Winnipeg bus assault of disabled woman raises questions about personal care workers

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
Winnipeg Transit driver pepper sprayed during fight on bus

New details about a horrific sexual assault of a disabled woman on board a Winnipeg bus emerged this week, suggesting that the woman had a personal care worker, who was nearby during the attack but didn’t notice for 10 minutes.

The new information has placed a greater focus on Canadians who require assistance and their personal care workers – an industry often struggles from low wages, intense working conditions and frequent turnover.

According to Winnipeg police, the incident occurred on board a city bus on October 11, at about 11 a.m. An official statement says that the “19-year-old vulnerable person” reported being sexually assaulted while sitting near the back of the bus by a man who tried to take her off the vehicle. A suspect has since been arrested and charged in the incident.

On Wednesday, CBC News reported exclusive details of the attack that painted an even more concerning portrait. The new report suggested that the sexual assault went on for as long as 10 minutes before the woman’s personal care attendant noticed and intervened.

According to the report, the caregiver was sitting two rows ahead, wearing headphones.

Too little is known about the specific circumstances of the case to jump to conclusions, and advocates for disabled Canadians say there are some legitimate reasons why a personal care worker would distance themselves from their charge in such a way.

It could have been part of a training session, to help build the client’s level of comfort on public transit, or perhaps the client had simply requested some space

Shelley Fletcher, the executive director of People First of Canada, said that despite these possibilities, the details of the report raise some red flags.

“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in that story,” Fletcher told Yahoo Canada News. “We know that on the (security) tape this was going on for 10 minutes. This was going on and the staff didn’t know it. That is concerning to me.”

Fletcher says that the relationship between disabled clients and their caregivers can often be tense, with the clients relying on a relative stranger to provide some rather personal assistance.

This is part of the reason for struggles long present in Canada’s personal care industry – where employees are often underpaid for intense work, and where the turnover rate is high.

Canadians with disabilities, specifically women, face a much higher rate of assault than other demographics. Statistics presented by the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre suggest that 83 per cent of all developmentally disabled females, and 32 per cent of all males, are the victims of sexual assault.

Fletcher says that the high rate of victimization in the community is tough to handle, and those who face disabilities or other challenges may have a more difficult time reported the instances. If a disabled woman is attacked in her home, for instances, she could be forced to move out of her home.

Beyond those concerning statistics, however, there is also the matter of the relationship between those vulnerable Canadians and personal care workers. Fletcher says that the industry faces a high burnout rate - with some agencies seeing a turnover rate as high as 56 per cent every year.

While no one gets into the industry for the money, low salaries mixed with the often intense requirements of the job can scare people away.

“The turnover rate of staff in this field is very, very high,” Fletcher said. “There is a huge turnover because we don’t pay well and because the work people are asked to do is really intense. You are asking somebody to work with someone who might have a behavioural issue or might need a high level of personal care. And you are asking them to do this for $12 to $13 per hour.”

This issue isn’t unique to those working with those with developmental disabilities, but also personal care workers who deal with the elderly of those with long-term illnesses.

According to a recent Statistics Canada report, 792,000 Canadians in need of care do not receive the support they require.

The report found that, in 2012, 1.8 million Canadians in need of assistance for long-term illnesses, aging or disability were receiving the care they required. But another 792,000 were receiving either no care or not enough. The study found that lower-income families were more likely to have unmet homecare needs.

SEIU Healthcare, a union representing frontline healthcare workers in Ontario, has been campaigning for better treatment for homecare workers in Ontario for years, and their “Sweet 16” campaign recently helped secure a wage increase for personal care workers across the province. Ontario’s most recent budget includes a promise to increase base home and community care wages to $16.50 within two years – that’s an increase of $4 per hour.
But salaries, which vary but are similar in other provinces, aren’t the only problem personal care workers face. The intensely personal nature of their assignments can occasionally lead to burnout. Those working with elderly patients also face a significant increase in demand. With one in four Canadians being senior citizens by the year 2036, there will be a significant increase in demand for homecare workers.

SEIU Healthcare Sharleen Stewart says that to improve the situation, we need a better investment in those frontline workers, including better salaries but also a better network of support.

“Homecare should be declared an essential service. Those who have ever needed homecare know how important PSWs are: clients often call them their lifeline to the world,” Stewart said in a recent statement. “We must recognize how crucial PSWs are to the well-being of seniors and others who need help with the activities of daily living.”

That sentiment was echoed by Fletcher, from the People First of Canada, regarding those who work with clients with disabilities. She says better training would lead to better preparedness among those frontline workers, who would not be shocked out of the industry as quickly.

That would lead to longer and better relationships between personal care workers and their clients. And while that doesn’t promise to fix all the issues faced by the industry, it would help foster a sense of community.

“We tell people all the time that people are safe when they are part of a community,” Fletcher said. “When you are part of a community, people know you. They see you on the streets, they know where are.”