Domestic violence in Canada: the dirty file...
All names of victims have been changed for their protection.
Thirteen-year-old Cody is the man of the house. When he was 5, he packed his oversized Thomas the Tank Engine hardcover book in his backpack, and told his mom that this was it—tonight was the night they would leave his abusive father. He was fed up of watching his mom get hurt. But his baby sister, Sasha, was asleep, and his mom, Julia, says she had her next excuse—so they stayed, for another 4 years. They had baby Jake who was less than a year old when his family finally fled the violence—but he was already brain-damaged.
“He shook him like a rag doll and threw him from the doorway against his crib,” remembers Julia, who escaped her abusive marriage five years ago. “I think that’s when the damage happened.”
Cody suffers from anxiety and depression; Sasha has anger management issues; and Jake has a learning disability. Up to 362,000 children witness or experience family violence every year in Canada1—and more than a quarter of violent crimes reported to police are from victims of intimate partner violence, though the number is estimated to be much higher as many go unreported2. Julia met her ex-husband 15 years ago and fell so quickly in love that they married after only a few months. “He controlled the courtship, the wedding plans, where we went on the honeymoon, what I wore, what I bought for groceries, when I went to church, he bought me a cell phone to keep track of me and called me dozens of times during the day,” she remembers. “He refused to cook, clean, launder, or anything post marriage. The abuse got physical and he was very abusive during each pregnancy, with the culmination of my head getting slammed numerous times, and pushed and squeezed until I could not breathe.
“I lost all of me. I’m starting to regain myself, but I don’t know if I could ever really trust anyone,” admits Julia, who now carries a GPS personal safety device in case her ex-husband breaches his indefinite restraining order. “I think it’s an epidemic, and I think that it’s become a part of the culture. But so many people don’t want to talk about it—it’s like the dirty file.”
Domestic violence in the Prairies Rates of family violence have always been somewhat high in the Prairies, with Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta all ranking among the five provinces with the highest rates of police-reported family violence in the country2. Julia lives in Red Deer, Alberta, where a dedicated domestic violence unit within the RCMP works with victims and their families, and collaborates with other local organizations.
”Domestic violence is prevalent in Red Deer, unfortunately, as it is across Alberta and throughout the country,” says Cpl. Robyn McLaughlin, who heads up the Red Deer RCMP’s domestic violence unit. “It is still perceived by many as a private issue between partners or families, rather than a community issue. Many people still do not want to talk about it or get involved.”
Gemma, who also lives near Red Deer, agrees saying she felt secluded by her friends and family who were fed up of her situation and she wasn’t sure where to turn. Many people wonder why women in domestic violence situations don’t ‘just leave’. However, the barriers to seeking help for victims of domestic violence are endless. Love and emotional attachment are only the beginning—financial dependence, housing, lack of confidence to build their own lives after being mentally abused for years on end, and a fear for the lives of their children, parents, animals, and themselves are a few of the many barriers victims face.
Gemma explains that the abuse came in different forms and set in gradually, but the good times were really good, and this is part of what made the situation confusing. “I was completely enveloped in him from the moment I saw him. I thought the world of him, he was helpful, charming, handsome, attentive, and he got along with my kids,” says Gemma whose son and daughter used to call her ex-boyfriend ‘daddy’. “I began to experience the chaos that exists in abusive relationships, I often had bruises, and was left with no self-esteem as he constantly belittled and degraded me. I tried leaving but he grabbed me and smashed my head against the wall. It was like an instant goose egg, and then he laid on top of me for an hour crying that he did that.”
Red Deer’s domestic violence unit eventually helped Gemma over a long journey as she attempted to leave the man she loved. “We hope for compassion in those who are trying to support someone they know is a victim of domestic abuse,” says Cpl. McLaughlin. “Those situations can be psychologically difficult to leave, but that doesn't mean friends and family can give up on offering support. That support, and police intervention, could save lives.”
The unit in Red Deer is made up of five RCMP personnel, one social worker, and two case workers from the local outreach centre. It receives an average of 15 calls from domestic violence victims every day, which Cpl. McLaughlin says is in line with provincial averages, but that numbers shift according to the time of week and year, as well as a range of external factors. They work to provide a consistent response and follow-up to victims in terms of things like risk assessments, safety planning, referrals and emergency protection orders (EPOs).
