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Partner Spotlight: Giselle Lutfallah, MSW - Director of Service at Children's Aid Society of Oxford County

Explain to us what inspired you to get into this work?

As a young Social Work student, I had the opportunity to complete an internship at Windsor Essex Children's Aid Society. It was through this experience that I was able to begin to appreciate the complexities of the child welfare sector and the many challenges that families are charged to overcome; be it generational abuse, limited opportunities for families who represent equity seeking groups, substance dependence, domestic violence, and/or poverty to name a few.  I have had the privilege to be witness to the resilience and grit of the human spirit when individuals are able to overcome these challenges and work towards making an individual change which positively impacts the whole family system. The inspiration to continue on in this work comes from a desire to support and sustain a service response which is person centered, anti-oppressive, creates opportunity for everyone, honors the uniqueness of each individual  and at the end of the day, leaves people in a better spot.

There remain some preconceived notions about the role of CAS.  Could you explain to us what services are offered through CAS, who you support, and why these services are critical for communities?

Thanks for asking that question, I love to highlight that the majority of our work is with individuals and families in the community. I've often had to dispel the myth that child welfare service responses always include children coming into a foster home. We have been able to create a service response that recognizes children and youth are always a part of a larger network that care and support them and we strive to keep families together while planning for safety.  We have a Family Violence Counselling program, as well that is available to anyone in the community who is experiencing abuse or wants to stop using abusive tactics in an intimate partner relationship.  Our programs are for children, youth, women and men and are separate but complimentary to our child welfare services. We are a strong service partner and work collaboratively with other services to make sure that we are all working together in a way that supports the community as a whole. In addition, we also have some great programs that are available to everyone in the community, regardless if child welfare service is involved. Our early help offerings in the community include afterschool programs, breakfast programs as well as educational supports so children and youth are able to realize their full potential. We are lucky to have parent volunteers who support the community and are targeted to increasing community belongingness for children and youth.

June is PRIDE month, and we’d like to know what CAS does to ensure kids and youth feel included and seen?

In all of the services we provide, we honor the uniqueness and strength of each individual. This might include having opportunity for mentorship, ensuring our physical space is inclusive or participating in advocacy for children and youth who are struggling in their identity. We strive to offer a service response that resonates for all individuals who receive our service. This includes ensuring that we know who we are serving by asking for identity data which informs our service response for the people we serve. As an organization, we have a strong emphasis upon Equity and Inclusion and are committed to creating a safe service offering everyone by ensuring staff receive training and support in creating a psychologically safe space for all individuals. We have membership with the Rainbow Coalition in our community which has created community training opportunities for all service providers.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about CAS and the work you do in Oxford County?

The main thing that I would like for everyone to know is that as a service resource network, DART’s intention to creating a healthy and vibrant community that is safe and responsive is a goal that The Children’s Aid Society and Family Violence Counselling program is proud to be a part of.  Our best hope is that we are a part of a strong service network that is able to connect people to the service they need, regardless of which service they reach out to.

This year we created a community snapshot to reflect the realities of Oxford County as it relates to matters of gendered based violence. This snapshot was created in collaboration with many community partners.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any forms of domestic and/or sexual violence, or is at risk of human trafficking, please don't hesitate to reach out to Domestic Abuse Services Oxford. If you're looking for resources or to learn more about these issues and how you can support your loved ones, please check out our website under resources.

Explain to us what inspired you to get into this work?

Early on in my ‘helping professional’ career, I was exposed to some incredible and inspiring leaders within the Violence Against Women Sector. At that time, I was working in a social justice capacity, organizing events and campaigns. This provided exposure to a variety of social issues, and the grassroots feminist movement really stood out to me. There was something that spoke to me in a very visceral way during these campaigns, events, protests, and rallies. In hindsight, it’s clear that it was because of an alignment to my values and beliefs. It was these early experiences and mentoring relationships that set the foundation for my work going forward, and I still hold true to the underlying values and beliefs that the feminist movement taught me (and continues to teach me today). I value the contributions of these inspiring mentors and the brave people who have come before me in this work. I continue to take inspiration from the clients I serve; to bear witness to their resilience, strength and courage is such a privilege.

Sexual violence is a form of violence used to exert power and control over another person. It can include the following:

Can you explain a bit more about what sexual violence is?

*image taken from LearnRidge2022 supporting survivors of sexual violence Nova Scotia (learnridge.com)

What populations does it typically impact?

Sexual violence can happen to any person, any age, and of any gender. We do know, however, that women, trans folks and girls still continue to experience sexual violence disproportionately compared to that of other genders, with men disproportionately being the perpetrators of that violence. This means it is a gendered problem. We also know that Indigenous, Black, Brown, and racialized populations, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ folks are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence, with their experiences often being ignored and/or omitted. 

The most common ages of those who experience sexual violence are those between the ages of 15-25, with 1 in 3 women experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime. Most sexual assaults are premeditated, involving planning, coercion, or threats, and are often facilitated by alcohol or drugs. Often perpetrators of sexual violence are known to the victim.

What are some myths that exist?

There are many myths surrounding sexual violence that are pervasive in society. It is important that we all take responsibility for this, and actively challenge the broader social climate and messaging about sexual violence. It is very much rooted in how we view women and girls in society.

The biggest myth, in my opinion, is that sexual violence is experienced equally across all genders. We really need to challenge this, as we can’t fix a problem if we can’t name it.

There are plenty of myths surrounding consent. For example, if someone dressed a certain way, acted a certain way, etc. ‘they asked for it’. Or, if someone was intoxicated, they just don’t remember that they ‘actually did consent’. Consent can only take place when someone is not intoxicated. It must be enthusiastic, ongoing, clear, and explicit.

Someone’s prior sexual history is often used to dismiss sexual assault disclosures. A person’s sexual history cannot be used as a factor to determine whether sexual violence took place.

There are myths that are used to dismiss disclosures of sexual violence, for example to state that the victim is lying or fabricating their disclosure. According to the research, we know that sexual assault is the most under-reported of all violent crimes. False reports are extremely rare, and they are no more common than false reports for any other type of crime (less than approx. 2%).

There are many reasons why a victim may choose not to disclose, including shame, self-blame, fear, questioning whether it was sexual violence, fear of not being believed, or to avoid having to talk about it.

It is important that we recognize that victims’ responses to sexual assault will vary. All responses are adaptive attempts to survive the trauma- both physically and emotionally. There is no ‘right way’ to experience trauma.

What supports and/or resources are available for those who have experienced violence in the Oxford Community?

Oxford Sexual Assault Services, located at the Oxford County Community Health Centre, is a good place to start. Counselling and psychotherapy is available, as well as wrap-around services. This program can be accessed directly, no referral necessary.

Domestic Abuse Services Oxford offers a 24/7 crisis and information helpline.

If someone has experienced a recent sexual assault and would like to explore evidence collection (with or without police involvement), medical follow-up (testing for sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy testing, etc.), the Regional Treatment Centre for Sexual and Domestic Violence at St. Joseph’s Hospital serves Oxford County.

What is one thing you’d want a survivor/victim to know?

You are believed, and what happened to you is not ok. It is not your fault.

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