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Sexual violence support advocate situates role within university eco-system

By Gurman Sahota, June 6 2019 —

Created two years ago, the role of sexual violence support advocate provides critical support to those affected by sexual violence. The Gauntlet sat down with Carla Bertsch, to talk more about her prior work experience, how the role works within the university and how students can acquire help through her.

The Gauntlet: How did you get into this role?

Carla Bertsch, sexual violence support advocate: I had a Justice Studies degree from Mount Royal, and my thought was to go into law. So as long as I can remember, I’ve always had this desire to stand up for people who are being treated unfairly. I can think of myself as a little kid and not understanding racism, or how, if people didn’t have as much money, they were mistreated. I just never could wrap my head around those things. And truthfully, I feel like I was just kind of born that way. I had somebody recently reach out wanting to know if I experienced my own sexual assault. That was kind of what brought me into the work and although I have definitely had experiences of sexual violence, they didn’t bring this passion to light. I think it was always there.

I decided against law school because of the justice system. I probably wouldn’t be able to effect change there, and I’d just get frustrated. So I did a degree in political science at the U of C, still thinking I might go to law school. Then I did a masters in social work at UVic. And that really, really spoke to the lens of the work that I do in terms of deconstructing things like power and privilege and oppression and really centering marginalized folks and voices and trying to understand as a society, how and why these structures have been put in place. That program changed my life. It just undoes everything you think you know about the world and slowly puts it back together.

I’ve done a lot of work in the justice system. I used to work with young offenders,  an incredibly marginalized group of people. I’ve worked with the homeless population, done mental health and forensic mental health work. Most recently, before this role, I was working at a domestic violence shelter, as an associate director. I have a trauma background with fairly extensive training in trauma and I’m trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. It’s psychotherapy predominantly used for folks who have experienced trauma and was developed mostly with war vets in mind. And now, it’s used for quite a few things, including sexual violence. All of these things have really brought me to be able to do this work in a way that I think really helps situate moments in time for people in a bigger way than they can do on their own.

Being able to listen to a conversation and hear racism and how somebody was treated, that they might not have recognized because we’re so conditioned to […] think it’s not a big deal and we should just move on. Especially people who are mistreated, those of a different culture, different race, religion, gender, sexuality — whatever it might be — you’re so conditioned by the dominant group to just put your head down and keep going. I think that’s where a lot of my education background has really helped me pull out those moments in time for people and say, ‘No, I just want to show you what I’m seeing.’ I can just see the weight lifted off people’s shoulders. It’s one thing to tell somebody it’s not their fault — which is true. It’s another thing to be able to say, ‘Let me situate this moment in the past hundred years.’

People have said to me, ‘No one’s ever given me that perspective.’ And I think it helps people process that moment a little bit better, because there’s so much internalized victimization happening still, people experiencing sexual violence, really believing in something that they did to cause that event to happen. They shouldn’t have been drinking, they shouldn’t have been walking alone, they shouldn’t have invited so-and-so over. None of these acts have anything to do with it. I think we’ve lived in such secrecy and shame around sexual violence that so many people are still internalizing it and doing a lot of their own victim-blaming.

G: Can you describe what goes into your role?

CB: I always say there’s two parts to it — one is the support and advocacy piece. The policy points to this role as being the first point of contact for people. For a couple of reasons, I think the training and education that I come with helps facilitate a conversation in a different way than say, security, might be able to — not that they’re not well intended, or have their hearts in the right place. It’s just a different training or skill set, really being able to have that initial conversation with somebody in a way that even fosters them to want to think about reporting or healing, and what that might look like.

Sometimes they need academic support. They might need accommodation of some kind. They may be missing an exam or paper, so I facilitate conversations with faculty that can be pretty tricky for a young person to want to talk to an older professor who often might be male, while the victims might be female. It’s a pretty awkward conversation to have with that power differential.

And then the other piece is just advocating for their rights in the process. We know the rates of conviction in the criminal system are almost zero — it’s 0.1 to 0.3 per cent of these things that are convicted — so just making sure that they’ve got somebody on their side that’s watching the process and giving them some guidance on what is in their best interest and making sure that their rights and their needs are being taken care of. I know who to connect with, who to talk to. If they need an outside supporter or we want a quick question answered, I can call up a friend who’s in legal somewhere — things that maybe students don’t have access to — and get some some really strong, accurate answers to some difficult questions.

I’m doing this day in and day out. It’s all I do. It’s all I read. It’s all I talk about. I’m seeing victims and survivors all day long every day, talking to professionals. Whatever question you might have, I’ve probably got an answer to and if I don’t, I know somebody on speed dial who does.

G: So as a student, what are some steps that a student can take to access you or your resources?

CB: It’s not much of a process at all. Right now, people are just emailing me personally asking to meet and then we set up an appointment together. I do discourage people from just showing up. Only because I’m so busy that often, if you just show up, I’m probably not available, and it would really, really be hard for me to ask somebody to come back. And statistically, they don’t. You’re in that moment of need, if you show up for support and somebody turns you away, you’re unlikely to come back. So I do try to ask people to book an appointment. Outside resources, and even our counseling here are sometimes three weeks or longer to get in. You can get in with me in 24 to 48 hours. It’s usually really quick.

