Unsafe at Home, Lost in the System

For survivors of domestic abuse, simply leaving is harder than it sounds. With the city reaching crisis levels of reported abuse, agencies are coming together to try to clear the financial and legal barriers that stand in the way.

Illustrations by Lynn Scurfield

She looks just like you. She shops at your grocery store, works in your office – maybe lives next door. What’s happening in her home … it might even be happening in yours.

That’s the terrifying reality of domestic violence in Alberta, historically, and even more so now during the province’s economic downturn. In 2015, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) received 19,000 “domestic conflict” calls. That’s an increase of about 10 per cent over 2014 and a 24-per cent increase over the average number of calls in the previous five years. In 2016, the situation was even worse: the CPS responded to more than 20,000 domestic disturbance calls by October. The percentage within those 20,000 calls that involved suspected violence, rather than the more ubiquitous “conflict,” was up 36 per cent over the five-year average.

Tragically, domestic violence is not something that happens at the margins of our society. It’s pervasive, a phenomenon too aptly illustrated by the “heat” map released by Calgary’s HomeFront in November 2015, which visually plotted the distribution of six months’ worth of HomeFront’s clients. “Calgary is in crisis,” says Maggie MacKillop, executive director of HomeFront, the collaborative non-profit organization that works hand-in-hand with the CPS and other partners to connect survivors to resources.

The victims of the crisis are, predominantly, women and children, and their path to becoming survivors is full of financial, legal and emotional barriers. The most effective responses to Calgary’s – and Alberta’s – domestic violence crisis focus on eliminating specific barriers survivors face between living in an abusive situation and getting themselves and their families to safety.

In mid-2014, the Alberta SPCA began a pet safekeeping program for families fleeing violence, taking that load off survivors’ minds. The Calgary Humane Society offers a similar program. The SPCA’s program is notable because it is an unlegislated and unmandated grassroots initiative by an organization that looked at the challenge presented by domestic violence and asked itself if there was any concrete action it could take. It found it, and took it.

Deborah Drever, MLA for Calgary-Bow, followed a similar approach when she brought forward the Residential Tenancies (Safer Spaces for Victims of Domestic Violence) Amendment Act as a private member’s bill that allows victims of family violence to end a residential tenancy agreement without financial penalty.

“Domestic violence has always been an issue I was passionate about, and when I had the chance to present an [independent member’s bill], I wanted to address that issue in some very real way,” Drever says.

The Safer Spaces amendments were proclaimed into force in August 2016, and by the end of October had been used by 41 Alberta women, according to records from the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS).

“Considering that people are still getting their policies and processes in place in response to this new piece of legislation, that’s great,” says Jan Reimer, ACWS’s executive director. “It’s a piece of what we need: it’s making systems more friendly to women, and that’s important.”

Safer Spaces hasn’t solved the problem of domestic violence in Alberta. But every small act, every step helps – especially when it pulls different stakeholders and institutions into more collaborative and creative conversations.

“The significant thing about Safer Spaces was that it was a provincial government-level initiative, but [government representatives] came out and did community consultations. They spoke to the people who are the boots on the ground,” says MacKillop. “It really opened up the conversation around the idea that it takes a community, everyone, from government to boots on the ground, to end domestic violence.”

These are conversations HomeFront has been fostering since it was first created in May 2000 as the Calgary Justice Working Project, a grassroots organization of community and justice coming together because they knew they had to address domestic violence better. “At that time recidivism was off the charts, victims had no voice before the courts, and trials were set years in advance,” recalls MacKillop. “We had to change that. We had to move families from crisis to safety faster.”


Illustration by Lynn Scurfield


One of HomeFront’s key partners is the Calgary Police Service, which has long recognized that police response is just one piece of the approach needed to combat domestic violence. “The reason we have domestic violence is a large socioeconomic issue,” says Paul Clarke, acting sergeant with the CPS’s Domestic Conflict Response Team (DCRT), which works in partnership with HomeFront and other agencies. The DCRT was created as a pilot project in northeast Calgary in 2009, and expanded to cover all areas of the city in 2013. “The reality is that these are complex social issues and these are families. Going in and laying charges and walking away doesn’t solve the problem … and the police are not capable of dealing with a lot of the sub-issues involved in a domestic violence situation.”

Survivors agree.

“The police came to my house, six, seven times,” says one survivor, who lived in an abusive relationship for several years, and has been in safety now for three. “But each time they came, by the time they arrived, I didn’t say anything. He had calmed down, and I was scared, and I just wanted it to be over. And they just asked some questions, and then left.”

