A temporary program to compensate victims of crime in Alberta is robbing people of the benefits they deserve, victims and advocates say.
Changes to how the Alberta government allots money from the victims of crime and public safety fund could also lead to higher long-term costs for the health system, social services and corrections, says Debra Tomlinson, CEO of the Alberta Association of Sexual Assault Services.
“It really is not adequate to meet the needs of survivors of sexual assault,” she said of the program.
Drawing ire is a 45-day time limit a victim has to apply for benefits. Applicants used to have two years from the date of the crime.
“This is really naive and, quite frankly, uninformed to make a decision about what it means for a survivor to even acknowledge to themselves what happened, let alone report,” said Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.
There is also now a $1,000 limit on reimbursements for counselling. Tomlinson and James say that’s nowhere near enough to cover the amount of treatment most victims need. Most qualified therapists bill around $200 an hour.
The changes baffle Dawn Aitken. Eight years ago, a man assaulted her while she was serving legal papers to someone on a rural property.
She was in denial at first. It took years for her to seek counselling, after another violent incident. A victims’ services volunteer told her about the benefits, and she applied just before the former two-year deadline.
It’s “ridiculous” to expect victims to file a claim within six weeks, she said.
“I can’t see myself having been in any frame of mind to be able to fill out documents,” Aitken said. “To even maybe discuss what happened.”
She received $10,000 in compensation, which helped her pay bills and gave her a sense of justice.
Less successful in their application was a Calgary family, who CBC is not identifying.
A woman says her daughter was 16 when she and another teenage friend were sexually assaulted by a man working in a restaurant.
The parents paid for tens of thousands of dollars of therapy to help the young woman, now 20, to cope with the attack.
The victim and her parents missed school and work, losing income to meet with police investigators and attend court dates. They paid for gas and parking.
The mother said when she applied for compensation from the fund, they were turned down, and told the fund was changing.
“It’s awful,” the mother said. “It’s retraumatizing.”
Fine surcharges from offenders fill fund coffers
At last tally on March 31, 2021, there was $63.6 million in Alberta’s victims of crime and public safety fund.
The money comes from surcharges offenders pay when they are fined in court. It is not tax revenue.
For years, Alberta’s auditor has said the government lacks clear objectives for the fund.
In 2020, the legislature passed a law to broaden the possible uses of the fund. In addition to victim benefits and grants to aid organizations, the government now uses the fund to pay for drug treatment courts, policing initiatives and hire more Crown prosecutors.
When the changes were announced, advocates warned victims would be shortchanged.
The government also raised the victim surcharge to 20 per cent from 15 per cent to raise more revenue. It didn’t work – the fund was $22 million short of its goal in 2020-21.
Although the government increased the amount of money it was spending from the fund last year, the amount allotted to victims’ benefits dropped 28 per cent from the previous year, and grant expenses dropped 21 per cent.
More than 40 per cent of the fund went to public safety initiatives, not victims.
The Calgary woman whose daughter was assaulted is livid the fund is being diverted.
“I’m incredibly disappointed our provincial government would cheat the victims.”
In a Friday email, justice ministry spokesperson Katherine Thompson said victims said it used to take too long to get the benefits.
She did not say why there is a 45-day limit to apply, but says victims can ask for an exemption.
Gaps in services also prompted the government to consult on a new way of compensating victims.
Two UCP MLAs were tasked with leading a working group in late 2020, and the government had planned to introduce a new program last year.
“It is critical that victims have access to the support they need the most, which is why it is important to take the time to make sure we identify changes that are required to successfully deliver support and assistance to victims,” Thompson said.
Information on the new model should be released early this year, she said.
NDP MLA and women and 2SLGBTQ+ critic Janis Irwin says the government needs to lift the strict limits on the program and release the working group’s report.
The changes are having punishing effects on survivors who are already suffering, she said.
“How can you stand and say that you’re supporting women, and standing by women when you’re making cuts like this?” she said.
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