Support for victims of domestic violence - oversubscribed and too hard to find

SAINT JOHN * Cynthia Irving was unhappy in her marriage, and she made no secret of it.

Her co-workers at the pharmacy all knew it, were witness to her husband Joseph Irving's possessiveness every time he'd call to check in on her, or lurk about the store in Saint John. At times, Cynthia would refer to her husband as "the leech." Work was her "happy place."

And then, on March 23, 2014, Cynthia didn't show up for work. Her husband was in custody for murder.

As Cynthia's story was revealed at the trial of her husband this year, it became the seed that grew into this series on intimate partner violence in New Brunswick.

Research led to data from Statistics Canada, obtained exclusively by Brunswick News, showing the severity of the problem. In 2014, police reported more than 2,000 victims of intimate partner violence, according those figures. That's the highest rate in Atlantic Canada. It accounts for a quarter of violent crimes in New Brunswick - more than drugs, robbery, motor vehicle theft or even drunk driving.

At the trial of Joseph Irving, Crown prosecutor Jim McAvity said the case wasn't a "whodunit ... it's a tragedy."

The tragedy of Cynthia Irving wasn't just her death - it was everything that could have been done to stop it. Neither she nor those around her knew the warning signs to watch for. And they didn't know what to do.

In a province lacking legislation that assists victims across Canada escape potentially dangerous situations, New Brunswick falls short in making people aware of what is available to them.

While other provinces have instituted campaigns to increase awareness about domestic violence and resources, New Brunswick is behind the times. And it's been a problem for years.

In a 2009 government survey, New Brunswickers overwhelming agreed that more awareness and education was the key to preventing intimate partner violence. Six years later, the government has done little to raise awareness of the supports and assistance available to women trapped in violent relationships. That job has been left primarily of word-of-mouth and grassroots efforts.

Without easy access to information about healthy relationships, warning signs and resources available to those in dangerous situations, we're left with myths and misconceptions. He was just angry. She pushed his buttons. It was the alcohol. It was stress. He only threatened her, punched the wall, smashed her phone. If it really was a problem she'd leave.

Cynthia Irving talked about her fraught relationship every day, but those complaints didn't translate into concern. Her friends, family and co-workers didn't know the signs and dangers of domestic violence, or what to do about it. As bad as things were, Cynthia had a way of framing the situation, putting a positive spin on things. This is what victims do - minimize, cope.

Cynthia was different on her last day at work. Something had happened the night before, and she had decided to leave her husband. She talked about it with her manager, Nadia Chishti, that day.

Neither she nor Chishti were aware of the risk in leaving a toxic relationship.

"That could have helped her," Chishti says.

No wonder increased awareness tops many front-line workers' wish lists. Resources are available to help women who want to leave, families that don't know what to do, and to help women build stronger and healthier relationships with their partners, but it's a question of awareness.


Advocates have been calling for greater public awareness campaigns for many years.

In 2002, a survey on public attitudes about domestic violence was commissioned by the government to guide an upcoming awareness campaign. The survey was completed, but the campaign never happened.

In 2009, a new survey was commissioned, and the results weren't much different.

In the meantime, women have been being killed - an average of three a year due to intimate partner violence.

Deputy Premier and Public Safety Minister Stephen Horsman told Brunswick News that the province has spent nearly $1.5 million annually in strategies and initiatives in the past decade and has been working with stakeholders. He says government is directing its funding to improve the skills and abilities of service providers in government and in the community.

"To say that Government has not been active on this file would not be fair," writes Horsman in an email. "Government strongly believes that domestic violence and homicides may be preventable with appropriate assessment and intervention."

That amount, $1.5 million a year over the past 10 years, is less than half of what the Department of Public Safety spent on material and supplies in 2013-14.

He pointed to the newly launched Love Shouldn't Hurt campaign as a new initiative to raise awareness. That campaign was made possible by $200,000 in federal funding that comprises the project's entire budget.

It remains to be seen what effect the new effort will have. But it's a telling fact that police across the province have in recent years responded to the lack of public information by setting up their own information campaigns.