However, Barb Miller, MLA of Red Deer South, says that the system still has a long way to go for victims of domestic violence. “It’s out of control—It’s not so much that people aren’t listening, people are listening but they’re not doing anything about it. Women are staying in this situation because they have no hope of getting out of it. When they turn for help, they’re not getting it. They can’t get protection orders. Some places give them out like candy and other places, you have to be on your deathbed to get one. It’s not right. And it’s not just women; there are men in this situation too. A victim is a victim, and it’s got to stop.”
Irving Kurz, who is a retired RCMP officer and the current Domestic Violence Squad Coordinator for DRVIC [Domestic Relationship Violence Initiative Committee] in Red Deer, argues that the process for obtaining a protection order is actually simple and straightforward, though he admits things didn’t always run so smoothly in the past, particularly in terms of information-sharing between organizations.
“This was an area in which we needed to do so much better. It used to be awful! It is not awesome now, but bit by bit, we are making progress,” he says. “We’ve absolutely come to understand that the primary focus needs to be on keeping these women and children alive. Their safety is paramount here. When you use that lens and that paradigm, things start to change a little. There is no room for any kind of inter-agency bickering or turf-building, so that is where our headspace is at here in this community.”
Things do seem to be improving culturally in Red Deer and in cities like Calgary towards domestic violence. Julia says that in Red Deer and Calgary hospitals, she has always immediately been asked whether her injuries were a result of domestic abuse. There are also signs to this effect on the walls and there is a culture being created where domestic violence is not acceptable. When she found herself in a Medicine Hat hospital with the same types of injuries suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, no one asked and she didn’t tell.
Safety in technology Several cities in Alberta—including Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer—have all run pilot programs with GPS devices from a Canadian company, SafeTracks GPS Canada. Victims are equipped with personal monitoring devices and can call emergency services hands-free if they feel unsafe, simply by pushing the SOS button. The second part of the program monitored the offenders by placing court-ordered GPS ankle bracelets on them to keep them away from victims. If they breached a predetermined range, the police would be able to locate and detain the offender. According to Ian Wheeliker, who is the Executive Director at the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter (CAWES), GPS ankle bracelets are especially effective as a way to enforce different types of protection orders.
“People breach those conditions all day long, every day—what the technology does is it stops that,” says Wheeliker. “We’re going to identify the minute you go into a no-go zone, we’re getting an alert and the police are coming to pick you up.”
CAWES receives 1700 calls on their crisis line and serves over 2000 women and children across their programs every year, though they will turn away many more victims than they can take in. They have 40 beds for 40 women and children and a 28-day stay, but will turn away over 500 of the more than 17,000 women turned away by shelters in Alberta annually. Wheeliker and his colleague Sandy McKechnie, who is also a retired police officer, see women everyday whose self-esteem and self-worth are in tatters.
“I’ve thought, ‘Well, why don’t these men go to jail?’ If you injure a dog, you beat up a dog and leave the dog in a back alley, you’re probably going to go to jail,” says Wheeliker. “But then I got thinking, if we put all these men that are domestic violence offenders in jail, we would probably have to triple the capacity of our current penitentiary system. I know that our criminal justice system is not going to lock these men up—it’s not cost-effective. So, I think the opportunity is that we can use GPS technology to closely monitor these guys’ activity, keep the onus on their behaviour and their compliance with their conditions.”
However, despite the fact that GPS monitoring is a more cost-effective and practical solution to keeping victims safe and offenders accountable, the previous Conservative government did not renew the program’s funding in Red Deer, and high-risk offenders have had their GPS ankle bracelets removed. Calgary and Edmonton have managed to secure alternate sources of funding, but the victims in Red Deer have not been extended the same safety. Wheeliker, who says it’s not uncommon for women to come into the shelter with broken bones or broken eardrums, was tasked with notifying the victims when the program was discontinued.
“The victims were very upset that the government would not continue the program,” he says. “They finally got some peace in their life, and then the pilot came to an end. Now, we’ve put forward our case to the government of Alberta that we saw a benefit—but the government of Alberta, so far, has not made a commitment to the electronic monitoring of domestic violence offenders.”
Lives at stake In the aftermath of the domestic violence homicide of Camille Runke in Winnipeg, however, Manitoba has recently committed to doing just this.
