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Local sex assault victim raises red flag, calls for better approach

System 'ultimately failed me in that my rape was left undocumented ... As a result, the man that raped me will not be held accountable for his crime,' laments victim
A patient awaits hospital care.

Finding the courage to speak up after being a victim of sexual assault can be difficult enough, but facing unexpected and additional barriers to getting help serves as a deterrent to victims already hesitant to come forward, local advocates say.

Sarah Jones (not her real name) says she was raped in 2023 and, after attempting to disclose the assault to a nurse at an area hospital, said she was appalled with the level of care she received during that extremely traumatic time in her life.

Not only did the nurse lack the appropriate skills and knowledge to deal with a patient who had been sexually assaulted, Jones was also disturbed with the lack of privacy she was given under the circumstances.

“After visiting hours were over and I was alone, I disclosed to one of the nurses attending to me that I had been raped the night before, more than once, and had sustained minor injuries as a result. I told her that I wanted to be tested for any sexually transmitted diseases that I may have been exposed to,” she said.

The nurse, she said, informed her this information would be relayed to the doctor, and together they’d find a time to come in and talk to her.  

“The nurse asked if I wanted a 'rape kit' done. I asked how that was supposed to happen if my husband would be returning soon,” she said, adding the nurse suggested asking her spouse to step out in order to provide her with some privacy.  

The problem with that approach, said Jones, was that “stepping out” consisted of walking behind a standing screen in the doorway, as the sliding doors to the treatment room she was in did not close. This would have given her zero privacy to talk to the doctor about the rape or conduct a rape kit without being overheard by anyone nearby. 

Jones was also told that a doctor was required to both order and conduct the examination, and promised that one would be by shortly to see her.

“As far as I can recall, it wasn’t until an entire day later that a doctor finally came and spoke with me again… and informed me that I was going to be discharged shortly,” said Jones, adding she had not shared the assault with her spouse, who was in the room with her at this time. “Thankfully, nothing was brought up about my being raped in front of him, yet nothing further was done about it either.”

Hospital staff did not conduct a physical exam or blood work testing for STDs, nor did they conduct an official sexual assault evidence kit (SAEK) to collect evidence or document the extent of her injuries, she noted, all of which would have been necessary if she had decided to pursue criminal charges against her rapist.  

It wasn’t until after the fact, during a call with hospital officials after filing a complaint, that she learned in order to have a sexual assault evidence kit done, she’d actually have had to drive to a different hospital more than 40 minutes away.

“They explained to me that in the instance of a reported sexual assault, only one hospital in Simcoe County is equipped to do an official sexual assault examination, which is Soldiers' Memorial Hospital in Orillia (OSMH),” she said. 

This information, she admitted, came as a "complete shock." 

Hospital officials, she added, also told her she would need to report the assault to police and ask for an official examination, as hospital staff are not permitted to contact the police directly. She was then told that after the police were informed and she had reported the assault to them — and confirmed she wanted to pursue criminal charges — the hospital would help with arranging a transfer by ambulance to OSMH.

“I asked how even those steps could have possibly been undertaken without my husband being informed or finding out about the rape, and they had no insight into how that would have been possible,” she said. 

Jones is still frustrated with what she believes to be an ”insufficient system.” 

“The person that assaulted me could have very well been my husband, and they would have been sending me home with him not having addressed any of my concerns or injuries sustained during the rape,” she said.

According to Ontario Network of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Centres website, there are currently 37 treatment centres across Ontario dedicated to providing comprehensive, trauma-specific care and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

One of those centres is the Regional Sexual and Domestic Assault Treatment Centre for Simcoe County and Muskoka, at OSMH, where specially trained nurses and doctors provide emergency medical care and treatment options to victims of sexual and domestic assault. 

“The Orillia centre has been up and running for 30 years, providing outstanding care, and developing critical expertise to serve the region that extends up into Muskoka and Parry Sound,” noted Terry Dyni, director of community relations at OSMH. 

According to the hospital’s website, the program receives approximately 400 calls from assault victims, and provides care and treatment to over 200 victims of sexual and domestic assault annually.

Jones isn't the only one who is disappointed that no other hospital within Simcoe County or Muskoka conducts this procedure — which takes several hours and can involve the collection of samples from anywhere on your body, a toxicology kit, and collection of personal items such as clothing worn at the time of the assault and documenting injuries with photographs. 

Sgt. Jason Storey, a member of Barrie Police Service’s Investigative Services - Crimes Against Persons Unit, said the reason he was provided when he inquired several years ago was that OSMH is the most central hospital to all of Simcoe County and Muskoka.

