Sturgeon Victim Services Executive Director Elisabeth Melvin displays stats from the past few years. This year’s stats show that one third of their calls are non-criminal. Provincial changes to victim services could leave those calls unanswered. – Stephen Dafoe Photo
by Stephen Dafoe
Alberta’s shift to a zonal model for Victim Services has left Sturgeon Victim Services (SVS) concerned that a third of their clients could be alone in dealing with trauma.
Under the current model, there are 71 victim service units across the province, including the one operating out of the Morinville detachment. With the changes announced by the Government of Alberta, they will move to a model that uses four zones.
Each zone will include a governing board, an executive director, and a team of 10 centralized professional support staff (CPSS). Under those four groups will be 131 case workers for all of Alberta.
“They are changing Victim Services from victims of crime and trauma to victims of crime only, so any matters that are non-criminal, we would not be responding to,” said Sturgeon Victim Services Executive Director Elisabeth Melvin. “They are promising that we can stay within our communities, still work within our detachment, but with the promise that we can also move within the zone.”
Although Melvin said there are some positives with the new model, including increased resources and funding for victims of crime and a pay grid for workers in the system, she and the Sturgeon Victim Services Board are hesitant about the new model.
“We’ve built such solid community connections, recognizing many hands make light work,” she said, adding she feels the power of community stakeholders is in jeopardy.
Loss of trauma response concerning
Approximately one-third (157) of Sturgeon Victim Services’ 423 outreach calls as of Sept. 9, 2022, have been non-criminal calls. The forthcoming changes would mean that those 157 calls would go unanswered, at least by Victim Services.
“Sudden death calls, suicide referrals, structure fires that are non-criminal, farm accidents, domestic disputes—all of those are non-criminal matters unless proven otherwise,” Melvin said. She notes that none of those calls would be responded to by her unit.
When a family escapes a house fire in minus 40 weather with nothing but the clothes on their back, SVS is there to assist when everyone is in shock, holding their babies, and watching their house burn. In such a situation, SVS shows up with a blanket and a set of clothing for everyone and walks them through the following steps, even if that is getting them hotel accommodations.
“We’ll go shopping for them, make sure their babies are fed,” Melvin said, noting that SVS does the calling to Red Cross on their behalf for assistance.
But beyond a hand on the shoulder for victims of a house fire, SVS and other victim service units are also there to be by the side of those whose loved one has committed suicide.
“Say a child comes home from school and finds one of their parents hanging; that child is traumatized. A surviving parent comes home—they are in shock as well,” Melvin said.
In such a case currently, SVS would attend the scene with two workers, one of whom would sit with the child to comfort them as best they could. The other worker would speak to the surviving adult and connect them to the following steps, including contacting the Office of the Medical Examiner.
“Then we would talk to them in the days to come, as the shock wears off, about mental health supports in the area we feel are pertinent to children and adults,” Melvin explained. “If this new zonal model comes into play, we will not be called out.”
Melvin sees SVS’s work with trauma victims, a third of this year’s calls, as critical.
“It is exponential in our world,” Melvin said. “It is why we exist. We don’t look at matters as criminal and non-criminal. We look at a person who has gone through trauma and meeting their immediate needs. We’re there to meet that need, and I feel, especially for rural Albertans, they are going to suffer the most. We’re going to see a great reduction of even mental health support for our people as well as our RCMP and EMS workers. They’re going to be tied up trying to emotionally regulate people instead of being released to do their jobs.”
SVS is not alone in its concern about the program changes. In a letter to Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Tyler Shandro, Tofield Mayor Debora Dueck called the changes shocking and disappointing and said the MLA-led review did not fully engage Victim Services Units.
“[We] can not fathom the rationale behind this decision, once again without input or consultation from those that this affects most. In our opinion this is a recipe for disaster and stands to only continue to fail rural Alberta,” Dueck wrote the minister in late August.
Sturgeon Victim Services are encouraging residents concerned with the changes to contact their MLAs to express their concerns on the changes to the program.
“Picture yourself in a situation where you come home, and a loved one is deceased,” Melvin said. “Do you want somebody standing with you saying these are the next steps in your time of shock, or do you want to handle that on your own? That’s what it comes down to.”