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Government program to assist survivors of sexual assault in rural Alberta

Pilot project will train more sexual assault nurse examiners
The Alberta government recently announced a pilot project to train nurses in rural hospitals to perform sexual assault evidence kit examinations. (File photo)

“It’s time to work together to close the gap and make sure all sexual assault survivors in Alberta have access to evidence collection, regardless of where the assault occurs,” said Associate Minister of Status of Women Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk in a press conference on Oct. 2. During the conference, Armstrong-Homeniuk announced a pilot project to train nurses in rural hospitals to perform sexual assault evidence kit examinations.

Currently, victims of sexual assault who reside in rural communities in Alberta may have to travel a long way to find a nurse that’s qualified to collect evidence. These trained nurses are called sexual assault nurse examiners. Under the government’s newly proposed program, Armstrong-Homeniuk said there would eventually be two nurses in every rural hospital who are qualified to handle these cases. That would equal an additional 190 trained nurses. The pilot project will start with select rural hospitals and expand from there.

The government is investing $1 million in the program, and this includes grants for healthcare providers to access the training free of charge.

“Every person who has been sexually assaulted deserves access to care and the collection of forensic evidence, no matter where they live,” stated a press release after the announcement. “Increased access to evidence collection empowers sexual assault survivors with the option to report crimes committed against them.”

“At six per cent, sexual violence has the lowest police reporting rate of any crime in Canada,” said Deb Tomlinson, chief executive officer for the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS). “So, when a survivor chooses to reach out for help, it is imperative the care they receive is specialized and trauma informed. Training rural healthcare providers will increase their comfort and skill to perform these procedures, preventing survivors from having to travel out of their home communities to get care.”

The government press release stated that the conviction rate for sexual assault crimes is just 0.3 per cent. However, according to a 2020 AASAS prevalence study, 43 per cent of the 1,500 Albertans surveyed indicated they had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. That would equate to 1.8 million people, almost one in two Albertans.

“Where there is easier access to evidence collection, this allows supports to come into place,” said Armstrong-Homeniuk, adding that this will result in an increase in reporting.

“Healthcare providers can be the first point of contact after a sexual assault and their increased knowledge and skill will be crucial in a survivor’s healing journey,” said Lisa Watson, executive director of Odyssey House in Grande Prairie, where the announcement was made. “By increasing the number of rural health professionals trained in supporting sexual assault survivors, we create options and access for our rural and remote residents.”

In 2019, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta RCMP announced the Third Option program, where forensic evidence is collected within seven days of the sexual assault and then it can be stored confidentially for one year, which gives survivors time to decide if they are willing to report the assault to the police. Prior to this program implementation, victims of sexual assault could receive medical care, but not involve the police, or have a forensic kit collected by a sexual assault nurse examiner who would be required to immediately involve the police.