Ending silence surrounding domestic abuse

Kim Gillespie knows tragedy can breed in silence.

By Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard
Monday, May 30, 2016 5:56:02 EDT PM

For years, her mother kept admissions of abuse at the hands of her husband locked away.

It was a best-kept secret, even amongst the closest of family.

When Judy Fraser took the courageous step in fall of 2013 to end her 47-year marriage and tackle life on her own at the age of 73, she knew it wouldn’t be easy.

There was a hard road ahead, but one the beloved grandmother felt worthwhile to put an end to years of abuse, Gillespie recalled.

With the help of her family, Fraser moved into a new home with hopes of a fresh start — one that would be tragically cut short.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Fraser was stabbed to death by her estranged husband in front of her St. Catharines apartment building.

George Fraser pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in June 2015 and is currently serving life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 18 years.

While it’s a difficult story for Gillespie to share, it’s one she’s hopeful will shed light on domestic abuse in the community and raise awareness of Gillian’s Place, which offers shelter and support to women and children escaping violence.

The organization runs an emergency shelter but also offers confidential counselling, housing assistance and free legal services.

Fraser was in touch with the organization after her separation, but with the support of her family was able to manage on her own in retaining a lawyer and finding a new place to live.

Gillian’s Place again offered support after her death, stepping in to walk her family through the court process — a gesture Gillespie considers invaluable.

The St. Catharines agency is the only shelter in Ontario that has a family law lawyer on staff, community development manager Nicole Regehr said.

“It’s one of the most important services we offer,” she said, as women living in violent situations often have fears surrounding child custody and access to assets and finances.

That legal advice and knowledge can provide the confidence needed for those women to find a safer environment, Regehr said.

But the first step in getting out is often letting someone in.

It took decades for Fraser to open up about her abuse, Gillespie said.

Many details were only learned after her separation.

Gillespie has been left with pangs of guilt, wishing she had realized earlier on the physical and sexual abuse her mother had experienced.

“It’s a secret even within your own family,” she said, believing her mother didn’t want to burden her two children with the harsh truth.

Even the verbal and mental abuse experienced was hidden away from outsiders, which Gillespie said resulted in family and friends being “completely blindsided” when Fraser ended her marriage.

She can’t help but wonder if her mother would have left sooner had she known about help available in the community.

Knowing there are other women who could benefit, Gillespie wants to spread the word about available supports.

She also wants to share the message that they are not alone.

Abuse is often immersed in secrecy, creating a feeling of isolation, she said.

“You think this is the norm. You can’t tell anybody because you’re scared and there are always repercussions,” she said. “But this is not OK. You deserve better.”

She hopes women will come together to break the wall of silence.

“Why keep silent about it? That’s what creates the cycle. It gives (abusers) power. If people know they’re not alone, maybe they will reach out.

“I wouldn’t want another family to have to live through a tragedy like this.”

She urged those in need to give Gillian’s Place a chance.

“It’s confidential. No one will judge you,” she said, while acknowledging it’s a difficult, and personal, move to make.

There’s much more to leaving an abusive relationship than walking out the door, Gillespie said.

“You don’t know where you’re going to live, where your money’s going to come from. But Gillian’s Place can help with all of that.”

Gillespie is proud of her mother for leaving.

“She gained strength,” she said of Fraser, who the day of her murder had been at a counselling session meant to empower her throughout the separation process.

“She was feeling positive about the future. It wasn’t long lived, but I’m happy she knew what it felt like, knew that she did it, she got away from him. She would have thrived in her new life.”

Team Healing Hearts, a mixture of Fraser’s friends and family, have made it a tradition to come together to celebrate her strength at the annual Gillian’s Place Walk for Women, held this year on June 4.

“It makes you feel like you’re doing something, trying to make something better out of something so horrible,” Gillespie said. “I hope she’s proud.”

The walk, dedicated to Fraser in 2015, has raised $150,000 since its inception four years ago.

This year’s target is an additional $50,000 to support the agency’s programs and services.

“It’s a really great day for women to come together and say with a unified voice that domestic violence is unacceptable and we’re not going to stand for it. We’re doing something about it,” Regehr said.

Raising funds, but more importantly raising awareness, helps to bring domestic violence out from hiding, she said.

“It’s everybody’s business and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.”


Gillian’s Place Walk for Women

What: A fundraising two- and five- kilometre walk that supports Gillian’s Place, an agency that aids women and children fleeing abuse.

When: Saturday, June 4. Registration is at 9 a.m., following by the opening ceremony at 10:30 a.m. and the walk immediately after.

Where: Welland Canal Parkway Lock 3 Park, St. Catharines.

The day will also include children’s activities and lunch for participants.

To make a donation or for more information, visit walkforwomenniagara.ca.

Women in need of support, or friends and family needing advice on how to help a loved one, can contact the 24-hour Gillian's Place support line at 905-684-8331.