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Edmonton sexual assault survivors still waiting 17 months for counselling

Alberta’s new Children and Families minister will continue looking into how to cut the length of time sexual assault survivors wait for counselling, he says.

After a public brouhaha over funding last spring, the United Conservative Party government gave the province’s 15 agencies about $4.2 million dollars extra, most of which was destined to reduce wait times for trauma counselling.

However, adults in the province’s capital are still waiting about 17 months, Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), said on Monday.

“We are not moving the needle as much as we would like to have, and I’m sure as much as the government of Alberta would like to see we are,” she said.

SACE received nearly half of that extra money, and was able to hire new counsellors to see children and youth, James said. That has helped reduce wait times for younger clients to two months from six months.

Recruiting personnel to help adults has been more challenging, she said — and the demand and complexity of their situations won’t let up.

“For every 10 new clients we get into counselling, we get 10 new intakes asking for counselling,” she said.

The province has committed to shunting an additional $10 million to the sexual assault centres during the next four years. The funding for all centres last year was $13.8 million, according to the ministry.

A woman sits in a chair.
Mary Jane James is the CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. (©GIRL NAMED SHIRL Photography)

James is anxious to learn how the province will divvy up the extra money, and whether it will come with limits.

Although counselling can get survivors back to school, their jobs, and other commitments, James said age-appropriate education sessions, delivered in the province’s schools, are crucial to preventing sexual assault.

“Because everything we’ve been doing to date — we’ve just been throwing bits of project funding here, there and everywhere — is not working.”

Children and Family Services Minister Searle Turton says he thought it was “cool” that the premier moved responsibility for women’s shelters and sexual assault centres into the portfolio, which he took over in June. He thinks it will ensure more continuity in services.

Turton says he’ll be consulting with the centres to decide how best to roll out the new funding.

Seeking stability in foster care, smoother adoptions

Also in Turton’s mandate letter, which was released last week, the premier asks the minister to improve the foster care system to “reduce the number of moves and minimize disruption during a child’s time in care.”

Turton says there is a shortage of foster families, as some who have done this work for decades approach retirement. Some children are also presenting with more complex needs, he said.

He wouldn’t yet reveal his ideas for how to address this problem. As of June, there were 3,096 children in foster care, and 1,514 foster homes, says Turton’s press secretary, Chinenye Anokwuru.

“This is a key part of my mandate, and I want to be able to move sooner on this than later,” Turton said.

UCP candidate Searle Turton (centre) prepares to knock doors with campaign manager Bobbi Menard and volunteer Dylan Topal
Searle Turton, MLA for Spruce Grove-Stony Plain, is Minister of Children and Family Services. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Similarly, a passion project for Turton is to streamline the adoption process. About a decade ago, Turton and his wife adopted their son when he was six days old, he said.

He’s been calling on the government to make adoption less bureaucratic since he was first elected in 2019.

“I was being bombarded with countless stories by parents all over the province about how many of them just gave up hope, because it was too onerous, too financially burdensome,” he said.

The spring budget included some help for prospective adoptive parents, including subsidies, higher tax credits and health benefits.

Deaths of children and youth in care still rising

In a press release, the Alberta NDP criticized the mandate letter, saying it included no mention of the rising number of children and youth dying while in care or receiving child intervention services.

The ministry had received 50 reports of children and young adults who died while receiving services in 2022-23, according to a government report released last week. More than 80 per cent of the people who died were Indigenous.

The total is the highest count recorded in nine years. The report says 14 more children and young adults in care died in the first three months of 2023-24.

Turton says every death is thoroughly investigated to identify the root causes.

“It’s something that’s at the top of my mind every day when I walk into the legislature,” he said.

He must also oversee the rapid expansion of Alberta’s non-profit and private daycare system by tens of thousands of spaces, and find the early childhood educators willing to do it.

Turton says he’s in talks with people in the sector about fair compensation for workers, and speaking to post-secondary institutions about expanding training.

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