Interventions in Committee
 
 
 
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Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2018-02-08 12:31
I think it's imperative that those services be offered earlier. I 100% agree with what Oliver said: that he would like to see the Veterans Transition Network become a service provider to DND as well as VAC. I think that would be a wonderful thing.
I know that with our organization we also are trying to work our way through the DND door to educate them a little bit more on the services that we do provide. There are members who release and appear to be doing just fine. Then they kind of fall on hard times and need us. I think that it's important for DND to make its members aware of the resources that are available when they do release.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2018-02-08 12:48
As you said, we did start in Nova Scotia. Through the power of social media, actually, we were able to expand our reach across the country and encourage like-minded, caring, Canadians to step up and volunteer.
We do things in two ways, proactively and reactively. Proactively, our volunteers actually go out into the streets and visit the shelters. You know that, as you've come out with us before. We actively go looking for veterans who may be in crisis. Reactively, we take referrals from Veterans Affairs case managers, from shelter staff, and from veterans themselves or family members. Our reach is wide. We have a large volunteer database, so we're able to assist veterans pretty much anywhere.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 15:44
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee. Thank you for having me here today.
It's my pleasure to speak to you today about this important topic of service delivery.
My name is Debbie Lowther, and I am the chair and co-founder of VETS Canada, Veterans Emergency Transition Services. I am also the spouse of a military veteran of 15 years who was medically released in 2005. My husband and I co-founded VETS Canada in 2010.
The aim of VETS Canada is to provide assistance to veterans who are in crisis, who are at risk of homelessness, or who are already homeless.
What sets us apart from other organizations is that we don't wait for the veteran to come to us to ask for help. We go out in search of the veteran and offer them help. We're a volunteer-led organization. We have teams of volunteers in every province and major urban centre across the country, and those teams, as I said, go out into the streets conducting what we call “boots on the ground walks”. They visit the shelters, the drop-in centres, and the areas of the streets where the people who might need some help would be frequenting.
We also respond to referrals from shelters, from concerned family members, and from other organizations, including Veterans Affairs. In 2014 we were awarded a contract by the federal government, making us service providers to Veterans Affairs in the field of crisis and homeless veterans' outreach. To date, we've had the privilege of assisting over 1,200 veterans across this country.
The first thing we do when we come across a veteran who needs some help is to connect them to Veterans Affairs, because we want to make sure veterans are getting the services and benefits they may be entitled to from the department.
What does that mean? That means we deal with the department quite frequently, either on behalf of the veterans or with the veterans, because they sometimes find that process very overwhelming. Our volunteers will act as a mediator, hand-holder, or whatever the need might be.
With that frequent interaction with the department, what are we seeing? We're seeing that over the past couple of years there have been a lot of improvements with the department. We're also seeing that there is improvement still to be made.
In the past few years, the department has reduced the number of forms it takes for a veteran to apply for benefits and services, and that's been a welcome change. The department has endeavoured to reduce turnaround times in processing applications for disability benefits. The goal is 16 weeks. It's been our experience that the majority of the veterans we assist are receiving their benefits in that time frame. Over the past year, for some reason, the cases we're seeing have become increasingly complex, and it takes a little longer for those folks to get their responses.
Over the past six months, we've had the opportunity to work with some of the new Veterans Affairs case managers who have been hired, and it's been noted that with the decreased caseload, or lighter caseload, our veterans are receiving a faster response time from their case managers. For veterans who previously may have had to wait 48 to 72 hours to hear back from a case manager, we're finding that now they're getting a call back in less than 48 hours, and sometimes in less than 24 hours. We do believe that the hiring of additional case managers has been a great improvement.
It has been our experience that there are inconsistencies in how information about benefits is communicated to veterans. More often than not, the case managers are helpful and forthcoming with the information on benefits and services, but there are times, if the veterans don't know the right questions to ask, then they don't get the information, and they don't know what they're entitled to. Imagine a veteran who is struggling with PTSD, and who can barely get out of his house to go to the grocery store, trying to navigate the process of applications for benefits. We would like to see a more standardized process of case manager and client or veteran interaction, with maybe a checklist of some sort.