Prince Edward Island has the lowest rate of police-reported domestic violence in Atlantic Canada. Jane Ledwell of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women says the emphasis on awareness has helped tackle domestic violence on the Island.

"The willingness of groups and individuals to take up visible, prominent activities has been really important," she says.

Since 2001, in Charlottetown, the Purple Ribbon Taskforce has affixed all city vehicles with decals of its slogan "Peace begins at home." City rinks have signs. Citizens can get their own decals for free.

The group has also spearheaded several other initiatives over the years, including ensuring domestic violence training for all city employees. It's funded by the city on a project-by-project basis. It most recently received $4,000, and used $3,000 last year to produce an 11-minute educational video for teens titled *Talk About It*.

Ledwell is also part of the Premier's Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention on the Island, first created in 1995. She says the group's message is that intimate partner violence is everyone's business.

Phil Matusiewicz of the province's Family Violence Prevention Services unit says use of the Island's only women's shelter has been going down. What remains high, however, is the demand for the Island's intimate partner violence outreach workers.

Nova Scotia has been running Neighbours, Friends and Families since 2012. The public education campaign is managed by the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western University. There are dozens of communities in Ontario using the campaign, along with Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Last year, Nova Scotia also launched, a publicity campaign about all the many forms abuse can take, with a website and 24-hour anonymous hotline.

"We want women to enter a relationship with the work we do that's meaningful for them," says Pamela Harrison, the provincial co-ordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia. "(Victims) love their partner - they just want the violence to stop. So, how can do that more effectively?"


Absent a strong provincial awareness campaign, police forces have taken matters into their own hands.

The RCMP sponsored several anti-family violence initiatives in the province, was involved with a postering campaign in schools on the Acadian Peninsula and had a workshop at a school in Sackville. Officers were also involved with the Table de concertation pour contrer la violence conjugale et familiale dans la Péninsule acadienne.

Const. Kelly McIntyre, with the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force, organized an awareness run this fall, visits schools and hopes to establish her own program for survivors in the new year.

Safe For Pets Too, in the province since 2011, offers free temporary shelter and veterinarian care for victims in transition.

In Saint John, the police are brought in Professional Development on Intimate Partner Violence: Training for Community of Practice for Cosmetologists. The program was developed between the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research and the Cosmetology Association of New Brunswick. A professional development session was offered for Saint John-area cosmetology members on Nov. 2.

Doug Black is a stylist at Egoiste in Saint John. He was part of the initial training, and finds it a natural fit for the profession.

"They always say it's easier to change gynecologists than hairstylists because we share a lot on a personal basis," says Black. "Our licence is to make that contact with people, so it is very personal."

Black has had two clients disclose abuse to him. His role, he says, is to share the different options available to victims, offer to help if needed, but not to pressure. He keeps posters up in his salon and pamphlets available.


Despite the demand for more education about intimate partner violence, and the resources that are available in New Brunswick, the province's front-line workers are still inundated with survivors. As many women are using transition homes in the province as they did 20 years ago. The province's 14 outreach workers serve hundreds of survivors annually.

Transition-home staff and outreach workers say the steady demand is proof that more awareness is needed about the issue so victims can seek help - or friends, family and co-workers can identify a problem - before the situation becomes an emergency. But they're so busy as it is, and what money they have goes to those in need now.

"Obviously what we're doing isn't working," says Fiona Williams, executive director at Liberty Lane, which offers outreach and housing for domestic violence survivors in Fredericton. "We've got that immediate response stuff, but what are we doing about the societal attitudes that are perpetuating this violence?"

Used to doing a lot with very little, both groups have done what they can to address this.

Elaine Northrup has been working at Hestia House, a shelter for domestic violence victims in Saint John, for 25 years. Now executive director, she jokes, "I was just a baby when I started." The house - with room for 24 women and children - has not seen a change in usage since it opened in 1981. They won't turn any woman away, but when full, will have to transfer them to Fredericton, St. Stephen or Sussex.

Hestia House stickers can be spotted around the Port City inside women's washrooms, and they distributed 1,200 brochure packages last year. But the money isn't there for an awareness campaign on intimate partner violence. Northrup did look at buying signage on city transit at one time, "but financially it was just not within our reach."

