Canadian Forces’ sexual assault hotline to operate 24/7 despite staff shortage

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OTTAWA – The military’s sexual misconduct response centre is poised to make the long-awaited jump to round-the-clock service, despite what its new director admits have been struggles finding and keeping enough staff.

The call centre was opened in September 2015 upon the recommendation of former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps after she uncovered a highly “sexualized culture” in the Forces.

There were concerns from the beginning about the centre’s limited hours, with counsellors around to answer calls from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., eastern time, from Monday to Friday.

The centre receives about 10 after-hours calls per month, officials said, which compares to the 625 calls from 410 individuals it received during business hours the whole of last year.

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But Denise Preston, who took over as executive director last month, said the Ottawa-based centre will finally expand its hours after nearly two years of existence in the coming weeks.

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“Getting to 24/7 is obviously an immediate priority for us, and it’s very close to being announced,” she told The Canadian Press in an interview in her new office at the centre.

Asked why it took so long, Preston said there was a “host of issues that had to be sorted out.”

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The starting point was how counsellors would staff the phone line around the clock – a question that Preston said has been complicated by challenges recruiting and retaining staff for the centre.

The centre has 16 civilian staff, including six primary counsellors and two senior counsellors, all of whom are expected to have both university degrees and experience in the field.

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The counsellors respond to phone calls in one section of the centre separate from the rest of the staff.

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They provide everything from information about services and how to report an incident to police to crisis support where a sexual crime has just occurred.

“Our counsellors don’t provide therapy, but they provide empathic listening, they provide supportive counselling,” Preston said. “In many cases, it’s the first time the victim might be telling their story.”

Defence officials say that since the centre started operating, military police have opened 55 investigations into alleged sexual crimes.

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The sexual assault charge against Cpl. Regis Tremblay announced Friday was the result of a call to the centre in February 2016, said military police spokesman navy Lt. Blake Patterson. The charges related to an alleged incident at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright in 2007.

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Yet despite that success, Preston said the centre, which has an annual budget of $2.2 million, has lost several counsellors to other jobs that offered more counselling opportunities or regular hours.

“For some people, there’s been a reluctance to do the 24/7,” she said.

“And generally, there is a shortage of people who are mental-health professionals willing to do this work. And that’s not unique to this centre or DND. It’s universal.”

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As a result, the centre has had to hire counsellors with less formal education than might be otherwise be preferable, though Preston said she is setting up “rigorous” orientation and training to make up the difference.

That will be one of the main tasks for Preston, a registered psychologist who spent 19 years at the Correctional Service of Canada and eight with the Parole Board, including in several senior positions.

The sexual misconduct response centre is unique within the military in that it is independent from the chain of command, which Preston compared to the way the Parole Board operates.

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Preston reports to National Defence’s top bureaucrat, deputy minister John Forster, who is responsible for managing the department’s civilian staff in the same way defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance oversees those in uniform.

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But that doesn’t mean it is completely separate from the military; three military liaison officers work out of the centre.

Two are there to help counsellors understand the Forces and its culture, Preston said, which is important as one of the centre’s other roles is to provide the military with guidance on tackling sexual misconduct.

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The third is a member of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, who is on standby in case a caller wants to report an incident or talk to a military police officer, even anonymously, about their case.

Preston defended the fact the military has uniformed officers inside the centre, saying they are physically separated from the counsellors and don’t have access to any information that callers may provide.

“The chain of command has no authority over any of us in the centre,” she said.

“So we’re not part of the Canadian Armed Forces. But we have to work in a very collaborative, interdependent way with the CAF in order to be effective in what we’re doing.”

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