They left her with a pamphlet with numbers to call. “Do you think I could even look at that? I threw it in the garbage. I couldn’t have him see me looking at that,” the survivor says.

The DCRT and its partnership with HomeFront activates after those first 9-1-1 calls are made. The patrol officers who respond to the call file a report, which DCRT’s risk assessors evaluate and refer to HomeFront if they think follow-up is necessary.

The DCRT/HomeFront program has yielded some impressive results. “About 80 per cent of the families who get involved with DCRT have no further conflict post-intervention,” reports Clarke. “And 80 per cent of families reported afterwards making significant changes in their lives as a result of intervention.” Those changes include leaving the abusive situation, or finding a way of resolving the conflict without leaving.

The assessment process means DCRT does not follow up with every domestic violence file reported to police. It chooses where to focus resources based on data provided by the police officers who respond to the original 9-1-1 calls. A survivor who left her situation without the intervention of DCRT and HomeFront points out one of the problems of this approach is many people who would benefit from active intervention don’t get it. “I think if a female social worker had showed up on my doorstep instead of a police officer I would have left sooner,” she says. “I think there should be a woman on every domestic-violence call. It was very hard to talk to a male police officer after what had just happened.” She notes that as a victim she felt the same issue of authority and control with the police that she had felt with her abuser.

Clarke sympathizes. “The biggest issue we face in DCRT is that prevention programs are severely underfunded,” he says. “It’s a struggle year after year to get the money to ensure we have the people on the team who provide these types of supports.”

Every agency involved with domestic violence experiences funding struggles, especially when the economy tightens. “With the economic downturn, we’re in a double-bind,” says Andrea Silverstone, co-chair of the Calgary Domestic Violence Collective (CDVC) and the executive director of Sagesse, CDVC’s “backbone” agency. The CDVC is a group of about 60 community partners that provides a coordinated response to domestic and sexual violence prevention and intervention. “We have greater need, but the same dollars or fewer dollars stretched further,” Silverstone says.

Changing policy and practice in a time of crisis is a challenge, and Alberta has been going from crisis to crisis for several years now. The province has long had one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. The rates rose in Calgary and southern Alberta in 2013 in the aftermath of the floods, followed by a spike in 2016 in Northern Alberta after the Fort McMurray fire. They continued to rise through 2016 as the economic downturn put Albertans under financial stress and out of work. “With every crisis that happens; numbers go up, and they never go [all the way] back down,” says Silverstone. “What does that tell us about how people react to crisis, and how long it takes them to recover from it? And, if those numbers are not going to go down, what are we going to do?”

For Silverstone, that’s not a rhetorical question, but a broad social call to action. “Every policy should have a lens that includes a consideration of how this policy will affect those who experience domestic violence,” she says.

Every policy. Because domestic violence does not occur in a silo – or only in the home in which it is perpetrated. It spills over into communities, schools and workplaces, long before people try to extricate themselves from the abusive situation.

“There are individual policies that we have identified that stand in the way of clients being able to achieve full participation in community and safety,” Silverstone says. “Legal aid and access to legal services is one of the biggest barriers. How legal aid is funded, what the levels are for cutting off that support – that is a huge issue that results in both people going through difficult situations without adequate representation.”

Beth Carlson, herself a survivor and now an activist who works with the Women’s Community Advisory of the Innovative Systems Response Project, a collaborative group of survivors affiliated with the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter and funded through the Status of Women Canada, agrees.

“One of the challenges with legal aid for survivors is that you get who you get,” she says. “And it may be a wonderful lawyer with a lot of experience with family violence. Or it may be someone with no experience at all. For a traumatized survivor, to work with a lawyer who doesn’t understand abuse or trauma can be re-traumatizing.”

Survivors face a similar policy challenge in the court system. If the police are involved and charges are laid, the legal path isn’t easy but it’s fast-tracked, and takes place within a system focused on and experienced in domestic violence. Survivors who leave without criminal charges being laid find themselves in the long queue of the provincial family court system, arguing custody issues before judges, many of whom have little understanding of domestic violence and abuse.

“I was told we were a high-conflict parenting custody issue, and we should go into mediation,” says a survivor of her experience in attempting to effect a legal separation and get full custody of her child after leaving an abusive relationship. “It was awful. I had an emergency protection order against my ex, my child had disclosed abuse by him, and I was supposed to go into mediation over custody? I couldn’t believe it.” The experience felt unethical, she adds, and the courtroom situation created a new trauma in itself.