Gignoo Transition House in Fredericton, the province's only First Nation safe house, has distributed pens at powwows around the province. The pen seems innocuous, but pull on one part and it reveals information on the safe house.

The popularity of the pens exceeded expectation. But then, numbers at the house have increased significantly recently.

"It's been, I want to say, a ridiculous amount," says Shelly Germaine, the house's executive director.

The Holy Home in Tracadie-Sheila has been taking in women since 1979. Generations of family members have accessed its services. The pervasiveness of intimate partner violence is easy to see for its director, Nadia Losier, who can run into several clients just at the grocery store.

Losier wants to open longer-term housing, but the provincial budget divided between shelters hasn't increased in almost a decade. She knows every other house wants more money, just as she does.

This past spring was a busy one for the 10 beds at the Holy Home. They had to send women to other centres, but most don't want to leave the peninsula, so that isn't much of an option.

Crossroads for Women, a shelter in Moncton, has had to refuse more and more women every year. Executive director Tina Thibodeau says a lack of housing is fuelling the demand. Government says the need for accessible housing is critical for helping victims.

In Moncton, a $2.5-million new, bigger centre hopes to address that, but Thibodeau wants to be more proactive than reactive on the issue. She's started reaching out to local landlords.

"Our job has become so much more than providing bed and roof," says Thibodeau.

She says government needs to step in, that her voice isn't loud enough to be heard across New Brunswick.


New Brunswick had a Minister's Working Group on Violence Against Women, formed in 2001, which has since disbanded with the formation of the Provincial Partnerships in Action forum. That group, comprised of representatives from 14 Regional Violence Prevention Networks, meets once a year for training, skills development, networking, information sharing and to direct the provincial response for getting services to those who need them.

For each network, the province provides one outreach worker. Each outreach program gets slightly less than $49,000 annually - the most costly violence prevention initiative of the Women's Equality branch, accounting for a quarter of its budget.

Robyn Delong, in Saint John, and Laun-Marie Scott, in Kennebecasis Valley, are two of the outreach workers.

To understand the passion outreach workers bring to their job, you only have to notice the lavender streaks in Scott's hair. Purple is the official colour of domestic violence awareness, and Scott wears it to her roots.

"It's not about leaving," says Scott about her goal when working with victims. "It's about empowering them to find their voice ... then they feel heard and they get to make decisions they were unable to make."

To help victims realize their situation, the province employed a danger assessment for those working with victims. The assessment is used as a starting point.

The workers end up involved with victims for years. Scott says she still has survivors she met her first year on the job, in 2009.

"You're not closing out files, for lack of a better word," she says.

Their goal is to create a space without judgment, where victims don't have to commit to anything or feel any shame. Each victim is free to author their own plan to a healthier life.

The women say they get referrals from lawyers, police, victim services, doctors and by word of mouth. Delong says they work "full out."

According to the Women's Equality branch's most recent equality profile report, the 14 outreach workers met with 1,293 individuals during the 2012-13 fiscal year. That's more than 92 survivors per worker, and an average of 240 meetings with clients. In all, the workers offered more than 12,000 services, from providing information to crisis intervention.

The number of individuals contacting the outreach workers is going up. In 2010-11, workers interacted with 350 fewer individuals.

Asked whether they could use more staff, Delong puts it diplomatically: "We'd serve more clients ... I don't think they'd sit idly."

Williams, with Liberty Lane, says the capital region could "easily fill" another outreach worker position, particularly for the outlying, rural towns.

Outreach workers know the women they see are just a fraction of victims. They say women are hindered by many factors: transportation access, finances, stigma about social services, love, the stress of criminal and family court, employment, and fear of losing custody of their children.

The outreach workers have options in place to help overcome those obstacles - from supplying gas cards to relying on a network of community volunteers - but raising that awareness is one more to-do in a full workload.

Yet they know the consequences of what's become the status quo, and Delong is blunt about it: "Domestic violence flourishes in privacy."

The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton) 
Dec 3 2015 
Page: A8 
Section: Main 
Byline: Mike Landry

To view information on domestic violence death review processes, intervention/prevention initiatives, and research from other provinces and territories, click here.