Be Heard. Find Help. Begin To Heal: Inside the new Chinook Sexual Assault Centre

I Believe You. Three simple words that bear great impact for a sexual assault survivor. Yet our society still struggles with this, despite the shocking statistics – one in three women or girls and one in six men or boys will face some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.

We all know someone, maybe it’s a family member, a friend, a colleague, who has experienced this trauma. Perhaps it is yourself. This ugly crime occurs in every city, every town, everywhere.

This month, the Chinook Sexual Assault Centre (CSAC) will open its doors in downtown Lethbridge. It will be a one-stop location providing system navigation, education and support, plus counselling for any survivor of sexual assault regardless of age or gender identity. This is big news for the city, as it’s the first Centre of its kind in Lethbridge. While there were services available before, it’s been a disbursed model with different agencies doing different pieces.

“We know people in Lethbridge are looking for, and people in other communities look for, an identifiable resource,” says Kristine Cassie, CEO. “Although there’s been wonderful work done through agencies like the YWCA and Lethbridge Family Services, and lots of collaboration with Victim/Witness Services and things, the general population is looking for something that says ‘Sexual Assault Centre,’ so it’s one source to come to where you can get the support you need at the time that you need it. We want to be able to provide what’s good for the community and that includes our rural community as well.”

Local agencies would often be asked “Where do I go?” explains Bill Kaye, Board chair of the CSAC. “So, by having a physical location rather than you go here for this and there for that, you can go to one spot and get served.”

Last year, Bill won an Inspiration Award for Leadership in Prevention of Sexual Violence from the provincial government for his tireless advocacy and lobbying to establish the CSAC. He started working with the Alberta Association of Sexual Assault Services a few years ago and saw what other cities had and Lethbridge was missing. He put together a proposal and waited for an answer.

“It took a couple years but finally with the increase of funding (in 2018) by the government, the $8.1 million to sexual assault services, a portion of that was earmarked for the Centre here,” says Bill.

“We serve everybody – men, women, children, LGBTQ2 – our doors are open to anybody that needs our help.”

The CSAC will operate like many others across the province such as Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse and the Sexual Assault Centre Edmonton. There will be clinical counselling on site for those who want or need it, as well as crisis support in-person or over the phone. They will also provide system navigation and support. If someone chooses to file a police report and proceed with court, they will have an advocate who can attend with them, provide valuable support and inform them of the next steps. For those who need assistance finding other services such as counselling or dealing with children’s services, the CSAC is there to help make those connections too.

“It’s all about reclaiming your own power as you’re moving through this process,” says Kristine. “There’s lots to digest and to think about. And sometimes people just need to know they’re okay. That they survived, this is okay right now. They may come back in a couple weeks and say this is what I need right now. It’s really following their lead as to what they might want and knowing they’re not broken, that they can move forward and thrive. And they’re not alone and we believe in them.”

The CSAC will also provide public education but are moving away from the focus on awareness.

“Awareness is really good but it’s really a blip on the radar. It’s really about getting people onside to know how to respond as a first responder to sexual assault.”

As a trusted and known advocate for sexual assault survivors, Kristine explains that she has had people come up to her in public places to disclose what has happened to them. No matter where you are, you must be prepared to be able to take that kind of disclosure and give support, she explains. “Sometimes it’s that fleeting moment of trust someone has with you. So how do you mobilize the general public to do that?”

Over the past two years, sexual violence and misconduct have been at the forefront of public discussion. Several high-profile cases involving prominent celebrities and officials received widespread attention. Millions of sexual assault survivors felt mobilized to share their accounts of harassment and abuse, with social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp going viral. It became a powerful demonstration of the magnitude of those affected by sexual violence, and the need to support them and encourage them to share their stories.

“We know that less than 10 per cent ever report and the only one that ever collects statistics on that is police,” says Bill, who spent 35 years with the police before working with the Domestic Violence Action Team.

In November 2018, Statistics Canada published a report regarding the #MeToo campaign and the impact it had on police-reported sexual assaults. In the report, it shows that the number of sexual assaults reported to police in 2017 was higher than it’s been since 1998. There was a 29 per cent spike in October 2017, when the #MeToo campaign was at its height.

“We know that crisis lines were saying they had over 400 per cent increase (in the United States) in crisis calls because of #MeToo and even during the Kavanaugh hearings,” says Kristine. “We’re really seeing a rise in people wanting to come forward to tell their story and to be heard. And people have had to turn to social media because at least then they’ve had a voice.”

Another initiative the CSAC is working on now is assisting with training professionals, such as police and first responders, about dealing with victims of trauma, says Bill. “We’re actually involved in reviewing police files on a Philadelphia Model where we go into the files after the fact and make recommendations on how they could do things better.”

Bill began this process a year ago and, in November, received an invitation to do more with the Lethbridge Police Service. “That’s the type of stuff a sexual assault centre can influence in the community about providing better services,” he says.

Having a police service that’s open to having their files looked at critically is a big step in the right direction, says Kristine. “That’s probably the biggest evolution that’s happened in the field. Even in the last five years, that has really grown. Knowing that trauma affects people differently, knowing that their memory will become spotty… you might not get the full picture of what happened. But two weeks later when you interview again, you may get more information.”

It’s also about learning to deal with our own personal bias, she says. “We’ve all made comments or placed judgement on people for how they dressed, for how impaired they may have been, and all the rest of it. But all these judgements have led to really poor decisions made by authorities, be it counsellors, police or the Crown.”

All services at the CSAC are confidential. The team is currently working on programming and policies, and in the future, the non-profit will be looking for donations of comfort items for survivors, whether it be clothing or a warm blanket. While there is much excitement about the doors opening, the team knows it’s only the beginning.

“It’s exciting. It’s good,” says Bill. “It’s just starting though. Everyone says, ‘that’s amazing’ but we’ve got lots of work to do.”
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