We're aware that the department is making efforts to provide a more seamless transition from the military by strengthening partnerships with the Department of National Defence, which is a sensible move, we feel. One issue that is frequently brought up, and probably one of the most frustrating, is the fact that when a veteran is still serving, that veteran may undergo a medical assessment by a military doctor to determine whether an injury or illness is service related. When that veteran transfers over to Veterans Affairs, he may have to be reassessed by Veterans Affairs doctors for that same condition or illness.
We've seen cases where people have been released from the military, they've been followed up by military doctors, their conditions have been determined to be a result of their service, and then they are followed up by Veterans Affairs doctors and their benefits are denied. They say that it's not service related. That's one frustration that impedes the seamless transition, we believe.
In closing, I will repeat what I said at the beginning. We've seen a lot of improvements over the last little while, but there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made. We do believe in continued consultation with community groups and veterans themselves. As Nora alluded to, we need collaboration rather than duplication, and we believe there are a lot of organizations that can work together for the betterment of our men and women who served this country. I think it's important for the department to continue to consult with the community organizations and the veterans to get the feedback they need.
I would like to thank you for having me here today.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:02
One thing I will say, which Mr. Kitchen mentioned earlier, is that when a person joins the military, the whole family joins. At the end of that career, if the member is struggling with PTSD, the whole family also suffers.
One thing I know the department has done is they've increased psychological counselling to include spouses and children, which I think is a great, positive step. I do agree that we could be taking better advantage of the other resources that are available, instead of, like Nora said, letting them try to do it all themselves. Why reinvent the wheel? If the services are there, then access them.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:17
Yes, it is. The majority of our volunteers are still serving members, veterans themselves, or military family members, so instantly you have that peer support, that connection, and that bond. It is very impactful, not just for the veterans we serve, but for our volunteers who, as I've said, are veterans and serving members themselves.
Oftentimes, the veteran we're helping looks at the volunteer and says, “Wow, he transitioned out of the military successfully, and maybe I could learn from that.” What that person doesn't realize is that the volunteer sometimes is saying, “I'm really struggling myself, but I'm better off than that guy.” It goes both ways. We provide a service to our veterans, and, while they don't realize it, they're providing something for our volunteers as well.
We have a lot of volunteers who were that veteran who couldn't get out of the basement. They saw one of our brochures or heard something on the news and thought they would give it a try. It has been very therapeutic for them. I'm not saying that everybody feels that way. We have had volunteers who jump in with both feet and find that it's too overwhelming for their own recovery. But definitely, peer support is key.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:24
We see a lot of different situations. When we do get a referral from a family member, it's often that the family member has done as much as they can. They just don't have the capacity to do any more, yet they still love that person and care for them.
With respect to the veterans being hard to find, veterans have a unique set of survival skills, so they can easily hide themselves away. Having said that, we have a lot of veterans who aren't homeless who hide themselves away in the basement. It's been our experience that if you can find the ones who don't want to be found—I think they think they don't want to be found—and if you can crack through the wall that they've built up, then they realize what they've been missing out on in life.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:25
They are every different scenario you could imagine. There are some that are huge success stories. For us, the biggest success stories are when we get a veteran back on their feet, and then they turn around and volunteer with us. That's the whole pay-it-forward thing.
We have veterans who are still struggling, but they're making their way through, and then we have veterans who fall off the rails and go back to previous habits. But we don't give up on them. If we can maintain contact with that person, our goal is to let them know that there's somebody there, and that there will always be somebody there.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:26
I don't know why they've become more complex. I don't know if it's because the veterans we're seeing are opening up more. One example I can give you is that in the last year, it seems as though every female veteran who's come to us in need of assistance has been the victim of military sexual trauma. They're coming out freely talking about that. I think it's probably as a result of the Deschamps report that came out and a lot of the media coverage surrounding that. I think it's probably why that situation is being talked about more.
I don't know why the increase in the complex cases, but we do see cases—again, to give the female veteran example—where they're struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, fleeing a domestic violence situation, or having to lose their children to children and family services. That sounds like a hopeless situation, but we've had that situation: we now have a mom who has her kids and who has a stable environment.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:29
We keep throwing around the word “collaboration”, but I think there needs to be more collaboration between VAC and DND. We believe that sometimes it can take a whole team of people to support a veteran. What's wrong with a veteran having a case manager from DND and a case manager from VAC working together to determine what's best for that veteran, working with the veteran and his family too? I think that would be of benefit.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:34
To be honest, Quebec has been the hardest nut to crack, if you will. We have helped veterans in Quebec. I wouldn't say that this is our busiest province, by any means.
