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Dani Polsom, a 27-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., says she was sexually assaulted as a child, but her case was dismissed last October because of delays in bringing it to trial. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Dani Polsom, a 27-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., says she was sexually assaulted as a child, but her case was dismissed last October because of delays in bringing it to trial. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Alberta struggling to provide prompt justice in boom towns, review finds Add to ...

At first, Dani Polsom didn’t want to tell anyone. Now, speaking out is all she can do.

Ms. Polsom says she was sexually abused for nine years, throughout her childhood, but kept it quiet until telling her mother in 2009. A man in her booming hometown of Airdrie, Alta., was charged, and Ms. Polsom hoped justice would finally be served.

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Then she waited. The case dragged on for 38 months in Alberta’s overburdened courtrooms and was eventually thrown out last fall at the accused man’s request because too much time had elapsed. It left Ms. Polsom fuming, with no verdict on her alleged abuser.

“I had no idea that there was even such a thing as it being in court for too long. Because when we asked them why it’s taking so long, they said, ‘Oh, it’s normal,’” recalled Ms. Polsom, now 27. “It was a shock. And even now when you tell people about it, they almost don’t believe you.”

Ms. Polsom’s case prompted an internal government review. Released last week, it found a chronic “systemic acceptance of delay” in Alberta’s justice system, due in large part to courtrooms bursting at the seams. The system “failed the complainant,” the review found.

Accused individuals have a right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prosecution within a “reasonable” time and can apply to have a case thrown out if things drag on. Airdrie, a Calgary bedroom community, is one of Alberta’s fastest-growing areas, and its court is overwhelmed.

Across Alberta’s boom towns, more cases will be thrown out for delays without urgent action, the report warned. And the pressures are only going to get worse with the federal omnibus crime bill, which “will further increase time to trial and heightens the need for immediate action” to reduce delays, the report said.

The report made a series of recommendations. They include expanding the Case Management Office program, which diverts uncontested cases from a courtroom to speed things up. Last month’s budget inched up funding for prosecutions, but Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said there was no new money for case management. Mr. Denis said he’s considering departmental cuts to free up money for the program.

Other recommendations included focusing on serious criminal cases and assigning files to Crown prosecutors more quickly. (A prosecutor didn’t see Ms. Polsom’s case until more than four months after she came forward.) The government is considering the recommendations but hasn’t yet said which, if any, it will accept.

Premier Alison Redford praised Ms. Polsom for coming forward. “This was a perfect opportunity of a very courageous young woman who took a step forward and said things can be better, and we’re very grateful that she did. Because it will make things better,” she said.

Ms. Polsom’s family praises the local MLA, Rob Anderson, for raising the issue in the legislature last year and sparking the review. Mr. Anderson said the government shied away from talking about a child sexual abuse case.

“I think it’s such an awful thing for so many people, that we’d rather not talk about it. And that has to stop,” he said. “When the system fails young people in the way that it has Dani, or any person that it has, that has to be talked about.”

Ms. Polsom brought a petition to the legislature this week, urging speedy handling of cases involving claims of child sexual abuse, investigating all cases thrown out by delay and publishing how many are. She also had to apply to court to lift a publication ban to be allowed to discuss the case publicly. Courts shouldn’t be allowed to muzzle complainants, particularly after a trial is dismissed, she said. (The Globe and Mail isn’t identifying the accused, who was not convicted.)

After years of alleged abuse, Ms. Polsom struggled with coming forward, but decided she had to.

“Some people, that’s just the way they need to heal, too. They need their story to be out there so they don’t feel like they’re hiding secrets anymore,” she said, after earlier urging other victims to consider coming forward. “When you get to the other side of that dark, scary tunnel, you’re going to look back and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.”

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