While surcharge debate rages, victims say they need more

By Andrew Seymour
Jan 10, 2015

It was nine days before Christmas when her 14-year-old daughter came to tell her she had been sexually molested by her stepfather. What followed was a pregnancy exam, police interviews and criminal charges.

In an instant, Susan’s marriage to a man she loved was over, her family life shattered. Her daughter said she could no longer live in their house or with her.

Her stepsons moved out, and Susan — whose real name can’t be published to protect the identity of her daughter — was now alone with her two youngest children, both under the age of six.

Her daughter now sees a psychologist, but she doesn’t like to tell her mother much, and it’s a constant worry. Sometimes Susan fears their relationship has been forever damaged.

After the revelation, Susan says she could no longer trust in anyone or anything.

“I was completely broken, betrayed. The person I had just spent 10 years with, given my heart and soul, had done the unimaginable,” she says. “I thought for sure I was going to die of a broken heart. It was the worst feeling in the world. You just keep thinking the worst is past, when does the good come? “I’m still waiting.” It wasn’t until weeks after her husband was charged that Susan says she received her lifeline. Feeling alone and isolated, she got a phone call from a victim support worker.

That worker was with the Child and Youth Witness Support Program, a program funded by the Ontario Victims’ Justice Fund. The money in the fund is collected from court-imposed victim surcharges levied for Highway Traffic Act violations and criminal court offences.

“She’s been my saving grace,” says Susan of her support worker. “I can’t imagine not having her.”

A 2009 Department of Justice report estimated that 83 per cent of the costs of violent crime are borne by victims. That includes lost productivity and wages, costs of going to court and medical or psychological care.

Proponents of the surcharge argue its mandatory nature helps make up for the shortfall in funding for victim services and that any hardship experienced by an offender who may not be able to pay pales in comparison to the hardship suffered by victims of their crimes.

And while the debate rages in courtrooms about the constitutionality of the victim surcharge, victim service providers say they are barely meeting the need of victims of crime.

“Is it enough? No. Are we able to cope? Yes. You have to, right?” says Catholic Family Services executive director Franca Didiomete of the funding her organization receives for the Child and Youth Witness Support Program and separate programs that help domestic abuse victims.

The Child and Youth Witness Support Program is continuing to work within the same modest $165,000 a year budget they’ve had since the program launched seven years ago.

Didiomete says a lack of new money has stretched budgets thinner as salaries increase and other costs creep up.

One of the two staff members now work only part time, and the support once provided to children and their families at court will increasingly fall onto the shoulders of family members or friends, Didiomete says.

“We just can’t do everything,” says Didiomete, adding that they’ve already cut administrative costs to the point that they won’t be able to operate if they slash them any further. Didiomete says the only thing left to reduce is the services they offer.

Susan knows first hand the costs of crime. She said her husband closed or cleaned out the bank accounts after he was charged. Bills were in arrears by thousands of dollars. The stay-at-home mother had no income and was forced to turn to the welfare office and the church food bank. “I felt like trash,” she says describing the tearful first trip to Ontario Works.

But not all costs can be tallied on a balance sheet. Susan no longer feels safe at home. At first she slept with a crowbar on the floor next to her bed. It’s since been replaced with a baseball bat. She wakes up constantly in the night to check the locks on the doors and windows.

Val Hutt, the support worker who reached out to Susan that day, says victims have varied needs.

“They may need counselling. They may need financial support. They may need relocation. They may need group work, group support,” says Hutt, who has been with the program since it launched six years ago. Access to those services need to be seamless, says Hutt.

“They need it packaged up. They needed it handed to them on a silver platter versus having them to do all the work. Sometimes it is too overwhelming,” says Hutt. “They just don’t have the reserve to take on one more thing. They are still kind of spinning from or are numb from what has happened to them or their family.”

Hutt and a colleague work with every child victim and their family, preparing them for the often long and confusing journey through the justice system and providing whatever support they can.

At any given time, Hutt’s program has 210 open files. The program has had more than 900 referrals since its inception in March 2008. Some of the children she’s worked with are as young as four years old.

Hutt, a former Ottawa police officer, was among the first female constables ever hired by the force when she joined in 1981.

A mother and grandmother herself, Hutt spent 16 of her 22 years with Ottawa police as a detective, working with youth, the victim crisis unit and the sexual assault and child abuse section for seven years.

She says one of the most important services for parents offered by Catholic Family Services, the parent support group, isn’t even funded by funds collected from the victim surcharge, but instead is a pilot project paid for with a federal Department of Justice government grant.

The first hour of the support group is spent being introduced to police officers, prosecutors and even defence lawyers who explain their respective roles in the court process. A psychologist leads the group during the second hour, allowing them to talk through their feelings with others who are in a similar situation. They meet once a month.

For parents of child victims like Susan, the support group is critical. It gives Susan a chance to talk with others like her about their shared experiences.

Other than an occasional visit to a therapist recommended by her doctor, Susan said the support group and assistance from Hutt are all the victim support she receives. There is nothing for Susan’s two youngest children.

“There needs to be more. Two hours a month is not enough,” says Susan. “He did the crime. Why are we paying the time?”