Rape Crisis staff describe ‘devastating’ decision to close support waiting list

Jocelyn Anderson, West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre chief executive Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Staff at a Rape Crisis centre forced to close its counselling services waiting list earlier this year due to funding pressures said the decision was “heart-breaking”.

Jocelyn Anderson, long-serving chief executive of the West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, said staff were “in tears” when it was reluctantly agreed to close its 450-strong waiting list, despite people including children as young as five being referred to its counselling services.

The centre, which has about 50 staff split between two sites in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, has an annual turnover of £2 million, providing counselling and advocacy support to rape and sexual abuse survivors.

It receives money from the Ministry of Justice, the Police and Crime Commissioner, and other charity grants, but exists largely on short-term handouts, which Ms Anderson said are not enough to deal with the growing number of people requiring help.

Ms Anderson told the PA news agency: “We can’t physically employ the counselling team that we have any more because we haven’t got the funding to do it.

“So, we have the situation of numbers growing and a demand for the service is growing at the same time our resources are shrinking.

Rape crisis support has been withdrawn in West Mercia. Credit: PA

“It just came to a situation where I think it’s probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in this job to actually close the waiting lists for both adults and children.”

She said closing the waiting list was “heart-breaking, devastating”, particularly because of the impact it would have on children.

“I genuinely didn’t think we would ever get to this stage,” she said.

“I haven’t really got the words any more. I can say, you know, ‘devastating’, ‘heart-breaking’, but it is – it’s soul-destroying.

“The whole reason for us being here is to support people to try and help people to heal, to move on from what’s happened to them.”

Katie, 35, a sexual abuse victim from Worcestershire Credit: Jacob King/PA

It comes as Rape Crisis – the umbrella charity for the centre – released record-breaking figures showing waiting lists for its 39 centres across England and Wales leapt to record levels – 9,947 on its waiting list as of the end of 2020-21, up from 8,444 in 2019-20.

PA was given rare media access to its counselling and advocacy staff and clients in Worcester, during which Ms Anderson said she was often faced with the decision on whether to use money to fund services, or create a more welcoming environment for vulnerable people visiting the building.

“We make do with bits that are begged, borrowed and donated to us,” she said.

She said past experience meant she had genuine fears of people dying by suicide and self-harming as a result of not being able to get the support they need.

“We need to be properly funded,” she said. “And not just in the short-term, it needs to be long-term money so that we can build, plan, expand, there’s so much other work that we want to do as well.”

Shondelle James, children’s counselling service team leader, said early intervention was crucial in trying to prevent long-term mental health issues in rape and sexual assault victims.

Shondelle James, a children’s counselling service team leader Credit: Jacob King/PA

Child counselling staff currently have a roster of around 18 young clients, although there are many on the waiting list who have been told they will have to wait 18 months until they are given specialist one-to-one help.

Ms James said: “If I was a parent and I had to wait 18 months, and being physically around my child who is deteriorating in front of me because of what’s happened, I would want them to have support now.

“Parents are calling up to check where their young person is on the waiting list and ‘why is it taking so long?’, their young person is struggling or just having a parent vent to you about what’s happening.

“It’s horrible because you have parents crying, you have parents just at a loss because they just don’t know what to do, or what else to do.

“If we had sustainable funding we could hire another counsellor for a year-and-a-half, that will help us get through the backlog.

“But we don’t have funding to do that and that’s where we fall down.”

Sara Banner, an independent sexual violence adviser (ISVA) who works at the centre, said her colleagues currently have a caseload of around 50 clients – well over the ideal maximum of 35.

She said: “The referrals are constantly coming in. And because of Covid we’re having to hold clients now for a lot longer because court cases are taking so much longer to complete, so our caseload isn’t thinning out at the other end – it’s coming in thick and fast.

“I think if the money gets filtered down to the front line, where we can use it to employ more staff, we can keep waiting lists down.

“It’s imperative for anybody going through this to be able to offer them (the service) so if those services can be funded then that would really really help.”