Military’s sex­ual abuse call cen­tre to of­fer round-the-clock sup­port

Chal­lenges in hir­ing coun­sel­lors de­layed move, says head of unit


OT­TAWA— The military’s Sex­ual Mis­con­duct Re­sponse Cen­tre is poised to make the long-awaited jump to round-the­clock ser­vice, de­spite what its new di­rec­tor ad­mits have been strug­gles finding and keep­ing enough staff.

The call cen­tre was opened in Septem­ber 2015 upon the rec­om­men­da­tion of for­mer Supreme Court jus­tice Marie Deschamps af­ter she un­cov­ered a highly “sex­u­al­ized cul­ture” in the Armed Forces.

There were con­cerns from the begin­ning about the cen­tre’s lim­ited hours, with coun­sel­lors avail­able to an­swer calls from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., eastern time, from Mon­day to Fri­day.

The cen­tre re­ceives about10 af­ter-hours calls per month, of­fi­cials said, com­pared with the 625 calls from 410 in­di­vid­u­als it re­ceived dur­ing busi­ness hours the whole of last year.

But Denise Pre­ston, who took over as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor last month, said the Ot­tawa-based cen­tre will fi­nally ex­pand its hours in the com­ing weeks.

“Get­ting to 24-7 is ob­vi­ously an im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity for us, and it’s very close to be­ing an­nounced,” she said.

Asked why it took so long, Pre­ston said there was a “host of is­sues that had to be sorted out.”

Fig­ur­ing out how to staff the phone line around the clock has been com­pli­cated by chal­lenges in re­cruit­ing and re­tain­ing staff for the cen­tre, Pre­ston said.

The cen­tre has 16 civil­ian staff, in­clud­ing six pri­mary coun­sel­lors and two se­nior coun­sel­lors, all of whom are ex­pected to have both univer­sity de­grees and ex­pe­ri­ence in the field.

The coun­sel­lors re­spond to phone calls in one sec­tion of the cen­tre, sep­a­rate from the rest of the staff. They pro­vide ev­ery­thing from in­for­ma­tion about ser­vices and how to re­port an in­ci­dent to po­lice to cri­sis sup­port when a sex­ual crime has just oc­curred.

“Our coun­sel­lors don’t pro­vide ther­apy, but they pro­vide em­pathic lis­ten­ing, they pro­vide sup­port­ive coun­selling,” Pre­ston said. “In many cases, it’s the first time the vic­tim might be telling their story.”

De­fence of­fi­cials say that since the cen­tre started op­er­at­ing, military po­lice have opened 55 in­ves­ti­ga­tions into al­leged sex­ual crimes.

The sex­ual as­sault charge against Cpl. Regis Trem­blay an­nounced Fri­day was the re­sult of a call to the cen­tre in Fe­bru­ary 2016, said a military po­lice spokesper­son, Navy Lt. Blake Pat­ter­son. The charges re­lated to an al­leged in­ci­dent at Cana­dian Forces Base Wain­wright in 2007.

Yet de­spite that suc­cess, Pre­ston said the cen­tre, which has an an­nual bud­get of $2.2 mil­lion, has lost sev­eral coun­sel­lors to other jobs that of­fered more coun­selling op­por­tu­ni­ties or reg­u­lar hours.

“For some peo­ple, there’s been a re­luc­tance to do the 24-7,” she said. “And gen­er­ally, there is a short­age of peo­ple who are men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als will­ing to do this work. And that’s not unique to this cen­tre or (the De­fence Depart­ment). It’s uni­ver­sal.”

As a re­sult, the cen­tre has had to hire coun­sel­lors with less for­mal ed­u­ca­tion than might be prefer­able, though Pre­ston said she is set­ting up “rig­or­ous” ori­en­ta­tion and train­ing to make up the dif­fer­ence.

That will be one of the main tasks for Pre­ston, a reg­is­tered psy­chol­o­gist who spent19 years at the Cor­rec­tional Ser­vice of Canada and eight with the Pa­role Board, in­clud­ing sev­eral se­nior po­si­tions.

The sex­ual mis­con­duct re­sponse cen­tre is unique within the military in that it is in­de­pen­dent from the chain of com­mand.

Pre­ston re­ports to Na­tional De­fence’s top bu­reau­crat, deputy min­is­ter John Forster, who is re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the depart­ment’s civil­ian staff in the same way de­fence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance over­sees those in uni­form.

But that doesn’t mean it is com­pletely sep­a­rate from the military; three military li­ai­son of­fi­cers work out of the cen­tre.

Two are there to help coun­sel­lors un­der­stand the Forces and its cul­ture, Pre­ston said, which is im­por­tant as one of the cen­tre’s other roles is to pro­vide the military with guid­ance on tack­ling sex­ual mis­con­duct.

The third is a mem­ber of the Cana­dian Forces Na­tional In­ves­ti­ga­tion Ser­vice, who is on standby in case a caller wants to re­port an in­ci­dent or talk to a military po­lice of­fi­cer, even anony­mously, about their case.

Pre­ston de­fended the fact the military has uni­formed of­fi­cers in­side the cen­tre, say­ing they are phys­i­cally sep­a­rated from the coun­sel­lors and don’t have ac­cess to any in­for­ma­tion that call­ers may pro­vide.

“The chain of com­mand has no author­ity over any of us in the cen­tre,” she said.

“So we’re not part of the Cana­dian Armed Forces. But we have to work in a very col­lab­o­ra­tive, in­ter­de­pen­dent way with the CAF in or­der to be ef­fec­tive in what we’re do­ing.”

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