Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Women’s Support Network (WSN) of York Region is experiencing increasing demand for its services, yet it is in dire need of funding. So it’s turning to the municipalities for help.
“The reality is that we are an essential service, and we need a level of funding to help sustain operations,” said Dr. Jackie Benn-John, executive director of WSN of York Region, adding that the pandemic exacerbated this need.
Established in 1992, the non-profit charitable organization offers free, non-judgmental, and confidential support to anyone who has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.
A recent StatsCanada report found that sexual assault rates in 2021 were at the highest level since 1996.
Last year, WSN received a staggering 3726 calls through its 24-hour crisis line and chat support services, a 68 per cent increase from the prior year. This is just one of several statistics proving that sexual violence is a growing problem.
The majority of WSN’s funding comes from the province.
According to Benn-John, a funding increase for sexual assault agencies was announced in 2018 but never happened. Then in 2021, there was an allocation of about $2.1 million over three years to address gender-based violence, but the funding structure was project-based and not earmarked to address the service and operational demands of existing sexual assault centres.
To obtain project-based funding, the centre must propose an initiative aimed at specific issues; however, survivors need care and support that’s versatile and encompasses a broad range of needs. Project-based funding is also finite – a fixed amount of money for a fixed period, and it is not renewable.
Furthermore, when staffing is already scarce, valuable time and effort are required to complete detailed grant applications.
The centre has also been impacted by fewer fundraising opportunities due to pandemic restrictions and less donation revenue in general.
Sustainable funding, explained Benn-John, is essential to meet the complex and growing needs of survivors and the operational costs related to ensuring skilled and competent staff and volunteers are ready and able to meet the vast needs of those seeking support.
Staff burnout in the sector is typical, and turnover is high. Without the ability to pay competitive wages, WSN currently has more contract staff than full-time staff, resulting in less stability and consistency of services.
“We’re really fortunate to have such dedicated staff right now. A lot of it is from their hearts, as it should be. I don’t think you can do this work without that kind of personal investment. But they need to eat. We want to pay them more for the work that they do,” said Ogho Ikhalo, corporate secretary for the WSN of York Region Board of Directors.
Currently, WSN has just one centre that services all nine municipalities of York Region. Satellite locations would significantly improve the centre’s accessibility and ability to provide robust services, Ikhalo added.
The path to healing for survivors of sexual violence is rarely straightforward, and very often, a support seeker comes to the centre with more than one presenting issue.
“There sometimes is a very fixed notion of what healing, or success, or what this journey looks like,” says Shannon Seeraj, program manager for WSN of York Region.
The centre supports survivors of sex trafficking and recent and historical sexual violence experiences that may have occurred many weeks, months, or years before an individual seeks support. In some cases, explained Seeraj, an individual may have blocked out some aspects of their life that emerge through the individual’s work with the centre.
Staff must also be adaptable to meet the needs of adult survivors, which are different than those of youth survivors.
Despite the complexity of survivor needs, Benn-John explains that funding levels are often only enough to address the centre’s immediate crisis response. A 24-hour crisis line, online chat support, and virtual drop-in sessions help to address initial needs, but longer-term supports are equally vital.
A lack of funding creates wait times at the centre for longer-term services. Private practice remains the only option when help is urgently needed, yet most survivors don’t have the money to pay for costly private care.
Education is another critical focus of the centre that requires funding support. By offering resources and teaching individuals how to be safe, WSN aims to be proactive. Without adequate funding, the centre is in a reactive mode, said Benn-John.
Recognizing that WSN isn’t always the first point of contact for survivors seeking support, the organization provides training to community partners such as York Region Paramedic Services, as well as local and provincial government agencies. The goal is to prepare them to respond compassionately to sexual violence disclosures and to provide a safe space for victims.
“We want to prevent clients from having a negative service experience to reduce the risk of being revictimized, going elsewhere which delays access to much-needed support, or going nowhere at all,” explained Benn-John.
The centre is currently providing human trafficking educational sessions to parents and caregivers. Often, loved ones contact WSN to find out how to support a victim who is not yet ready to seek help. Teaching family members is a valuable opportunity for the centre to assist, even indirectly.
WSN is counting on help from York Region’s municipal governments to endorse their resolution calling on the Government of Ontario to provide increased and sustainable funding for WSN and other community-based sexual assault centres.
“It’s really important that our municipal councillors support our resolution. Municipal councillors play a significant role in sharing local priorities at the provincial level. They can do that. They can recognize regional issues and share them provincially because they have access. We don’t,” explained Benn-John.
By informing the local councillors of their urgent funding needs, WSN is counting on them to be their voice during pre-budget consultations with the province.
To date, Aurora and Whitchurch-Stouffville councils have endorsed the resolution.
WSN hopes to receive endorsement from Markham and the other York Region municipalities in the coming weeks.
Visit womenssupportnetwork.ca for information.
Photo: Women’s Support Network of York Region is working to combat sexual violence through survivor support and increasing awareness (Photo supplied by WSN of York Region.)