January 30, 2017 – Our hearts break for the family of Kassidi Coyle, who died by suicide four months after a man was charged with sexually assaulting her. Since her death, her mother Judi Coyle has been advocating for more resources to help sexual assault survivors, noting that Kassidi was put on a waiting list for counselling at her local rape crisis centre and took her life two weeks before her first appointment.
Waiting lists for counselling are a continuing problem for sexual assault support centres across Ontario, says Lenore Lukasik-Foss, the chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.
At the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape, counsellor and activist Deb Singh said they have one of the shorter waiting lists for free, continuing counselling at five months. “We need more counsellors and we need more funding to pay those counsellors who have a critical understanding of sexual violence, of intimate partner violence,” Singh said. “There are people out there who want to do these jobs . . . and we are not wanting for the amount survivors out there. We know the rates at which women in Canada are experiencing sexual violence.”
Kassidi was scheduled to have an appointment at Athena’s Sexual Assault Counselling and Advocacy Centre in Barrie, according to her mother.
Kathy Willis, the executive director of Huronia Transition Homes, which includes Athena’s, said waitlist times fluctuate between one and three months, although it is possible to get crisis appointments and for cases to be fast-tracked. Willis said she could not comment on what happened in Kassidi’s case due to privacy concerns, but says her death is a tragedy that shows the terrible impact sexual violence can have.
“We try a number of different strategies internally for waitlists, but we could absolutely use probably two more full-time counselling positions,” she said. But, she said, the organization is doing its best with the resources they have. “(It) doesn’t mean survivors shouldn’t be contacting sexual assault centres. We would never leave a woman who is struggling with the impacts of sexual assault by herself, without access to service,” she said.
Lukasik-Foss points to an increase of 50 per cent in crisis line calls last year to the Hamilton-based centre where she is the director. “We know the need for support but we are not able to keep up with demand in many of the centres. That is just the reality,” she said. “We are seeing more people reaching out as there is more public education . . . but we need to be able to support them as well.” In particular, she said, there is a need for more long-term therapy options.
Lukasik-Foss said sexual assault support centres provide a number of different resources beyond one-on-one counselling; most offer group sessions, drop-in groups, art-based therapy programs and one-off workshops. They can assist with criminal injury compensation claims and accompany sexual assault victims to hospitals to process a rape kit or to the police to make a report.
24-hour crisis lines remain crucial (with interpretation available), but work is being done to provide text or live chat, she said. She added that crisis lines are also open to parents, friends and partners of sexual assault survivors.
But there are still many barriers to sexual assault survivors accessing services, particularly if they live in a rural community, she said. More also needs to be done to support people going through the criminal court process, beyond the pilot program offering four hours of free legal advice, she says.
“We want to be able to meet the needs of all survivors, young and old, newcomers, indigenous, francophone, LGBT, sex workers,” Lukasik-Foss said
But it can’t just be sexual assault centres that do the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting victims of sexual violence, said Farrah Khan, the sexual violence education and support coordinator at Ryerson University. “How can we have trauma and sexual violence informed mental health services?” she said. “What emergency supports are available?” It’s important to connect people with supports and resources while they are waiting for specialized services, she added, whether it is through sexual assault centres, hospitals, community-based organizations or online. “This is such an epidemic that everyone needs to be trained on this.”
We agree. It is critical that survivors be able to access potentially life-saving supports such as counselling at the time when they need them. How, in a province where there is an Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, are women are still forced to wait months and months for counselling? It is time for the province to step up and fund additional full time counselling positions at all of the sexual assault and rape crisis centres across Ontario to actually ensure more choices and better outcomes for survivors through the justice system.