“Having an SAEK trained nursing staff at RVH could be a great asset to the survivors of sexual assault that reside in the City of Barrie and Simcoe County, and would be more convenient for our police officers,” he said. 

Storey noted when it is determined that a person will be going to Orillia to have a SAEK completed, officers ensure the victim is transported to the hospital as well as receives transportation home in collaboration with OSMH.

Haily MacDonald is the acting executive director for Huronia Transition Home, which is also responsible for Athena's Sexual Assault Counselling and Advocacy Centre. 

When she first started at Huronia Transition Homes 13 years ago, this was one of the first questions she asked. 

“As an advocate, you wonder if someone in Collingwood discloses, how are they going to get to Orillia? What does that look like?"

That said, she acknowledged she can see both the pros and the cons to that being the case.

“There is benefit to it and there’s a consequence to it. We know how difficult it is to have folks who are specialized in trauma-informed response that understand the impacts of sexual abuse or intimate partner violence. From one edge, it’s very positive we have a team that is dedicated to that in one specific area,” she explained.

It can also, however, serve as a barrier to getting much-needed help.

“When an individual goes to a hospital and discloses sexual abuse, you don’t want to be moved to another hospital. You’re disclosing to somebody and then you might have to do it again," said MacDonald.

As is the case with local police, MacDonald said should a victim reach out and ask for assistance, staff can support with transportation and attend the appointment if requested.

“Even with that in place, not everyone knows about the services of the sexual assault centre or wants to go to a second hospital,” said MacDonald, adding many times, a victim will ultimately opt to not follow through after learning about the need to travel to a different hospital for the procedure to be completed.

In speaking with officials at the centre in Orillia, MacDonald said her understanding of the reason behind why a sexual assault evidence kit cannot be conducted outside of OSMH is due to the legalities surrounding the transfer of evidence. 

“It’s that chain of evidence … that’s how it was explained to me. My understanding is even if there were more specially trained healthcare professionals able to conduct the necessary tests it would not rectify the problem,” said MacDonald.

“If you go through the very difficult process of getting a forensic evidence kit done, and it’s just so mentally exhausting, you don’t want there to be any risk that that evidence can’t be admissible in court. Having it split out among the five hospitals that exist within our region created, from their explanation, an issue and a barrier,” said MacDonald.

When she inquired about the possibility of training additional staff at other local hospitals, MacDonald said, ultimately, that training would be for naught. 

‘It’s not necessarily that people couldn’t get trained in the other hospitals, but that the evidence has to be both captured and stored at the designated hospital for any given region. More training for more nurses is not going to change that barrier itself because they’re not going to change where that forensic evidence testing is occurring," said MacDonald.

While she doesn’t expect that to change, MacDonald believes there is an opportunity for additional training for all healthcare professionals to be engaged in a more trauma-informed, consent forward practice, noting many times those on the front lines are not properly trained to properly support victims when they first come in contact.

“Often, women who enter our program are not comfortable accessing the health care they deserve and require because of that lack of response. Potentially, if a person had a more positive experience at whatever hospital they initially attend, it could have felt like a soft, warm hand-off to OSMH so that there was a continuity and supportive environment for the support survivors deserve after such a traumatic event," she explained.

Protocol, noted MacDonald, is meant to be when a victim shows up at any hospital, staff there would be the ones to make the call to OSMH on the victim’s behalf, and if they did opt to travel and undergo the SAEK, someone would be ready and waiting upon their arrival.

“I recognize that is also a barrier, but if even that isn’t happening, then that is of great concern. Why are people not being treated delicately through that trauma-informed lens when they show up to disclose sexual violence?” she asked.

MacDonald said she thinks part of the solution lies in figuring out how to get the appropriate training to the right people so if a victim shows up at any medical facility after experiencing sexual assault they are all aware of the process.

If health-care providers on the front line, who are the first point of contact for somebody who has experienced violence don’t know the process, then the system becomes part of the problem of perpetuating ongoing violence of a survivor, she noted. 

“The critical path here is how do we support front-line health-care workers to have the knowledge… and if they don’t … how to recognize their limitations and bring in the appropriate person immediately to provide the continuity of care the person needs,” she said. “There is an overabundance of need for our service, which speaks to the overabundance of violence happening in our community.”

As Jones continues to find ways to cope with her trauma, including seeking counselling, she’s hoping raising the red flag about her own experience will ensure others get better care. 

“I think the staff … ultimately failed me in that my rape was left undocumented, and no supporting evidence was collected. As a result, the man that raped me will not be held accountable for his crime.”