Overhaul coming for sexual violence counselling in Nova Scotia

·4 min read
The PC government is looking to establish a new provincewide model for delivering therapy to survivors of sexual assault. (Shutterstock / panitanphoto - image credit)
The PC government is looking to establish a new provincewide model for delivering therapy to survivors of sexual assault. (Shutterstock / panitanphoto - image credit)

Counselling services for survivors of sexual violence are slated for an overhaul in Nova Scotia, something current providers say gives them some optimism, although key details of the revamp remain to be seen.

The first sign of change came in the spring budget when the provincial Liberals allocated an extra $2.3 million for the therapeutic services, an amount several times greater than the $755,000 handed out in the previous budget year.

Last month, the new Progressive Conservative government posted a public notice that it was looking to establish a new model for the delivery of sexual violence trauma therapy, which would include more than doubling the number of funded full-time therapists from 11 to 24.

Publicly funded sexual violence trauma therapy is currently delivered at seven separate clinics, women's centres and sexual assault centres across the province. Among them is the Tri-County Women's Centre in Yarmouth, N.S.

'A little puzzled'

"My initial thought was, finally we're finding out what's going to happen with the funding that was announced in March," said Trish McCourt, the centre's executive director.

"And then when I started to dig in deeper to the notice ... I was a little puzzled."

The notice describes a "provincial community network model" to be administered by "a single qualified business, corporation or organization." A more detailed request for proposals is expected soon.

Under the new model, counselling services are supposed to be available for any survivor of sexual violence over the age of 15, with equitable access across every geographic region.

The organizations currently delivering the service could be part of the new model, but it isn't a sure thing. That's where McCourt said she's left puzzled. She said she was assured in the spring that Tri-County Women's Centre would benefit from the funding boost.

"It's not clear to me right now if that even will be the case. We've got a trauma therapist that is employed by us, but we don't know if she'll even be employed by our own organization once all of this process is complete."

McCourt said she thinks it's important for organizations that have been involved in delivering this type of service in communities for decades to maintain a central role.

"The women that we see, they've experienced so much trauma and definitely feel more comfortable coming into a community organization, one that they know is not judgmental and that they will have absolute confidentiality when they come in for services."

McCourt said a group of women's centres is considering making a bid to co-ordinate the new model.

Increased access a top priority for minister

Brian Comer, minister in charge of the office of mental health and addictions, said feedback from community organizations that deliver the counselling services was a major part of the process that led to the plan for an overhaul.

Whether and how they'll be involved in the new model, he wouldn't say.

"There's no doubt they have significant expertise … which is critical," Comer said in a recent interview.

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

The province's main priorities, Comer said, are increasing access and ensuring quality service.

Demand for this type of counselling has been high in recent years; the single largest provider in the province — Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax — temporarily stopped taking new clients in 2019 when its wait-list became too long. Avalon is now taking some referrals from partner organizations and people in immediate need, but its counselling services are continuously at capacity.

Jamie Matthews, executive director of the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre, said the wait-list at his organization remains "manageable," but he's still eager for an expansion. Since the start of the pandemic, he said calls to his centre have quadrupled.

Colchester Sexual Assault Centre has four therapists on its roster that serve all of Colchester County, as well as parts of Cumberland and Hants counties.

Matthews said it can be overwhelming to try to cover such a large territory, and he wants to see more therapists on the ground in rural communities.

Like McCourt, Matthews said he was glad to hear the province is working toward change.

No more 'living paycheque to paycheque'

One major win, he said, is that the service will no longer be subject to bridge funding — an arrangement that Matthews described as "living paycheque to paycheque."

The new model will have more consistent funding, which Matthews said could allow providers to plan with a longer outlook and ensure stability for staff and clients.

But Matthews is also waiting for clarity on how his organization might be involved on the other side.

"We do hope that whoever gets ... to manage the new model will take into account that this isn't just about counselling services, that people need wraparound services," Matthews said.

"Organizations like ours, they provide the education, the prevention, the outreach, the networking, the referral partnerships, the advocacy, all of that kind of secondary stuff that people need in order to heal along their journey."

Matthews said Colchester Sexual Assault Centre will consider making a bid once it sees the request for proposals.

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