G: Do you anticipate that similar turnaround in the future?

CB: I think it’s a pretty great turnaround right now. We are hiring a second person to start in September. Especially with an additional support, we shouldn’t get any busier and wait times shouldn’t get any longer. It should only get better. But also, the other piece of the role is that prevention education piece on campus. And that [second] role should support us being able to do that in a bigger way. So I’m super excited about that person starting and being able to develop the work.

G: Due to the nature of your role here, how do you combat things like burnout while being in such a critical role?

CB: I subscribe to a theory and an opinion of an academic from UBC, her name is Vikki Reynolds. It is not the people that cause me burnout. People are beautiful and brilliant and resilient. And the stories I hear — I am honoured every day that somebody would share their story of resistance, because that’s really what these stories are about. It’s not the clients that make this work hard, it’s the systems. And so Vikki Reynolds talks about vicarious or secondary trauma, not by the people we serve, but the systems and the barriers. And it gets so hard — the criminal system is not perfect. When someone is suffering secondary victimization from [those systems] or institutional betrayal, either by us or by the police or by the medical system, those are the pieces that can cause burnout. You know what’s right, and you want to help somebody. And when I can’t — since I don’t have enough power to influence some of these larger systems — when this is the end of the road and I just can’t make it happen, that’s the part that weighs heavy.

I think systems are trying to do their best, but it’s an imperfect process. I try to have those conversations really honestly with people so they know what they’re getting into because I think we believe systems were created to help us. If you go in with that attitude, not realizing that there’s a chance it might not work out the way you hope, that can be really devastating for people — and it’s super hard on me. What causes burnout is constantly feeling like you’re running up against roadblocks with particular supports.

G: You’re in talks of acquiring a new software to help you within your role. Could you speak more on that? What it is and how do you anticipate it helping?

CB: It’s Osnium Software and they don’t have a title for this particular type of software yet. They’ve designed a program like a case management system specifically to work in sexual violence on post-secondary campuses, and specifically for roles like this. It helps us collect whatever we might deem necessary — obviously with the consent of the person who’s in the room. So I have a bit of an intake form, but everything’s voluntary — you don’t have to fill anything out that you don’t feel comfortable with, but it just allows me to capture metrics.

G: How do you feel about providing metrics to justify your role?

CB: With this software, not only can I better collect information on how many people I’m serving, but what types of services I’m offering. Are they asking for things I can’t offer? I want to track some of the consequences — what are you experiencing as a result of this trauma? Are people having sleeping disruptions? Eating disruptions? Are they suffering job losses? What are some of the data that I can pull out to support not me, but the people I see. The victims and survivors who, as much as I shouldn’t have to quantify or qualify my work, they shouldn’t have to qualify or quantify their existence and their pain and their struggle. I think because we live in a patriarchal society, and this often affects women, that probably plays into a little bit of that added emphasis of needing to prove. That being said, I think lots of people who are asking for funding still have to prove the need is there.

The other piece of the software is that I can track hours, in terms of asking for support and asking for support in the role for a couple years. If you can’t prove how much time you’re putting into the work, then it doesn’t really justify bringing on another person. I can also write down every presentation I do — who’s in the room? Staff? Faculty? Students? At the end of the year, we know how many students received a particular amount of training — how much faculty? how many staff? — so we can see, are we reaching our students? Do we need to reach faculty more? It’s an incredibly robust system, and I’ve got a multi-factor authentication system on my computer, so it’s super protected. We can use that data to improve our process, to improve our services, to lend support.

G: Are there any LGBTQA+-specific resources that folks can access through you and through your role?

CB: I am pretty open about the fact that I reside in that community. So I hope that folks on campus who also identify with somewhere in that community would feel safe to come forward. Obviously, I don’t have everyone’s experience or speak for the entire community. Internally, we have the Q Centre. I brought up potentially looking at hiring somebody from that community — if we get a chance — within our counseling department. I know it’s important to me but I don’t always seek out therapeutic support from somebody within my own community. But it definitely feels a bit safer sometimes, just from a standpoint of somebody being able to understand the differences and the struggles that you have to go through. And if somebody wants to talk about a parent turning their backs on them, I had that experience. If somebody wants to talk about being afraid to come out to friends and family, I had that experience. I experience that every day. But then I would refer people to the Centre for Sexuality. I know they do a lot of really good work for our LGBT community, it would probably be my biggest resource.

G: Finally, what would you like our readership to know regarding your role?

CB: I still don’t think enough people know the role exists. So many times I see somebody, and they’re two months into a process, and they’ll say, ‘Why didn’t I start here?’ I think having a central place to start is what I would call client-centric, or trauma-informed. Otherwise, you’re going to so many different people and getting so much different information, and for the most part, I should have answers to almost any question, so you just have to deal with one person.

To reach out for support regarding sexual violence, or to get more information, email Carla Bertsch at svsa@ucalgary.ca.

Edited for brevity and clarity.

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