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Reduced hours, cut services at U of A sexual assault centre harms survivors, advocates say

Students and former staff with the University of Alberta’s sexual assault centre are calling for a full resumption of operations to ensure sexual assault survivors have access to the crisis and education services they did before last November.

Former centre staff, current volunteers and the school’s student union told CBC the impact on the centre’s operations has been a steep blow to those who experience sexual assault and require immediate care. 

Before last fall, the centre offered weekday drop-in services ranging from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours depending on volunteer availability. Services were open to anyone — not just U of A students and staff. But now the centre is open just two hours a day, three days a week. 

Staff and volunteers also previously conducted educational workshops on campus about topics like consent, but that hasn’t happened since November. 

“The closing of the centre has had a severely detrimental impact on our students,” said Michael Griffiths, outgoing vice-president of student life with the U of A student union. 

In November, university president Bill Flanagan said the school replaced the director of its sexual assault centre over its endorsement of an open letter calling for a ceasefire that also questioned the validity of sexual assault claims against Hamas during its attack into Israel in October. 

Since then, the university says it’s been conducting an ongoing review of centre services, which resulted in education workshops being halted and hours for drop-in support being heavily reduced.

CBC spoke to three volunteers who said the severe impact on operations has left survivors in the lurch.

Furthermore, volunteers trained in crisis intervention say they have been unable to conduct their work. 

Volunteers said they received scant details on continuing their work or how the university would support current clients.

Over the course of a normal school year, the centre’s supports could be accessed hundreds of times. From September to November 2023 alone, volunteers said the centre had 100 instances where drop-in, text and chat supports were provided. The university did not not provide additional data on the most recent instances where supports were accessed.

On Feb. 1, the university released details in a public news release outlining an ongoing review of centre services. 

The university stated that the in-person locations of some services have changed and that “we are working towards having additional in-person drop-in service opportunities very soon.”

Drop-in hours are now Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The impacted services at the assault centre was also reported in February by the school’s student publication, The Gateway.

The university said the centre will not host community education programs such as volunteer programs, workshops, and educational awareness campaigns.

When asked by CBC about the future of services at the centre, a spokesperson said the university “is working towards a fulsome update for community members for the spring term.”

The university has been hiring for an assistant dean of community wellness and sexual violence support since Feb. 13.

The assistant dean will have a role to play in overseeing the sexual assault centre through psychological support and crisis management services for sexual and gender-based violence survivors, community well-being programs, and health promotion and educational initiatives.

Saba Kidane was one of two education program co-ordinators at the centre. She created and carried out training related to educating volunteers on how to provide specific crisis intervention support for sexual assault survivors. 

Kidane also had an ongoing caseload of clients she supported during her two-and-a-half years at the university.  

She said the nature of the work was volatile, as it meant needing the sensitivity to handle the trauma that clients carried with them. 

“I, myself, have had several clients who were at heightened risk for harm of many types, including the very real possibility of death, and even harm from their abuser that may lead to death,” Kidane said. 

While various organizations across the city offer drop-in counselling, the U of A’s sexual assault centre offered regular, timely assistance for those who specifically experienced sexual assault and wanted continued support. 

Kidane says the centre offered an important service that went beyond the university. 

“We were the first point of contact for people who were referred from other sexual assault centres who do not provide drop-in services,” Kidane said in an interview with CBC. 

“It’s just really important to note that our centre did not only cater to people on the campus community.” 

Kidane was terminated in January for insubordination, as indicated in documents she provided to CBC. The university did not release details on Kidane’s termination when asked by CBC News. 

The impact on survivors 

Mary-Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said it’s essential for the student body to have drop-in support available. 

“But in the larger general population, at a sexual assault centre, you won’t see that anywhere in Alberta because it’s very complex.”  

James said there was a working relationship between SACE and the U of A sexual assault centre as referrals of clients took place between the two centres. Adults may experience up to a year on a wait list depending on the services they seek at SACE. 

She noted that SACE would refer students who would require a specific type of trauma support to the university centre. 

James said that the impact on operations at the U of A was devastating for the community. 

“It’s just unfortunate that the victims of that situation are the students on campus who really need that support,” she said.

“The bottom line is we have a very large wait list.”   

Roxane Tiessen, executive director at Saffron Centre in Sherwood Park, Alta., said any reduction in services for people who have experienced sexual violence is concerning as her centre has also seen its wait list grow. Tiessen said the centre serves about 500 clients a year. 

“Access to timely sexual assault services plays a factor in the healing journey of clients. When they are ready to seek services and receive counselling, if there is a delay, it can exacerbate the trauma associated with what they’ve experienced.” 

Kidane said being fired from the institution and seeing the cut services has been difficult. 

“I will hold the experiences that I had with my clients every day in my heart, and I’ve cried every single day knowing that I’ve been separated from the work that I do,” Kidane said. 

“But survivors have never needed … a corporate structure to provide support. It’s always been radical.”

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