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Central Alberta Victim Services leader concerned about provincial overhaul plans

Province proposing a regional Victim Services system
Victims Services groups are concerned about some changes to the system proposed by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro in July. (File photo from Government of Alberta)

An Alberta Justice plan to regionalize and reduce the scope of victim services will hurt those who need the help most, says the head of Innisfail and District Victim Services.

Providing victim services through four zones as proposed “takes away the independent ability to offer services in our communities, but also takes away the individualized aspect of it and just really being able to help our victims to the maximum amount,” said Mary Dawn Eggleton, executive director of Innisfail and District Victim Services.

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced a number of changes to Victim Services, saying it included improved funding and was designed to provide victims with quicker access to emergency funding, and more financial support for counselling or to recover from severe injuries, and reimbursement for funeral expenses for families of homicide victims and for court appearances.

Also announced was a “zonal model,” which the government said would “improve the reliability, continuity and uniformity of service delivery across the province; increase professional supports for front-line case workers; and allow for greater flexibility and capacity to deliver services at the community level where they are needed the most.”

A new layer of centralized professional staff in each zone will provide strategic, logistical and administrative support for front-line caseworkers.

More than 60 existing victim services units, not including those in Red Deer, Edmonton, Calgary and six Indigenous communities, would be dissolved to become part of a regional unit, unless a municipality opts to take on the service. Funding for existing groups will be in place until March 2023 when a one-year extension can be applied for.

Eggleton and her staff have built close relationships in their community and developed local expertise that is not well suited to a regional model, she said.

While they may still work out of Innisfail at times, victim services workers could find themselves called to help in a number of different communities that they may not be as familiar with.

“How are we going to know all of the resources available in four, five or six communities? It’s just not possible.”

Other victim services units across Alberta are also concerned about what the changes will mean, she said.

“It’s a huge concern with all my colleagues, for sure. We’re all in this work because we want to do the best for the most vulnerable. We just feel this is taking away services from those people.”

Another element of the government’s plan is to limit victim services to victims of crime. Staff and volunteers would no longer be able to provide help to those who have experienced tragedy, a sudden death, vehicle collisions or other non-criminal trauma.

In Innisfail, 30 per cent of the calls victim services handled were not related directly to crime. That kind of work was supported by fundraising and included tasks like helping RCMP officers deliver next-of-kin notifications.

“I know they keep saying there are other organizations that will do that, but the problem is there are so many gaps right now in our mental health, there are no organizations that can possibly fill 30 per cent of those files.”

Eggleton said while the government’s plan to offer more stable and expanded funding is appreciated, victim services groups do not want to lose the community connections they have forged over many years.

A spokesperson for the health minister said the government intends to go ahead with the zone system, but meetings with stakeholders will continue. A lengthier response will come tomorrow, he said.

Alberta Municipalities, which represents the province’s urban communities, is also lobbying the province to take another look at the victim services, which they criticize as being proposed without adequate consultation with municipalities.

A resolution was passed at its fall conference calling on the government to halt the rollout of the new victim services model and do more community engagement to ensure there is no downloading, consider how the existing model can be maintained and adapted and support for victims of tragedy continued.

The association considers the option for municipalities to take on victim services rather than join a regional group a form of downloading provincial responsibilities onto municipalities.

It was also critical of the fact that maintaining the current model was not among the options presented to stakeholders during consultation and that as far as municipalities are concerned “no meaningful consultation” occurred during the MLA review of Victim Services.

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