Recruiting volunteers has been a challenge as well. I don't know why. Having said that, we have a new person who just came on board in Quebec, who is a veteran herself. She is reaching out to the reserve units as we speak. We have been drawing on her knowledge of the culture in Quebec.
One of the things she herself has experienced, being born and raised in Quebec, but having served in different parts of the country throughout her military career, is that a lot of the military members in Quebec don't go around in their uniform and that kind of thing, or even say they are in the military. When they are done for the day, they take their uniform off because they are not respected there as they are in other parts of the country. She has said she has experienced that herself going out in her uniform.
I don't know what the reason for it is, but that is what we are seeing and what we are hearing.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:35
It depends on the Legion branch. The Royal Canadian Legion's structure is unique in that you have dominion command, then you have the provincial commands, and then the individual branches. You would think that dominion command governs all of them, but that is not the case. Even provincial commands don't govern the branches. The branches govern themselves.
You could go to one Legion and get the best service, and then you could go to another Legion and not get any service. That is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the branch.
We work with the Legion all the time, because sometimes we don't have the resources to help, so we will reach out to the Legion. Sometimes we have a great result, and sometimes we don't. We've had Legions that have stepped up and said, “I can help pay this person's first month's rent and their damage deposit”, etc. Then we have other Legions that will say, “We gave that guy a grocery card a month ago. We can't help him any more.” It is very inconsistent.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:42
The veterans we find in crisis may be at risk of becoming homeless. They may have an eviction notice in their hand. They could have failed to pay all of their bills for the past six months because they are struggling. Financial management can sometimes be a struggle when somebody leaves the military if they're dealing with a mental health issue. There are different forms of crisis. With regard to mental health crisis in and of itself, we have veterans who will reach out to us strictly for peer support, and our volunteers are happy to provide that.
There are so many different types of crisis. The biggest one, I would say, would be somebody who is at risk of losing their home.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:44
I think steps are being made in the right direction. We have the centre that's now available. They are trying to put resources in place. I think that talking about the issue and bringing the issue more to the forefront is a big step in the right direction.
With regard to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, I'm not sure if you're asking if military sexual trauma should be classified as an injury related to service. We believe that it should be if somebody is sexually assaulted while they're in the military and their mental health suffers as a result of that. Even a physical injury that could happen as a result of that, we believe, should be considered a service-related injury.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:48
For our organization, we will often refer our veterans. We work with Veterans Affairs, first of all. We have a number of mental health care providers in different areas across the country who have been very kind to us and who will provide services to veterans—pro bono, in some cases. We have a lot of veterans, who, when they are first released, don't have health care benefits. I am sure you have already heard about that.
We have had situations where veterans in Saskatchewan actually fly, every month, to Edmonton to see their psychologist. I don't know what the solution to that is, and why there are no mental health providers in Saskatchewan. I don't know.
With regard to their crossing the border and receiving that care in the U.S., I think that would be wonderful. If it is closer than going to Edmonton, why not? However, working out the logistics of who pays and whatever would probably prove to be quite difficult.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:54
For some veterans, just walking into a Veterans Affairs office is a trigger for them. We often talk about the “brown envelope syndrome”. When you get communications from Veterans Affairs, they're in a brown envelope. We have veterans tell us that they have a pile of brown envelopes, and they don't open them. There could be important stuff in there, but they just don't open them. A lot of the veterans who are overwhelmed have already applied for benefits and been denied, and due to their frame of mind at the time they just don't have the fight in them to continue that.
Usually when we come in contact with a veteran we say that the first thing we're going to do is take them to Veterans Affairs, and they say no, they want nothing nothing to do with Veterans Affairs. We have to explain to them that it's kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face. That's where we come in at times to act as a buffer, and it usually makes the process a little smoother.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:55
Well, everything that comes from Veterans Affairs is delivered in a brown envelope, and people are accustomed to getting bad news, I guess, from the department at times, such as the people who have applied for benefits and been denied.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 16:56
Yes, absolutely. One of the things we hear about as the most common reason for delays in decisions being made is paperwork not being completed properly. If the case manager could sit down with the veteran and help them with that paperwork, so that they make sure it's completed properly, I think that would go a long way.
