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For domestic abuse survivors, getting out is only the first battle

Posted November 27, 2016

Grace’s first struggle was to rescue herself and her children from an abusive 20-year marriage. What she didn’t realize was that another battle had just begun.

Five years later, she’s still waiting for child and spousal support, hung up by a legal system bogged down by inefficiencies that test even the toughest survivors of domestic violence.

“I’ve had to be persistent,” said the local mother of three, who asked not to use her last name. “I’ve had to stay positive, believing that the legal system will actually address the call for help to end the domestic violence in my family. If you aren’t resilient, you’d never get through it.”

Starting from the first police interviews in 2012 to family court hearings that continue today, Grace has come to realize that the jumble of legal systems facing her and numerous other victims of domestic violence is numbing.

They find themselves trying to navigate the complex web of law enforcement, social services, family court, criminal court and the shelter system—all important pieces of the big picture for victims, but rarely aligned to serve them in a user-friendly way.

But new University of Alberta research is trying to change that, through a project that is examining the issues from the survivors’ perspective.

The idea sprang from a small study funded by Homeward Trust, exploring residential tenancy law and how it needed to be reformed because it was contributing to homelessness for victims of domestic violence.

Lead researcher Lois Gander, a UAlberta professor who specializes in public legal education, and her team are partnering with the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta and liaising with shelters, counsellors and lawyers, figuring out the best way to recruit victims for a deeper study.

“We learned we couldn’t look at that (residential tenancy) issue without looking at the bigger picture,” Gander said.

Through the research project, funded by PolicyWise as well as the university, she wants to give former victims a voice so those in the justice system can understand it the way users experience it.

Domestic violence on the rise in Alberta

As economic pressures dog families and domestic violence rises, as noted during this year’s launch of Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, it’s more important than ever to address the problem, said Gander. According to a report from the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, more than 10,000 abused women, their children and seniors were taken in by member shelters in 2015-16. During the same time period, 8,076 women and 8,283 children were turned away because shelters were full.

“Victims find themselves at the worst place in their lives and probably facing the most complicated legal environment that anybody can encounter. Going through the legal process re-victimizes people and adds to the trauma they are experiencing,” said Gander.

Grace knows the trauma well, and describes it as an endurance contest. “For victims to get through it, it comes down to the capacity to get through a marathon.”

She’s had to push to get help all the way through her legal process. Besides being turned away from a shelter that wouldn’t accommodate older male children, Grace has struggled to find affordable, specialized counselling for herself and her children (and battling to access it without having signed parental consent from her abuser), seeking legal aid (for which she has been turned down three times), or imploring prosecutors and lawyers to keep her case moving through the court system to avoid dismissal that would let her abuser walk away.

On top of that, delays in the hearing process—many initiated by her abuser’s request for more time—have cost her thousands of dollars, most of it borrowed.

“The money needed to get through a high-conflict case in a disjointed legal system essentially makes justice inaccessible to victims,” Grace said.

Besides dealing with their immediate need for safe shelter, women fleeing domestic abuse find themselves in Grace’s situation, having to navigate family court and criminal court, deal with tenancy issues and try to qualify for legal aid or social assistance. Like Grace, they have to tell their stories over and over again to access different services. On top of that, they have to juggle daily worries like child care, transportation to and from court, lawyers’ fees and time off work, along with longer-term but equally vital issues that can fall between the cracks, such as updating their wills to provide guardianship for their children.

“They’re already emotionally fragile and exhausted, so all of these things can be overwhelming,” Gander said.

‘Patchwork’ system overwhelms victims

“Nobody is responsible for the whole justice system. We have to look at the whole set of interactions. It’s a patchwork quilt of processes, procedures and remedies, but they are not lined up. It’s so fragmented that nobody in the legal world will know much about any of the other parts so that they can even direct victims to appropriate services. How can we expect individuals to deal with that?”

By recruiting people who’ve lived the experience, Gander plans to bring together the “two solitudes” of the legal and social services sectors through the stories they’ll hear directly from victims.

“I hope it engages people in these systems emotionally so they will take this up and create a justice system that actually serves victims of domestic violence,” said Gander.

Grace said she and others like her deserve “efficiency, speed and intuition” from the system.

“We’d be better served, for instance, if case management was used for all domestic violence cases in family court, if family lawyers took into consideration evidence presented in criminal court and would work with their clients’ counsellors.”

Instead, the process is draining and costly.

“It’s become way too expensive for people like me to achieve what society’s goal is—to end domestic violence,” said Grace. “It cannot be this hard for victims to get help.”

Source: University of Alberta

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