Why rape crisis centres need funding now more than ever

OPINION: Demand for their services is growing — and so are wait times. If #MeToo is going to make a real difference, writes Lauren McKeon, the province must make rape crisis centres a priority
By Lauren McKeon - Published on February 5, 2019
Caroline Mulroney
Representatives from Ontario’s rape crisis centres will meet with Attorney General Caroline Mulroney on Wednesday to discuss a potential funding increase. (Mark Blinch/CP)

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On Wednesday, representatives from Ontario’s rape crisis centres will meet with Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to discuss a budget increase that the previous provincial government had promised — one that has not yet materialized under the Progressive Conservatives. In early 2018, as part of their gender-based-violence strategy, “It’s Never Okay,” the Liberals pledged to boost funding for Ontario’s nearly 40 rape crisis centres by 33 per cent over three years. For many centres, that would have meant more counsellors and, in turn, shorter wait times, which have been increasing as demand for rape crisis services has skyrocketed in recent years.                                                                                               

Centres say that demand has been going up since before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements: the uptick began in 2014, when there was a national conversation about the Jian Ghomeshi case. In 2016, for instance, centres in Ontario responded to 50,000 crisis-line calls, up from 30,000 in 2009. And since #MeToo forced the topic of sexual assault into the spotlight — allowing more women to feel as if they could come forward and be heard — the number of calls has increased further. One Toronto clinic, for example, in 2017 reported an 83 per cent bump over the previous year in requests for counselling.

Police services right across the country have also seen a drastic rise in sexual-assault reports. Statistics Canada found that more sexual assaults had been reported to police in 2017 than in any other year since 1998. The greatest increase in reporting occurred among youths aged 12 to 17. In fact, in the three months following the start of #MeToo, reports of sexual assaults against people under 18 shot up nearly 40 per cent over the three months preceding. (In the vast majority of these cases, the accused was male.)

It’s worth noting that women generally report sexual assaults to police within a month — most often, they do so on the day of the incident. These are people who need help now. That doesn’t just mean help from police; it also means professional, dedicated support to help them get through whatever post-assault trauma they may be experiencing. Yet some rape crisis centres (including in Ontario) have not seen their staffing levels increase since the early 1990s. No wonder wait times for counselling have risen dramatically — in some cases, to as much as 18 months.

In November, the Progressive Conservatives pledged $11.5 million toward women and children’s centres and counselling services. “It is imperative that women and girls live free from violence, especially in their own homes and communities,” said Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister of children, community and social services, at the time. That’s hard to disagree with — but, as the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres noted in a press release, it’s also one hell of a confusing statement. Why support only some services that are integral to this goal? Why not support all of them?

In response to emailed queries, the attorney general’s office told TVO.org what it has told other media outlets: “Our government is committed to providing victims, their families and witnesses of violent crimes with the supports and services they need in the communities where they live,” wrote Brian Gray, the ministry spokesperson. “To ensure that investment decisions in victim services are effectively meeting the needs of those who use them, the government is reviewing all of the programs offered across the province.” He added: “We recognize that these organizations do important and valuable work in their communities, and this review will be an opportunity to align service levels with needs and better coordinate and deliver services in the most sustainable and effective way.”

He did not mention what that review would look like or how long it would take, nor did he respond to follow-up questions on those points. But the government’s review-tactic has become familiar to Queen’s Park watchers: recently, it undertook a review of Ontario’s safe-injection sites and concluded that, as a large body of research and frontline workers had already determined, the sites work. Still, the government decided to cap the number of safe-injection sites rather than approve or fund any additional facilities. Similarly, frontline workers will tell you there’s no doubt that rape crisis centres need more funding. Nor is there any doubt that the work they do is necessary, or that demand is increasing. Let’s hope that the Tories opt to do more than simply maintain the status quo. If #MeToo is going to make a real difference, then governments cannot just talk about it. They must act.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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