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Region's sexual assault supports facing 'heart-wrenching', historic waitlist

With 263 survivors of sexual violence waiting for support, Executive Director Sara Casselman says the wait list is longer than it's been at any point in the SACWR's 33 year history
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After years of significant demands for service and challenges in funding, the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region (SASCWR) is facing the largest number of victims awaiting supports and counselling in its 33-year history. With a "perfect storm" of factors contributing to an increase in the critical need for support resources, Executive Director Sara Casselman is calling for the work conducted by those organizations to be considered an essential service, while also asking that candidates in the upcoming provincial election consider the funding of sexual assault survivor services to be a campaign promise. 

Speaking with CityNews 570, Casselman said that demand on the local community organization was significant even before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a cultural shift brought about by the public sexual assault trials of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement lead to the opening of the "floodgates" in more survivors reaching out for support than ever before. Casselman said that many community-based centres entered the pandemic already struggling to meet demand, now seeing further, substantial increases across all program areas. 

"There are many survivors (...) that were just coping, just getting along, and with the pandemic we've seen so many folks have increased wellness issues, mental health issues ... and so the combination of the fact that there's been an increase in gender-based violence with an increase in mental health needs has created the perfect storm."

Locally, Casselman said that requests for individual counselling support at the SASCWR have increased by 58% since the onset of the pandemic, with a 32% increase in volume to the services 24 hour support line and online chat support. Casselman also noted that there's been a 369% increase in survivors accessing the centre's support groups since the pandemic as well - and while the SASCWR has "beefed up" their support groups to help meet those challenges, Casselman argues that service is not able to replace needed individual counselling. 

"Six or seven years ago, if we had 40 survivors on our waiting list we would have thought that was a crisis," said Casselman. "When the numbers went over 100, we were seriously concerned and so ... to be in a position today at this point in the pandemic where there's 263 survivors on our waiting list is something I never thought would be the reality." 

"I mean, our centre has grown; we've grown during the pandemic, we've increased our supports - but the need is growing faster than we are: and so, what we really need is the resources to meet the demand. That comes from personal donations and fundraising, but also from governments." said Casselman. "We shouldn't be in the position where we're really begging everyone in the community, and every possible funder to meet the basic needs of survivors of sexual violence."

Casselman also noted a level of nervousness when discussing the current waitlist for individual counselling services, as she said there's concern that survivors may feel as though there's no support available to them. Putting that list into context, Casselman said that there is some funding allocated to prioritize certain groups - including those through partnerships with Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, as well as funding available to support racialized individuals through the United Way. Additionally, Casselman said there may be additional options for those in significant crisis, as well as supports through the centre's legal advocacy program to help those going through the court process or preparing to engage in the process of reporting to police. 

"We also have group counselling. While individual counselling has a wait, and group counselling doesn't replace individual counselling, we can get someone into a group much sooner than we can individual counselling." said Casselman. "It's still really important that folks reach out because you never know what range of service might be something that someone can use. We have our 24 hour support line ... there's lots of different things that survivors can connect with, but the wait for individual counselling is substantial."

In meeting the historic demand for those supports, Casselman said that it's time that the government recognized the work being done by community-based sexual assault support centres as an essential service, funded to ensure that those supports are available to victims when they reach out. Calling upon her own experience working with staff, Casselman said it's "heart-wrenching" for those at the centre to talk about the current waiting list, realizing that every person awaiting supports is struggling as the victim of a crime. 

With a provincial election looming, Casselman also said it's important that support for survivors of sexual violence to be considered in relation to the vote - as she said the outcome could have a significant impact on services. 

"Before the last election, the government had seen that there was a real pressure and strain on community-based sexual assault support centres because of the cultural shift we'd gone through (...) and we'd actually been promised a significant increase in funding." said Casselman. "We had our letters laying out how much that would be, we'd redone our budgets ... and then after the last provincial election, that money got clawed back. 

"I think putting it back on the radar, saying that this is a priority ... it was a priority before the pandemic, but after the pandemic is is even more-so. It's really important, I think, for survivors in the community to have the supports that they need. Going in to the election, really encouraging candidates to consider this, and to ask them if they'd be willing to support this work in the community."

According to Casselman, the SASCWR has "different pots of funding for different programs", including a dedicated anti-human trafficking program funded by the province - though the amount received for core sexual assault services is a little less that $440,000 for the centre: covering the 24-hour support line, public education efforts and the work of counsellors. Casselman said that budget hasn't been increased in "a number of years", and will need to be increased substantially to meet demand. 

"I don't always want to have this message of crisis and doom & gloom because the reality is that there are so many survivors in our community that are getting supports." said Casselman. "In my role as executive director, I see the testimonials that come in. I see a university student say, 'I would have dropped out (...) I couldn't cope - but individual counselling was the thing that shifted my whole life.' I see those things come in, and all that stuff is happening at the centre."

"With the focus on the waitlist, I don't want folks to forget that there is so many wonderful things happening at the centre on a daily basis."

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