Feeling re-traumatized in the courtroom is common for survivors, says Carlson. She’d love to see psychologists in every domestic violence courtroom, providing support to survivors and guidance on psychological issues to judges and lawyers. “Physical abuse is ultimately a symptom of psychological abuse, which is the root of the problem,” she says. “And not enough people in the judicial system are trained to deal with that.”


Illustration by Lynn Scurfield


For immigrants and new Canadians, legal issues are compounded. “Some of our clients have had refugee status or sponsorship status broken because of violence,” says Silverstone. In these cases, they can find themselves dealing with threat of deportation in addition to violence.

The federal government recently addressed this particular issue, amending a section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow spouses who experience and report abuse to separate their application for permanent resident status from their abusive partner and continue the process independently. Previously, a sponsored spouse immigrant needed to live with their sponsor for two years. If they left before that time they could face deportation. The amendment eliminated that time requirement and broadened the definition of abuse. “That’s been a significant, helpful change in policy,” says Rekha Gadhia, manager of the Family Services Department at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA). “We’ve seen a lot of cases of sponsorship-based abuse, where the abuser is the Canadian citizen or permanent resident who brings a spouse over. Then there is abuse, accompanied by the threat: ‘If you report this, they will take your immigration status away.'”

Even though that threat is no longer real, not all immigrants or refugees know their rights and, if language is a barrier, may have limited means of learning about them. Or, of learning about any of the services and supports available to them. A survivor who asked not to be identified by name, for whom English is a third language, and who additionally faces a physical communication disability, agrees. As she sought help from the police, the Calgary Women’s Shelter and other systems, she struggled with poor communication. “I did not understand what they were going to do,” she says. “There were rules and expectations, and I guess they would explain them to me. I would think I understood. But then it was different. There were many difficulties as a result. They were helpful, and I know they wanted to help me. But it was difficult.”

Finding stable housing for herself and her children was a key challenge, as it is for many families fleeing abuse. Emergency shelter space is at a premium and not always available when victims flee – and it’s not a long-term solution. For immigrant women, the concept of a shelter is “an alien one,” says Gadhia, and it can multiply the trauma involved in fleeing abusive situations. “Clients have left shelters [because of lack of cultural sensitivity] and nothing has been done for those clients by the shelters.”

The wait lists for Calgary Housing and other non-market housing can take up to two years – longer for larger families. That is, for those who do qualify. “It works on a scoring mechanism, and it’s based on a rent-to-income formula,” explains Reimer. “Well, if you have no rent because you are in shelter and no income because you left, you don’t score anything.”

In some rural communities, rules around social housing require residency in the community for a period of three or four months. For families fleeing abuse and relocating to a new community as a means of achieving safety, that standard isn’t met either.

Neither shelters nor social housing are anyone’s first choice when looking for a safe home. But for many families leaving situations in which the abuser was the main or only wage earner, market housing is not an option. Although Alberta Works provides income supports, helps out with the damage deposit, and provides $1,000 to allow the set-up of a new home, “the existing levels of income support are just not enough,” says Silverstone. They max out at $627 per month for a single person and $1,284 a month for a family with three children (plus up to $533 per month for each child under six and $450 a month for each child six to 17 from the federal Canada Child Benefit).

Ironically, more affluent families fleeing violence may find themselves in the bind of being unable to access the supports because the joint family assets – always entangled in a marriage or common-law relationship – are too high. “Alberta Works is aware of the problems and is working with the domestic violence sector to address that, but those are all examples of things that make it difficult for victims to leave and to access services,” says Silverstone.

Carlson is an enthusiastic advocate of the guaranteed annual income program, currently being rolled out as a pilot program in Ontario and previously tried in Canada in Manitoba, in the 1970s. “That would make such a difference to so many women,” she says. “So many women don’t leave because of financial fears. In many cases, the abuser controls the finances.”

Too true. “Since physical abuse is often coupled with financial abuse, the victim may find that the bills are in her name while credit cards, bank accounts, or other assets are in the name and under the control of the abuser,” note authors Lois Gander and Rochelle Johannson in The Hidden Homeless: Residential Tenancies and Issues of Victims of Domestic Violence, a report published June 2014 by the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta and the University of Alberta.

