System failure is an insult to assault victims
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Of all the woeful and disturbing stories to come out of Manitoba’s overwhelmed health-care system in the past few years, this surely ranks as one of the most chilling:
Sexual-assault victims being sent home from hospital without being properly assessed and treated; instead, being told not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom, in order to preserve evidence of the assault for which they sought hospital intervention.
This appalling state of affairs arises from a shortage at Health Sciences Centre of nurses trained in gathering criminal evidence — a shortage Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced last April (during sexual assault awareness month) the provincial government intended to address by committing $642,000 annually to build on an existing sexual assault nurse examiner program at HSC.
The promised effort was to include the hiring of a provincial co-ordinator and the establishment of satellite sites in Brandon, The Pas and Thompson. An expanded forensic nursing program was to be up and running early in 2023.
Nine months later, front-line nurses who met with Ms. Gordon in November say there is still no co-ordinator, and no additional forensic nurses have been added.
And sexual-assault victims are being sent home with instructions not to clean themselves after using the lavatory.
Not surprisingly, the health minister was not made available for comment on Wednesday. Instead, 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 to these resources,” was the official comment.
For assault victims, meanwhile, taking a bath or shower is contraindicated.
“Outrageous… and completely unacceptable” is how Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson described the current situation. That hardly encapsulates the rage with which this heartbreaking systemic failure should be viewed.
Ms. Jackson explained HSC currently has just one full-time nurse assigned to conduct sexual-assault examinations, with about a dozen who work in other nursing roles available on an on-call basis to conduct examinations during their off hours. If none of them is available when an examination is required, the victim is sent away and told to return later.
Many, of course, do not return. Justice, like timely care, is denied.
That a shortage of trained staff to deal with this specific and ever-critical process has been allowed to persist boggles the mind. It’s beyond a disservice to victims of assault who seek crucial support at a moment of life-altering trauma; it’s an insult to those victims, and to common decency.
Then again, this atrocious failure, yet another manifestation of the chronic nursing shortage that plagues the health sector, prompts a more expansive question the current government should have been required to answer daily since embarking, pre-pandemic, on an ambitious health-care transformation burdened by demands for system-wide austerity:
What did they think was going to happen?
What did they imagine would be the result of a reorganization that upended the lives of nurses, conducted without consultation with those same nurses?
It’s beyond a disservice to victims of assault who seek crucial support at a moment of life-altering trauma; it’s an insult to those victims, and to common decency.
What did they think might be the result of denying those nurses a fairly negotiated collective agreement while their professional lives were in turmoil, and later when the pandemic turned turmoil into chaos and panic?
Did they really think nurses’ capacity for overwork, stress and insult was unlimited? Did they not foresee a breaking point at which many nurses would simply walk away? Was it simply beyond their imagining that all of these stresses would lead to the health system’s collapse?
Seriously, what did they think would happen?
It’s an interesting question. Perhaps the health minister might make herself available to answer it.