HSC sends sex-assault survivors home, told not to clean themselves before returning Province moving too slowly to address shortage of nurses trained in evidence-gathering, union charges
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A critical shortage of nurses trained in gathering criminal evidence is forcing staff at Health Sciences Centre to send some already-traumatized sex-assault victims home, with instructions not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom.
And the Manitoba Nurses Union is pointing the finger at the provincial government, which has dragged its feet after making a promise last April to expand program capacity, both in the city and outside the Perimeter.
“This is outrageous… and completely unacceptable,” MNU president Darlene Jackson told a news conference Wednesday.
“When are we going to see nurses trained and these survivors supported?”
In an April 7 announcement marking sexual assault awareness month, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said Manitoba would spend $642,000 annually to build on an existing sexual assault nurse examiner program at HSC. The province would hire a provincial co-ordinator, five full-time nurses and establish satellite sites in Brandon, The Pas and Thompson, with the expanded forensic nursing program up and running early this year.
The nurses who work on the front lines met with Gordon in November but there’s still no co-ordinator or additional forensic nurses, Jackson said.
The health minister didn’t respond to a Free Press request for comment Wednesday. However, a Shared Health spokesperson said work is underway to expand the program and recruit a co-ordinator.
“We are committed to enhancing the reliability, availability and access of these resources for individuals living across Manitoba,” the spokesperson said, adding two nurses from Thompson have received some in-person training in Winnipeg.
“Extremely vulnerable patients are being told to go home and wait, to do their best to preserve the evidence.”–MNU president Darlene Jackson
Five new forensic nursing hires are expected to begin specialized training next month. The spokesperson did not indicate when a program co-ordinator would be hired or when the expanded program would be up and running.
Demand is on the rise; in the 2017-18 fiscal year, 514 sexual assault survivors were treated in the program. In 2021-22, the number increased to 688.
“The program is being held together by a small group of extremely dedicated nurses,” Jackson said.
She said it has just one full-time nurse at HSC and just over a dozen others who work in other nursing roles and are on call to conduct sexual assault examinations in their off hours. If no one with the specialized forensic training is available, the sexual assault victim is told to return later.
“Imagine being told not to shower, not to change your child’s diaper or to wipe after going to the washroom in an effort to preserve evidence that may affect the outcome of a court case.”–MNU president Darlene Jackson
“Extremely vulnerable patients are being told to go home and wait, to do their best to preserve the evidence,” Jackson said, calling it demoralizing for someone who has endured an attack and is seeking help.
“Imagine being told not to shower, not to change your child’s diaper or to wipe after going to the washroom in an effort to preserve evidence that may affect the outcome of a court case.”
The situation affects nurses, who are suffering from burnout, she said.
“They’re dedicated to the program and to these survivors and are absolutely distraught when they are unable to provide these services,” she said.
“Some of them do not return to have those exams done, which is very upsetting to those nurses because they know that a survivor is not getting justice.”
Uzoma Asagwara, a nurse and the NDP’s health critic, said that should never happen.
“Not only does it make a traumatic experience harder for survivors, it makes it easier for the assaulter to get away with the crime,” Asagwara said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew also attended the event.
“It seems to me that the least that a government could do — a public health-care system could do — would be to help ensure that those folks experiencing hardship aren’t further traumatized,” he said. “We commit to ensure these resources are there for people in this province when they need them.”
Shared Health said it recognizes the valuable role of the sexual assault nurse examiner program.
“This program offers vital support for individuals seeking care following an incident of sexual assault or intimate partner violence and we are committed to improving and expanding these services for all Manitobans.”
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.