B.C. expands sexual assault survivor services with $10M emergency program

The B.C. government is dedicating $10 million to improve services for sexual assault survivors, a move advocates say could help women experiencing gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also comes amid a spike in domestic dispute calls to police departments across Greater Victoria.

“There’s no question that we are in challenging times right now and unfortunately gender-based violence, including sexual assault, is known to increase during these times,” Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth said in announcing the funding Tuesday.

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“Violence is never acceptable and it has absolutely no place in our province. We’re committed to ensuring all British Columbians have timely access to the services and supports that they need when they need them.”

The Ending Violence Association of B.C. has received the funding and, in partnership with the government, will issue three-year grants to sexual assault centres and anti-violence programs across the province.

Tracy Porteous, the association’s executive director, said while it’s too early to tell whether gender-based violence has gone up due to COVID-19, front-line support workers are worried there will be “a tsunami of demand for their help once the lockdown is lifted.”

“While people are still being asked to stay home, survivors aren’t free to reach out for help,” she said.

Porteous said things were “eerily quiet” in the first four weeks of the pandemic, with very few reports of sexualized violence.

In the next two weeks, she said, more reports of gender violence and referrals from police departments started coming in to sexual assault centres.

Porteous pointed to the situation in China, where an “onslaught of survivors” asked for help once the lockdown was lifted.

“Once we are in Phase 3 [of B.C.’s restart plan] and people are a lot more free to move about, we are bracing for a higher demand,” she said.

The new funding will allow sexual assault centres across the province, some of which are staffed by one person, to meet that demand, she said, and could help establish new services in remote areas and in Indigenous communities where they didn’t exist before.

MLA Mitzi Dean, parliamentary secretary for gender equity, said as people are forced to stay home during the pandemic and limit contact with family and friends, at-risk women could be further isolated.

“For many, staying home is not safe and now they are even more afraid of violence and abuse,” she said.

Municipal police departments across Greater Victoria have reported an increase in domestic dispute calls during the pandemic compared to the same period last year, but a decline in reported sexual assaults.

Victoria police said there were 147 domestic-dispute calls from March 15 to May 2, compared with 122 in the same time period last year. Sexual-assault calls dropped to 11 from 20.

Saanich police responded to 55 domestic assaults between March 1 and May 26, compared to 43 for the same period last year. Domestic dispute calls, where there was no assault, increased to 145 from 129. Sexual assaults were down, with 15 calls compared to 23 for the same period last year.

In Oak Bay, domestic disputes went up to eight calls between March 1 and May 11, compared to just two the year before. There were no sexual assaults, compared to three sexual assaults in the same period in 2019.

Central Saanich police responded to nine domestic disputes between March 1 and May 26, compared to three in the same period last year. All those calls were disturbances without assaults. Both periods saw two sexual assaults.

Porteous said there is a host of risk factors that must be taken into account to determine if an intimate-partner relationship is high risk. She said domestic violence is on a spectrum of behaviours that can indicate a risk of future sexual assault.

“There is a relationship between domestic violence and sexual assault, for sure,” she said. “The best predictor of future violence is past violence.”

After funding cuts in 2002, many sexual assault centres have been “cobbling together” money through bake sales and fundraising campaigns, Porteous said. This three-year funding will allow organizations to develop more sustainable programs to help survivors, she said.

A lack of funding forced the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre to suspend its crisis line after 36 years, said the centre’s executive director Elijah Zimmerman. That created an extra step for survivors, who had to call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line before being triaged and redirected to front-line workers at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre.

Zimmerman said the possibility of funding through this program would create some stability for the centre’s emergency response services. About two-thirds of the centre’s $2-million annual budget comes from grants and donations and the other third is through government funding, he said.

One of the most common services offered by sexual assault centres is accompanying victims to hospital, Porteous said.

Front-line support workers have had to adapt to working in a pandemic, Porteous said, and sexual assault centres had to obtain personal protective equipment so they could accompany people inside emergency rooms.

Porteous hopes the pandemic will offer lessons to anti-violence organizations in terms of being more mobile and using creative ways to reach out to women who are isolated.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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