Sexual assault support services struggling to cope with record demand
Sexually violent crime has increased by 110 per cent in the past 25 years, yet specialised counselling services say they are unable to meet the demand.
- Specialised support services are struggling due to an exponential increase in requests for help after sexual assaults
- A number of ‘black spots’ around Australia have no sexual assault support services at all
- Full Stop Australia’s statistics show its counsellors are unable to respond to one out of three callers to its hotline
ABC’s 7.30 has obtained exclusive access to waitlists of sexual assault clinics across the country, showing that wait times can be up to a year and a half.
In New South Wales, the clinic at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney has a waitlist of between six and 12 months, while Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west currently has an eight-month waitlist.
It’s a six-to-nine-month wait for the service at Toowoomba, and one and a half years for some counselling programs at Laurel Place on the Sunshine Coast.
Specialised sexual assault services across Tasmania have 140 people on waitlists and, over in Western Australia, the Allambee sexual assault service has a six-to-nine-month waitlist.
Allambee Counselling chief executive Nicole Lambert told 7.30 she and her team felt guilty about the long wait times.
“We’re saying [to victim-survivors]: ‘Speak out, hope is there for you’. But, actually, it’s not,” she said.
The West Australian government is reforming its policies on sexual violence to address the crippling shortages.
Ms Lambert says she is hopeful this process will result with better outcomes for victim-survivors, where they have timely access to specialist services across all parts of the state.
Some areas have no support services at all
During its investigation, 7.30 has found a number of “black spots” around the country, where sexual assault support services are usually non-existent. They include:
- all of western Queensland
- Bourke in NSW
- most of the west and east coast of Tasmania
- the far north of Western Australia and its Great Southern region
- Coober Pedy, York and the mid-coast in South Australia
- most of the Northern Territory inland.
The chief executive of the national sexual assault service Full Stop Australia, Hayley Foster, has called for a commitment from all political parties to immediately rectify the crippling shortages in her sector.
“We absolutely need an investigation into those black spots across the country and those severe shortfalls [in] sexual assault [support] funding,” Ms Foster said.
The Federal Minister for Women’s Safety, Anne Ruston, said in a statement that the government was establishing a Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commission to deliver better results for victim-survivors.
Karen Iles was a happy and motivated teenager when she went on a family beach holiday almost three decades ago.
She said it was then that a notorious gang sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions.
“I was 14, so I was in Year 8 of high school. I was still a child,” she told 7.30.
Even now, Ms Iles says, she hasn’t been able to recover from this trauma.
“At the time when I was raped, my whole sense of self, my whole identity was just stripped bare from me,” she said.
Recently, Ms Iles decided she would finally get help.
She said that, in 2018, she was turned away by a specialised sexual assault clinic attached to a local hospital in Sydney.
“I was then left to my own devices. Somehow, I pulled myself through,” she said.
In 2021, Ms Iles said she again contacted a clinic at another Sydney-based hospital and was put on a 12-month waitlist.
Ms Iles said she even contacted a private specialised service, but its waitlist was just as long.
After being turned away three times, Ms Iles ended up getting counselling from a fourth clinic at another NSW-based hospital.
However, she says, it was a combination of luck and persistence to access the support she so desperately needed.
“I live in Sydney. Imagine women who live in regional areas or very remote areas. Their ability to access services must be absolutely shocking,” she said.
“There has to be something done about it, and that’s why I’m speaking out today.”
‘It is incredibly urgent’
As a previous manager of a sexual assault service in New South Wales, Tara Hunter said it was crucial that victim-survivors got the help they needed when they reached out to a specialist clinic.
“It’s really important that we acknowledge that that person has a human right to access the appropriate support.”
Ms Hunter — who is director of clinical and client services for Full Stop Australia — says services across the country are buckling under the pressure, due to an exponential increase in reports of sexual assaults.
She said that, as a result, services prioritise helping people who contact them within seven days of their alleged assault, young people or people with pre-existing mental health problems.
Those who come forward with historic allegations are usually triaged to the bottom of the waitlist.
However, Ms Hunter says, this can be damaging to the mental health of those seeking help.
“If we’re not available to that person, then it reinforces those messages that, ‘Actually what happened to me is not a big deal. I’ll just manage it by myself, I’ll be OK’,” she said.
The sexual assault hotline operated by Full Stop Australia has obtained statistics showing that its counsellors are unable to respond to one out of three callers.
“We can’t rest while we have areas across the country, and people who are impacted by sexual violence cannot even access a single service,” Ms Foster said.
“It is incredibly urgent.”
A spokesperson from the office of the NSW Minister for Women’s Safety, Natalie Ward, told 7.30 that, in 2020-21, Full Stop Australia received $1,546,500 in funding for the Sexual Violence Helpline and that an additional $20 million of Commonwealth funding had been invested in domestic and family violence services in NSW.
The Queensland government said in a statement that it had increased funding to specialist sexual assault services since 2015 by more than 95 per cent.
Communities Tasmania told 7.30 that, in 2021-22, the state’s sexual violence services received funding of $4.16 million to support victims of sexual violence.
The Women’s and Children’s Health Network in South Australia said 50 per cent of patients are seen within two weeks, and no patient will wait more than six weeks for an appointment.
In a statement, the ACT government said that it acknowledged that the demand for sexual assault services is high and that the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and other frontline services received an increase in funding in the 2021-22 budget to reflect increasing levels of demand.
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and ABC iview.
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