Reem Girgrah, victim support coordinator for the Yukon government’s sexualized assault response team, sits for a photo at the Yukon News on June 11. Girgrah she’s hoping to help create a system where victims receive support, if they want it, every step of the way. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Support coordinator filling in ‘gaps’ in services for Yukon sexual assault victims

Reem Girgrah was hired as victim support coordinator for the Yukon’s SART in April

The victim support coordinator for the Yukon government’s evolving sexualized assault response team (SART) says she’s hoping to help create a system where victims receive support, if they want it, every step of the way.

Reem Girgrah, a longtime advocate for women and people who have experienced sexual violence, has been in the role since April. Among her responsibilities is finding ways to close the gaps in the resources available to people who have experienced sexual violence in the territory.

Since starting in the position, Girgrah said in an interview June 7, she’s researched what support models exist elsewhere in Canada and whether any pieces can be applied in the Yukon; drafted policies and procedures for how Victim Services should react when contacted by victims of sexual violence; and drafted a training document on best practices around sexual violence.

One of the “huge gaps” Girgrah is trying to address now is the lack of a dedicated 24-hour support service for sexual assault victims. She’s currently working on creating an after-hours team of staff that can accompany and support victims through initial steps like going to the police or hospital.

“We know that … if there’s a support person at the beginning and it’s a positive experience, then people are more likely to reach out to other agencies at that point, right?” Girgrah said.

Following up with the person following the initial response is also an important piece, she added.

“So someone might get accompaniment services to the hospital … (but) sometimes when you’re trying to go through that process and get services, you just want to get the service, you want to go home, right? You don’t want to sit there, you don’t want to have more conversation, so we understand that people tend to sometimes fall through the cracks because they don’t know where to go from there.”

All that, though, must be done with a few key principles in mind, Girgrah said – primarily, informed choice and being culturally-responsive.

The first one means that victims are aware of their right, for example, to decline treatments, procedures and services they don’t want but may feel pressured into getting. The second point involves taking into account how a person’s background may influence how they experience and understand sexual violence, and ensuring the support they receive is appropriate.

“So there’s a lot of talk around … what is appropriate for Indigenous folks? What’s available? What can be brought to the table? Are the services we’re providing, are they really appropriate? Are we missing pieces?” Girgrah said.

“There’s a whole piece around the sexual and gender-diverse community, right? That’s a community that’s been missed a lot in terms about talking about sexualized violence, (as well as) folks who speak French and don’t have access to French services.”

Ultimately, Girgrah said, her goal is to create a sustainable structure that has adequate supports for victims of sexual assault, and that gives victims control over what they think is best for them.

“There’s that piece about difference between someone who’s treading water, and you don’t even think about the shore, you can’t see the shore, versus someone who can focus on the shore and get there, right?” she said.

“(It’s about) wanting to shift gears so people are thriving instead of just continuously surviving.”

Girgrah’s work is part of a larger effort by the Yukon government to provide more comprehensive and specialized supports and services for sexual assault victims in the territory. It announced the development of the SART, which isn’t so much its own entity than having existing organizations and service-providers work more closely together, in December 2017.

The SART initially had an implementation date of spring 2018. However, while the Yukon government “immediately started to make changes and fill gaps in service,” SART Implementation Committee chair Sheila Vanderbyl told the News in a written statement, “once we delved into the processes and complexities of some of the components, it became evident that it would require some additional time and work.”

Some “key components” already underway include finalizing the launch of a 24/7 phone support line, training “a group of interested physicians and nurse practitioners” on how to conduct sexual assault examinations, and giving recent victims of sexual violence priority access to Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services counselling, Vanderbyl wrote.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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