Improving care for sexual assault survivors

Dianne Crowell, co-coordinator of Sexual Assault Services of Lunenburg and Queens Counties addresses the audience

In 1989 when Mary* found the courage to speak to someone about being sexually assaulted, it was a hotline where someone asked for her name and number, and she had to wait 24 hours for them to return her call.

“It was scary enough to reach out, but not to really reach anyone made me hang up. It was not until three months later that I found the courage to finally leave my name. I called three times over the three months in hoping of actually just talking to someone,” she said.

Mary was one of several sexual assault survivors who recently provided input to a collaborative partnership on Nova Scotia’s South Shore to improve care, services and support for survivors of sexual assault.

“The voices of those who have survived sexual violence were the guiding force in our work,” said Dianne Crowell, co-coordinator of Sexual Assault Services of Lunenburg and Queens Counties (SASLQ), a joint project of Second Story Women’s Centre and Harbour House. SASLQ brings together partners in health, police, emergency response, education and victim services, to offer specialized survivor-centred sexual assault services to the community.

“Sadly, many sexual assaults go unreported,” said Crowell. “By improving communication and co-ordination between service providers and first responders, we’re removing some of the barriers that prevent survivors from seeking care and support. Together, we’re making every door the right door.”

Balancing care and support while allowing an assault survivor the time to process and make decisions about pursuing legal action was part of the driving force to offer forensic exams at local hospitals, create immediate access to counselling and other community-based supports, and provide the option to store evidence for up to five years.

“Whether or not they decide to complete a sexual assault exam kit and get that evidence collected, they will still be able to talk to someone and learn more about what their options are - medically, legally and emotionally,” said SASQL co-coordinator Stacey Godsoe.

Some of the changes as a result of this partnership include:

  • Specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) at South Shore Regional, Queens General and Fishermen’s Memorial Hospital Emergency Departments offer sensitive, specialized care for victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and are trained to do medical exams and gather forensic evidence.
  • Staff of Mental Health and Addictions are available 24/7 to provide support during and after the exam, which can help prevent the longer term effects of trauma. They also make arrangements for ongoing support, trauma-informed counselling, accompaniment, and referrals to other community-based agencies.
  • Survivors do not have to file a police report to have a medical exam. Forensic evidence from the exam can be stored safely and anonymously for five years through a creative and flexible partnership between Nova Scotia Health Authority, Bridgewater Police Service, and the Queens and Lunenburg Detachments of the RCMP.
  • First responders and staff in partner agencies have completed trauma-informed training that will allow them to better interact with, care for and support survivors.
  • Harbour House offers shelter, transportation and 24/7 support line, and along with Second Story Women’s Centre, immediate and long term support.
  • Together all the partners provide the full array of supports, safety, education, counseling, psychotherapy and medical care.

Mary, who attended the July 20 launch of SASLQ, is encouraged by this step forward. “This is a scary process. It is incredible to know that now, each and every point of contact within the community will have a protocol to support victims. This service and collection of professionals will support victims and show them there are people who care, who want to help, and who can allow them to build their courage over time to take the next steps necessary in reporting an assault.”

*Not her real name

The partners in this collaborative initiative include Nova Scotia Health Authority, Second Story Women's Centre, Harbour House, Bridgewater Police, RCMP in Lunenburg and Queens Counties, Victim Services and Sexual Health Centre Lunenburg County with input from input from Emergency Health Services, Schools Plus and the Department of Community Services.