Mary was just 12 years old when she came to the Vancouver Incest and Sexual Abuse Centre (VISAC), a Family Services program for sexual abuse counselling. Her uncle had been sexually abusing her and the abuse had been progressing, but she had been afraid to report it because she believed that her parents would lose the house if her uncle were not there to help the family financially.
Finally, fearful that he would rape her, Mary told her teacher, who called the police and social services, who referred the family to VISAC. It was later discovered that Mary’s uncle had also been sexually abusing Mary’s older sister for years, but she had never told anyone.
All family members excluding the offender were seen for counselling.
Christina Melnechuk often hears stories like Mary’s. Christina works as program manager for Family Services’ trauma counselling services, including VISAC and Children Affected By Family Violence.
The public’s awareness of child sexual abuse has increased dramatically over the past three decades, and that’s a very good thing, she says.
She’s seen the changes herself.
Christina first began working with youth in the 70’s as part of her school practicum at UBC.
“I had no intention of being a social worker,” she remembers. “My degree was in recreation, and I wanted to work on cruise ships.” As part of her school practicum, Christina took a job as a youth worker, but was surprised what came out of that experience.
“We thought it was going to be recreation, but what the youth really wanted were the rap nights.” Those were the meetings where teens could talk about their lives, drugs, relationships, sex and problems, she says. Christina realized that being able to offer those opportunities for communication and growth was “really personally satisfying.”
That led Christina to social work. “I started out downtown and I absolutely loved it,” she remembers. The city was very different then — drugs weren’t as major a problem, but alcohol abuse was commonplace.
One trend Christina and her colleagues noticed was particularly disturbing. A growing number of children were coming forward reporting sexual abuse. At the time, Davie Street was a hub for child prostitution. Many of these child prostitutes confided that they would rather be working on the street than facing abuse at home. “That’s when we started realizing child sexual abuse was a widespread problem.”
In 1985 Christina was hired by the Federal government as Project Manager for a pilot project: the first counselling program in B.C. for sexually abused children and their families. When that ended, funding was made available to continue, by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The VISAC Program was taken over by Family Services in 1987, and Christina was hired as a coordinator and therapist with the Child and Family program.
Since then, the offerings of Family Services Trauma Services have expanded to include trauma counselling for pregnant woman and for refugees and immigrants who have experienced trauma, as well as other programs.
The availability of programs can change dramatically depending on the funding available, however. Over the years, Christina has seen programs grow and shrink depending on the financial support Family Services gets.
“We have such long wait lists,” she says. “If we had more money we could offer more services.”
The programs Christina currently runs teach clients what to do when they feel overwhelmed by fear, she explains. People who have experienced hurtful or dangerous situations often tend to keep reliving those experiences, she says.
To deal with this, Christina and the other Family Services counsellors try to help their clients become mindful of their thoughts and feelings, and recognize what triggers a negative reaction in them. “A trigger that reminds them of an over6whelming fearful experience could be anything, a word, the time of year, a sound or even a smell,” Christina says.
“We provide them with information about trauma responses and ways in which they can help their body to calm down and manage their stress responses,” she says.
Mary went through counselling at Family Services to deal with the trauma the abuse left her with. “I felt better when I had someone to talk to,” Mary explained.
“The things I learned from counseling … really helped me a lot, especially the exercises we’d do in session,” she said. “I took all the skills and tools I learned … and I use them without even noticing until later on when I reflect at the end of the day.”
Those like Mary who experienced abuse or neglect at a young age are extra vulnerable, says Christina. Children raised without nurture tend to be more prone to subsequent traumas and are more likely to be taken advantage of sexually or otherwise, she explains.
Despite the difficulties her clients have faced, Christina has witnessed many people successfully overcome their trauma and move on with their lives.
“What’s really wonderful is when people, children especially, feel better about themselves,” she says. “Through counselling they learn that something may have happened to them, but it’s not their fault. It’s great to see kids who once felt like victims, or that they were responsible for the abuse, come out of it feeling strong.”
Mary was able to get better and move on, thanks to her hard work and the help of Family Services. “I learned that it wasn’t my fault — that my mom and dad believed me and we didn’t lose our house,” she said. “I learned I didn’t have to hide what happened to me and I didn’t have to tell anyone unless I trusted them.”
“The counsellor was there for me at my best and at my worst and helped me to feel better about myself. She was at my side helping me along,” Mary said. “I’m in a better place now.”
Contributing writer: Stephanie Orford