Ontario sexual assault centres urge Ford government to help meet 'explosive' demand for service
Advocates say waiting lists for help are growing, but a review of funding drags on
There's been an "explosive demand" for sexual assault support services in Ontario, but Premier Doug Ford's government is holding back funding that was promised by the previous Liberal government, rape crisis centres say.
The organizations are urging Ford to follow through on a multi-million dollar funding commitment for a gender-based violence strategy, which the previous government unveiled shortly before Ford's Progressive Conservative party swept to power last June.
Ford's government is reviewing the plans.
For eight months now, the province's 29 rape crisis centres have been waiting for cash to flow to them from the ministry of the Attorney General, but are now losing hope it will ever be delivered.
"It's mind boggling, is what it is, it's just frustrating," said Deborah Dika, executive director of Thunder Bay Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Counselling and Crisis Centre.
The frustration goes beyond dealing with the Ford government, Dika said. The Liberal government made the $14.8 million commitment on March 1, 2018, but didn't transfer the funds before the election campaign began. Centres were all due to get different amounts, over a three-year period.
"If they had just gotten the funding out the door, before the writ dropped, we wouldn't be in this mess," said Dika.
Nicole Pietsch, head of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, said the #MeToo movement has prompted more women to seek help for sexual assault and if the promised funding had come through, they would be getting the help they need. But instead, there are growing waiting lists across the province.
Waiting lists are months long for help
"It 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," said Pietsch.
Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, executive director of the sexual assault centre in Hamilton, said they have a seven month waiting list.
"We do feel the crunch and the need for another counsellor here full-time," she said. "We are just going day by day ... supporting survivors as best we can."
The Thunder Bay centre went ahead and hired another counsellor when the funding promise was made, and then had to let that person go when it didn't materialize.
The sexual assault centre in Renfrew, about 100 kilometres west of Ottawa, was also going to hire another full-time staff with the $89,000 it was due to get. Staff there cover a wide geographic area and travel to victims who don't have access to a vehicle.
JoAnne Brooks leads that agency and said the Ford government's delay on the funding decision is prompting questions about their priorities.
"The silence from the ministry, with no follow through on the promise that was made last year, is a hardship for survivors in our community for sure," she said. "What's the message to survivors? To the community? Gender-based violence just isn't that important?"
Brooks said her staff are "bursting at the seams" and she's conscious of not burning them out. It's an extra toll on them that the assault victims they are helping are feeling undervalued, she said.
"Survivors of sexual violence deserve the money that was promised," she said.
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney was not available for an interview and questions were referred to her department. Spokesperson Brian Gray wrote in an email that the government is reviewing services for victims to ensure investment decisions are "effectively meeting the needs of those who use them".
Funding review ongoing
Gray did not answer how exactly the review is being conducted, why it's taking so long, and when it might be finished.
He wrote that the government is committed to providing victims the support they need, that sexual assault centres do important work, and that the review is "an opportunity to align service levels with needs and better co-orindate and deliver services in the most sustainable and effective way."
Gray also wrote that the government "will continue to engage with organizations such as the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres."
But Pietsch, who leads the OCRCC, and staff at centres across Ontario say it's been a struggle to communicate with Mulroney's office and that it's taken many phone calls and emails asking for meetings to get updates on their review.
Pietsch and her French-language counterpart had a brief call with Mulroney and her policy advisor on Feb. 6, and little came out of it.
"We were disappointed," said Pietsch. She says they were told the review is still ongoing and were given no indication of when it will be done. "They acknowledged our work and that's about it."
The previous Liberal government asked a third-party organization to review sexual assault services in the province before it committed the funding, so Pietsch says there is a recent analysis of them and there's no need for the Ford government to do it again.
She also said the centres provide statistics to the ministry every quarter about their operations.
Government priorities questioned
"I'm not sure why it's taking so long and also frankly, I think that work has already been done," Pietsch said.
The longer the minister delays, the longer the waiting lists get, she said.
The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape currently has an "unprecedented" waiting list of about 15 months. It was counting on a $159,000 boost from the province and deb singh (who uses lower case letters to spell her name) said that would have helped her centre hire more staff.
singh was on the recent phone call with Mulroney too, and describes the conversation as "super disappointing." Nothing had changed since the last meeting in the fall, she said.
"The government now is saying that this is not a prioritized issue, by virtue of her saying nothing to us on that call," said singh.
She said Mulroney indicated some kind of plan is forthcoming, that may or may not include more funding for sexual assault centres.
"Whatever they have in the works, it better be good, because survivors are waiting," she said.