Yes, I think the department has to tailor their communications style depending on the veteran they're dealing with. The 95-year-old probably doesn't have a My VAC Account. He probably doesn't have the app on his phone. Then there are some of the homeless people we deal with who just don't have access to the Internet or who go to the library to access the Internet.
Everybody has a different communication style, so I think it would be beneficial to—
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:00
We've had situations in which a Veterans Affairs case manager will contact us and refer her veteran to us for peer support. The case managers, I think, also utilize OSISS a lot for some peer support. I think that goes a long way and it ties back into what we were talking about earlier, using the resources that are already there, using the community resources. There are people who don't want their families involved because that's where their head is at the time, but they would like to have a peer involved.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:02
I have to say that with a majority of the veterans we have taken to VAC, the ones who are in that state of crisis and are actually homeless, the case managers have been really good in trying to expedite their applications for benefits. We've seen some of our veterans have a turnaround time of two weeks for ELB, which is practically unheard of. Veterans Affairs does present the benefits that might be available to that veteran.
We also work with other organizations, because sometimes the veteran isn't entitled to anything from Veterans Affairs. They don't have a service-related injury, or they may have served only a short period of time. Then we rely on other provincial social support systems. For the most part, however, Veterans Affairs tends to provide for the needs they have.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:06
It's on the street and in shelters. Often, if another person refers that veteran to us, we'll meet with them at a Tim Hortons or wherever the veteran is comfortable meeting.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:07
I don't have statistics in front of me, but I'm comfortable in saying that about 90% of the veterans we've served have a mental health issue.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:07
When we encounter a veteran who has very serious mental illness, we consult with Veterans Affairs and try to bring in mental health care providers. Again, that goes way beyond what we have the capability to do. We aren't medical professionals. We aren't health care providers, so we cannot diagnose that person, but we will try to bring in the resources and the people who can help that person. Not that long ago, one of our volunteers sat with a veteran in the ER for 36 hours to make sure he received mental health care.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:08
Yes, they are, but you have to consider that that's their normal. They've adapted to living that way. We might think it's unusual behaviour, but to them, that's their normal. Even though someone has mental illness, they still have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they want the care. We can only point them in the direction and make recommendations.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:09
It's different for every person. I don't think we've ever encountered any two cases that have been the same. Everyone is different. Everybody's situation is different.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:09
Yes. I'll go back to what I said earlier, that most of our volunteers are former military or still-serving military, so a lot of them have some key training already, like suicide intervention training, non-violent crisis intervention, and those kinds of things, as well as the peer support aspect of things, which can solve a whole lot of other problems. When we bring a new volunteer on board, they're always teamed up with a more experienced volunteer.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:10
Yes. When someone who has been living on the street for a number of years finally decides that enough is enough and they're going to accept the help.... We have a veteran right here in Ottawa actually who, as I said earlier, we helped transition from the shelter to his own apartment, to a job, and now he volunteers with our team here in Ottawa. That is the biggest reward: when they say that they'll accept the help.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:11
Yes. We've developed good relationships with the majority of shelters across the country. We work with the Salvation Army quite closely. Some shelters have better systems in place than others do. I know the Salvation Army here in Ottawa, for example, has a housing specialist who will help a person staying there to navigate housing. They will usually call us and bring us in to collaborate with them to try to solve the situation.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:14
I think one thing they could do is bring in the resources that are available to them early on. It goes back to what we were saying earlier about the department trying to do everything itself. A case manager is not going to be able to solve all of the problems a veteran has. That case manager might have to rely on outside help, like our organization, for example, the legion, or OSISS. It's basically a matter of taking advantage of the resources that are there, and doing it sooner rather than later.
Debbie Lowther
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Debbie Lowther
2016-09-22 17:27
Again, I'd like to thank you for having me here today.
I would like to focus again on the collaboration piece. I've probably said it here today already, but one of our sayings is “collaboration, not duplication”. I think it's really important for organizations and groups to work together with the veteran at the core of what we're trying to achieve. If we can do that, then we'll have success.
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