Given Alberta’s current economic situation, not even an NDP government is likely to suggest a guaranteed annual income. Nor are the Alberta Works income supports likely to go up. So, even though domestic violence cuts across all sections of the economic spectrum, as always, it is the poorest families who are most vulnerable and facing the fewest options.

Often, even when there are good policies in place, “there is a disconnect between the official policies and the ground truth,” says Silverstone. Or, as Reimer puts it, “Sometimes when policies are in place, they’re not processed properly because of attitudes.”

These “attitudes” are most in play for immigrant, indigenous and queer people – people about whom the service providers may hold active prejudices or unconscious preconceptions. “There were a few occasions, with police and in particular with Child Services, when I felt … I don’t know, maybe this is what happens to everyone … but I wondered, is it because I’m Native?” an indigenous survivor says. She describes calls to the police when she felt in danger, and then did not feel taken seriously. “And with Child Services, the first response was to take my children away. Again, I question. Was it necessary? Or was that the thing that happened because when you’re Native, they assume the worst?”

Reimer is blunt. “For indigenous women, racism is a huge issue,” she says. “If I could change one thing, ironically, it wouldn’t be any specific policy. It would be behaviours and attitudes about women who are experiencing violence because that’s what hampers policy response. A woman’s economic circumstances, her gender orientation, racial and cultural issues – those sometimes mean you experience prejudice and bias when you access services.”

The expectation of that prejudice may keep some people from reaching out and asking for help in the first place. Beba Svigir, CEO of CIWA, sees this all the time with abused immigrant women. “They are always afraid of being judged,” she says. “They’re already in this place of being seen as Other, and that fear is paralyzing. They are afraid they will not be believed.” And if they are dealing with what they know is a culturally unique issue – honour violence, for example – there are additional layers of fear and shame, and reluctance to tell a story that casts a culture they belong to in a negative light.

CIWA provides what supports it can, including multi-language translation support. It also invests heavily in prevention programs such as cross-cultural parenting programs, men’s support groups, and youth groups for boys and girls in Calgary’s schools.

“Prevention is more powerful than intervention,” says Svigir. The literature on family violence is unanimous on this point: family violence begets family violence, and the best way of stopping the cycle from repeating in the next generation is to stop it from happening in this one. The most effective interventions are the ones that take place before abuse happens.

But, investing in prevention targeted at children and young people (dating violence in youth is an excellent predictor of family violence in adulthood) when there aren’t sufficient resources to address the immediate crisis is tough. So is spending money on diagnosing and supporting offenders struggling with their own issues of trauma, addiction, and, in some cases, mental illness – even though it is well documented that helping offenders work through their traumas is a critical component in stopping future abuse.

“I know my ex is going to do what he did to me to someone else,” says a survivor. She’s probably right. Untreated and unsupported – and, in the many cases in which neither the victims nor the police press charges, never held accountable – offenders find new victims, repeat old patterns and perpetuate the cycle.

While many of the agencies that help families flee violence have offender-directed services, funding these services is a politically and socially tough call. If you have $1 to spend on a crisis that demands $100, who do you give it to? The person fleeing the violent situation … or the person who caused it?

There is no easy answer, especially in a cash-starved environment. That means collaboration between service providers and systems, on all fronts, is even more essential.

“We try and help and be creative and come up with whatever we can do to help the families that we are serving,” says MacKillop. “The better we come together and collaborate, the better that we connect all the multiple touch points that are out there and coordinate our efforts, the stronger and greater our reach is.”

As HomeFront, CDVC and their partners implement this philosophy locally, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is acting nationally. In March 2016, CACP issued a National Framework for Collaborative Police Action on Intimate Partner Violence that frontline respondents such as Reimer applaud. “It’s excellent,” she says. The framework highlights barriers faced by indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ, older and disabled people, as well as sex workers. It takes a trauma-informed approach to abuse and violence, recognizing that people experiencing abusive situations come to the police in a state of trauma or ongoing PTSD.

Most importantly, the framework sets the role of the police response to domestic violence in the wider context of inter-agency collaboration. “It’s the only way to address such a complex issue,” says Clarke. “And, this is key for us as a city and government and organizations, when we look at numbers and stats, it is very easy to forget these are families we are talking about: mothers, fathers, children. We’re talking about our friends, our co-workers – we’re talking about people.”

We’re talking about her.

Your neighbour, friend, sister.

She looks just like you.

What can you do to help her be a survivor?

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call


to get connected with resources.


[Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Fort McMurray fire occured in 2015. It has been updated to correctly state it happened in 2016.]

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