As sexual assault rates rise, provinces face shortages of specially trained nurses
ST. JOHN’S, NL — As the number of sexual assault cases rises across Canada, nursing experts say there is a shortage of specially trained forensic nurses to provide adequate care to victims.
Timely care from a well-trained forensic nurse can help ward off a cascade of post-traumatic effects including depression, anxiety and even suicide, said Sheila Early, president of the Canadian Forensic Nurses Association.
“I always thought that as an emergency room nurse, I put band-aids on these people. But as a forensic nurse, I helped them take the first step toward a recovery that is to come,” Early said in a recent interview.
Sexual assault nurse examiners are forensic nurses trained to collect evidence from victims of sexual assault and domestic violence and to help them cope with trauma. You can also be called as a witness in court. Her expertise requires hours of dedicated training — at least 60 hours in Nova Scotia, plus observation training at a gynecology practice, said Martha Paynter, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of New Brunswick.
“Your evidence is a whole different kind of nursing work,” Paynter said in an interview. It’s also “extremely traumatizing work,” she said, “and it takes someone who really wants it.”
Despite the emotional toll and extensive training they entail, sexual assault investigator positions are often casual roles that require the nurse to juggle on-call hours in addition to her full-time nursing jobs, both Paynter and Early said. Amid a health crisis and widespread nursing shortages, it’s no wonder some provinces are struggling to find nurses to shoulder the extra burden, they said.
New Brunswick’s Vitalité Health Network has canceled training scheduled for February because too few nurses have enrolled, officials confirmed in a recent email. In the health region, which includes Labrador and parts of northern Newfoundland, officials confirmed they are also delaying training of the region’s first sexual assault examiners after too few nurses responded to a call for expressions of interest last year.
The Labrador-Grenfell Health Board said it would issue another call for expressions of interest this week.
Ontario and Saskatchewan also have shortages of forensic nurses, according to nurses’ unions in these provinces.
“Special funding is required to ensure that every sexual assault (and) domestic violence center in Ontario can provide survivors with 24-hour access to (sexual assault nurse investigators),” the statement said Ontario Nurses’ Association, adding that it is “deeply concerned” about the shortage.
Meanwhile, Statistics Canada reports that the rate of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada increased 18 percent in 2021 from the previous year, with the highest increases in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick. In 2020, the sexual assault rate in Labrador was six times the national average.
Paynter said nurses needed to be given more flexibility to take on other duties and training.
“A lot of nurses would love to do this job,” she said. “So how do we make the whole sector more flexible so that people can fit into these other things? We know nurses are happier, they are happiest when their mandate is widest.”
Previously, sexual assault examiners’ expertise was to be recognized as a special designation by the Canadian Nurses Association. That way, she said, there would be more funding for training and jobs. The association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Provinces also need to stop relying on casual forensic nurses and offer them a stable, full-time position in that role, Early said.
“Violence is a public health issue. So why don’t we treat them on that level?”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 2, 2023.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press