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Vernon institute goes to bat for female veterans

Vernon Morning Star - 11/18/2023

A Vernon institute that advocates for female veterans had much to say about the shortcomings of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) while addressing a standing committee recently.

Members of Vernon's Operational Stress Recovery Program (OSRP), under the auspices of the Davidson Institute, recently got back from a "whirlwind" trip to Ottawa, where they were invited to testify as expert witnesses in the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs regarding the study of experiences of women veterans. They stood beside well-known advocates, including the Honourable Bev Busson and women veterans, to advocate for women's rights issues such as addressing military sexual trauma.

In their testimony on Oct. 24 and the accompanying recommendations report, OSRP members advocated for sweeping changes within Veterans Affairs, to address and reform the organizational culture that allows human rights abuses to be tolerated, and to resolve well-documented inefficiencies in the system.

OSRP director Dr. Tina Rochfort told the standing committee that in 2015, her team was tasked by VAC with developing a specialized program for women veterans dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and in particular military sexual violence. The program based in Vernon was the first of its kind in Canada and was created in consultation with VAC and women veterans after extensive research.

"The program is a six-week residential outpatient program with a two-week follow-up and six months of intensive after-care. The strengths include small groups, all women, daily trauma informed therapy and self regulation training, many outside activities from trauma yoga, to equine, to music, art, to float tanks — cutting edge in terms of trauma treatment," Rochfort explained.

While the results of the program have been "phenomenal" with women reporting vast improvement and reduction of PTSD-related symptoms and improved quality of life, Rochfort said the number of participants who are able to access the program has "slowed to a trickle."

"We receive many inquiries from women veterans (and) health care providers who want to make referrals but cannot navigate the process through VAC," she said. "I'm not here to vilify VAC, there are many caring people who work at VAC, but the system is broken."

To illustrate that broken system, Rochfort offered the case of a woman veteran who came to her institute with her "ducks in a row," and her team calculated the number of hours that it took them to move the veteran's referral through the system.

"100 hours for one referral on our part," she said. "And goodness knows how many hours this veteran and all the health care providers put in."

Rochfort said a common theme is veterans who have the backing of their entire health care team being turned away at the 11th hour from exercising their choice of treatment program.

"What typically happens is they are referred to a large inpatient addiction facility, which is absolutely not appropriate to the population we serve," she said, explaining that veterans can often be re-traumatized at these large institutions that don't cater to individual needs — especially the needs and safety concerns of women.

"One female veteran told me that she was roomed with a former gang member, an active addict. She was terrified. Another was roomed with somebody who was threatening her with box cutters. Again she was terrified."

Rochfort highlighted how difficult it is to navigate the bureaucracy of VAC, even for someone as experienced with the program as herself, let alone a veteran who is dealing with PTSD.

"I'm a proud Canadian, (but) I feel a lot of shame about the way our women veterans have been treated," she said.

Adrienne Davidson-Helgerson, OSRP director of operations, testified that almost every woman that came into their program had experienced military sexual trauma. She said these veterans often find VAC to be "condescending" and "dehumanizing."

"A lot of the women that we see have also been sent to these addiction centres when they don't have addictions, they are just basically institutionalized," she said, adding these institutions often take away privacy, autonomy and dignity from veterans.

She said VAC is "so complex that the people who really need help cannot get the help they need, and the whole process really needs to be streamlined and just overhauled completely," adding VAC needs a top management consultant to "come in and shake things up."

Davidson-Helgerson said programs through VAC that are being offered to women are not appropriate "most of the time," adding VAC should be identifying the programs like OSRP that are tailored to women and sending them to those places.

She said the current system doesn't allow for her team to advocate on behalf of women veterans easily enough, adding a lack of transparency and poor communication are systemic problems.

"This is not rocket science," said Rochfort, explaining she spends most of her time making calls on veterans' behalf and getting "blocked."

Davidson-Helgerson, who comes from a business background, was asked by a member of the committee whether she thinks VAC would survive if it were a private company.

"No it absolutely wouldn't," was her response. "It is so unproductive and inefficient."