Two nurses who collect evidence after sexual and domestic assaults in Winnipeg say they’ve been forced to turn away dozens of survivors due to staffing shortages since last summer, some of whom, they say, don’t return to hospital, putting potential criminal investigations in jeopardy.
Earlier this week the Manitoba Nurses Union said some survivors of sexual assault are being told not to shower or wipe themselves after using the washroom and to come back to Health Sciences Centre when a trained nurse with the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program is available.
Ashley Stewart, a forensic nurse who is the coordinator of SANE — and the program’s only full-time staff member — estimates at least 50 patients of all ages and genders from all over the province have been turned away since the summer, and, she says, there are likely more.
Stewart says she’s certain that in some cases criminal charges aren’t able to go forward because victims who were initially turned away don’t return.
“We know patients don’t return because we track them,” Stewart told 680 CJOB’s The NEWS Friday, noting SANE nurses also examine victims of domestic assault.
“We have a good working relationship with police , (officers) may ask us if that patient ever returned for the exam, and they didn’t.”
The nurses union and the opposition NDP say inaction on funding promised by the Progressive Conservative government last year is to blame for the shortage of forensic nurses.
In April Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced $640,000 in funding to hire five full-time forensic nurse examiners, including a provincial co-ordinator.
But nine months later there is only Stewart and a rotating crew of on-call nurses to fill in and help do the work with survivors, leading to what Stewart describes as gaps in coverage.
“We’ve been having vacant shifts where we have no one on a call at least weekly, sometimes eight hours at once, sometimes up to 48 hours at once,” said Stewart, who added she’d done consultation with three victims Friday, on a day that had supposed to be her day off.
“Our team does everything they can to switch their lives around, at least answer the phone to give advice to a provider or come in, even if it’s for a couple of hours to see who they can.
“But the reality is, is sometimes our exams take a long time and there are people who have to be told we can’t see you.”
Throughout the week Global News was told Gordon wasn’t available for interviews.
Shared Health had only provided emailed statements until late Friday afternoon when the agency’s COO, Monika Warren, scheduled a video call with reporters.
Warren confirmed some victims are indeed being asked to return to hospital due to a lack of staff, and that those victims are being told not to wash in order to preserve potential evidence.
She said, according to Shared Health’s numbers, 14 victims have been sent home since April. Of those, she said nine had their exam completed later the same day, one returned the next day, and four didn’t return for a forensic exam and were discharged.
Warren said Shared Health is hiring seven permanent nursing positions, and five of those spots have already filled, although training for them isn’t expected to start until early February.
She said the process of hiring the promised provincial co-ordinator is ongoing and she expects someone to to be in that role within the next month-and-a-half.
Warren says in the interim, until the full-time nurses are trained, the casual staff is still employed and signing up for shifts.
“I want to reassure all victims of sexual violence and partner assault that we will always be there to serve them,” she said.
But one of the nurses currently filling in with SANE, Heather Didora, said although she wanted to try for one of the full-time positions, a change in the classification requirements in the job posting means she wasn’t able to apply.
Didora says the classification requirement change means nurses like her who are allowed to practice at different facilities, including outside hospital, may be excluded from the program.
She worries that will add more trauma for children who will need to be examined by a nurse at the emergency room instead of somewhere where they may feel more safe.
“It would prevent that family and that child from having to bounce around from facility to facility in order to get the care that they need,” Didora said.
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Both Didora and Stewart said a passion for the SANE program and the people the program helps led them to go public with the issues they’re seeing on the front line.
“We put so much work putting into a proposal for a provincial program which government recognized and funded,” Stewart said.
“But now we want to be able to carry out that provincial plan because we can solve this problem and in turn, we can reduce these impacts.”
If you have been a victim of sexual assault and need support, you can call Klinic’s Sexual Assault Crisis line toll free at 1-888-292-7565.
The phone lines are open 24/7.
–with files from Richard Cloutier, Julie Buckingham, Kevin Hirschfield, and Rosanna Hempel