“One of the things that we are doing here to manage the justice system, we are working with SafeTracks and have purchased their personal monitoring devices, which will provide an additional enhancement to the protection and safety for victims of crime,” says Janelle Braun, who is the Acting Executive Director of Manitoba Justice Victim Services (MJVS).
The MJVS reaches out to all victims in Manitoba where charges are laid, as well as all victims in Winnipeg where charges are not laid. “We’re seeing around 9000 or so calls to police where charges are not laid, and that’s an opportunity for us to reach out,” says Braun. “Often, we’re in the situation where we are providing support for both partners in the relationship. So, it’s a point to intervene and try to assist with some of the resources and services, and talk about what their needs are to try and prevent some of the incidents from happening again.”
However, although Braun has confirmed that Manitoba has electronic monitoring and tags for offenders, it turns out that Camille’s estranged husband, against whom she had a restraining order when she was murdered, was never fitted with one. Camille’s sister Maddie Laberge feels strongly that the addition of a GPS ankle bracelet to her sister’s situation could well have saved her life.
“My sister was a very stable person and a good judge of character in terms of the fact that she didn’t call and complain about other people—this was one specific person that was terrorising her and I don’t know why they couldn’t take that more seriously,” says Maddie. “I feel like if someone has a past history of protection orders or harassment, violent behaviour, stalking—in my sister’s case, she was very concerned about his behaviour, and she was scared. With what he was doing and given the fact that they couldn’t trace him, I really feel like they should have hauled him in and put on a GPS monitoring device so they could figure out where he was!”
Big picture perspective Kurz from the DRVIC says it would be great to have GPS ankle bracelets as a province-wide program and MLA Miller, CAWES, and of course many victims of domestic violence, feel the same way. McKechnie, however, says that while the devices are an excellent idea, it is important for victims to maintain their fighting spirit to live, rather than relying too heavily on their GPS. If they push their SOS button and someone doesn’t instantly show up, they must not give up. There can be time delays associated with technology, particularly in rural areas, depending on where the victim is and where the nearest police officer is. “As long as they understand that, it’s a good thing,” says McKechnie, who has been credited by women at CAWES as being crucial to their recovery.
Wheeliker adds that the devices are an important piece of a much larger puzzle, the other pieces of which are largely made up of prevention initiatives and changes to the family court system. “If we can prevent children at a very early age from being exposed to the toxic stress and the modelling of domestic violence, that’s going to interrupt the generational cycle of domestic violence—we’ve got to put a lot more money into prevention, that’s the key and the long-term solution,” says Wheeliker.
“Under the federal legislation, custody and access is being decided day in, day out at family courts across the country, and domestic violence perpetrators are being granted liberal access to children,” he says. “What happens is during custody and visitation and access, domestic violence offenders continue to model misogynistic, women-hating behaviours—we’ve had little four-year-old boys that have been told to, when they go home, get the axe and chop up mommy—this is very common.”
According to Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer, a spokesman for the federal RCMP, intimate partner violence has been recently identified as a priority for the National Youth Services Branch. “Awareness and educational initiatives targeted at youth across Canada are currently being developed for use,” he says.
Although he adds: ”The RCMP is only one partner among many government and non-government organizations, social services, health professionals and citizens who must align their efforts to reduce the rates of domestic violence in our communities. Domestic violence is not a private matter—we need everybody to speak out.”
Julia and Gemma both continue to carry personal GPS monitors for their safety. Gemma’s ex-boyfriend also wears a GPS ankle bracelet and she has been notified on a handful of instances where he tried to enter her 'zone'. Julia’s ex-husband does not wear an ankle bracelet and she continues to live in fear of his intrusion. For more information about SafeTracks GPS Canada, visit http://www.safetracksgps.ca/
Sources for this article: 1 Canadian Women’s Foundation (2015) Fact Sheet, Moving Women out of Violence 2 Statistics Canada (2015) Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2013 Julia (pseudonym), victim of domestic violence: interview Gemma (pseudonym), victim of domestic violence: interview MLA Barb Miller, Red Deer South: interview Janelle Braun, Manitoba Justice Victim Services: interview Cpl Robyn McLaughlin, RCMP domestic violence unit, Red Deer: interview Harold Pfleiderer, Federal RCMP, Ottawa: interview Sandy McKechnie, Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter: interview Ian Wheeliker, Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter: interview