointment.

In Toronto, wait times for counselling are around 11 months.

The Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax stopped putting people on its waiting list when it topped 112 in April 2019.

It's happening at a time when more women are feeling empowered to come forward, in an era of more openness and decreased stigma — something often attributed to the #MeToo movement in North America.

In Canada, advocates say the movement started even earlier, with disclosures increasing after high-profile cases like the accusations made against former radio host Jian Ghomeshi, of which the courts found him not guilty in 2016.

"If we're living in a climate where that's the narrative — that it's important to speak up and tell your story — but when a survivor finally does that they're not able to access support, it's a contradictory message," says Nicole Pietsch, an advocate with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.

Nicole Pietsch is an advocate with the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and a former counsellor. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

A former counsellor herself, Pietsch adds: "It also gives survivors the impression that their stories aren't important, or that people don't believe them or care. And that is the opposite of what ought to be communicated when someone finally discloses."

  • If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available across CanadaFor an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.

Services for victims of sexual assault are not standardized across the country. In New Brunswick, for example, sexual assault centres get no permanent funding from the provincial government. 

In Ontario, the provincial Liberals had promised changes that would have raised funding to services offered through provincial sexual violence centres by 30 per cent. That money would have given each centre the resources to hire an additional full-time counsellor, says Pietsch. But when the government was defeated in 2018, the funding never came.

Instead, the provincial Progressive Conservatives offered temporary funding — a $1 million cash infusion — split between the 42 sexual assault centers in the province. There's no long-term guarantee of any funding past March 2020.

The centre where Kassidi Coyle was waiting to go for counselling, Athena Place in Barrie, has been able to use the temporary funding to manage its wait times by having a consultant design a six-week group course on trauma, led by a staff member. It is offered to survivors while they wait for one-on-one counselling.

"We still need to do more," says Haily MacDonald, director of operations at Huronia Transition Homes, which operates Athena Place.

Haily MacDonald, director of operations at Huronia Transition Homes, which operates Athena Place, says that along with better funding for support services, 'We need societal outrage about violence against women.' (Ousama Farag/CBC)

"We need to keep the conversation going — whatever barriers that were in place for Kassidi not to have service … need to be addressed," MacDonald adds.

What the centre needs is not just permanent funding and more of it, says MacDonald.

"We need societal outrage about violence against women. We need societal outrage about sexual violence and sexual abuse, because yes, #MeToo has certainly changed the conversation," she says.

Fighting for Kassidi

Kassidi Coyle's rapist was convicted in July 2018. In a rare move, he was tried and sentenced after her death.

With the weight of a trial over, her mother and sisters continue to tell her story and fight for better conditions for other victims of sexual assault.

Although the centre in Barrie has managed to reduce its waiting list, it has seen an increase in the number of calls to the crisis line. More survivors are reaching out. Some just to simply say "Me Too," even now, years after the movement started.

A petition Coyle's family started after her death, calling for more resources for sexual assault centres and stricter penalites for those found guilty of sexual assault, has about 173,000 signatures.

Judi Coyle continues to tell Kassidi’s tragic story, despite how painful it is to recount, as she pushes for improved access to support services for victims of sexual assault. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

And Judi Coyle keeps telling Kassidi's story, despite how painful it is to recount. Even though her youngest daughter's last days were filled with darkness, Judi remembers her light.

"She was such a bright shining star and she was always so happy. Always singing. Badly. Loudly."

Judi says she believes that her daughter would have benefited from the therapy appointments if she'd received them in time.

"She'd always see the bright side in everything, so I know that the possibility of turning her around would probably be easier because she already was a happy kid."


Numbers to reach out to:


Watch The National's feature on sexual assault centres struggling to keep up with  the growing demand for services:

While the #MeToo movement inspired sexual violence survivors to come forward, accessing supports afterwards continues to be difficult. Kassidi Coyle’s mother talks about losing her daughter while she waited for mental health counselling after an assault. 6:32

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