Why Canada still has a long way to go in tackling domestic abuse

Watch, above: Sean Mallen on domestic violence in Canada.

Aruna Papp had lived in Canada for a dozen years, had taken courses at York University while working as a short-order cook there, had started organizations to help immigrant women escape violence. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave a spouse who made her life “hell.”

The fear ran too deep.

“You don’t have to be beaten every day: The way he puts his coffee cup down, the way he shuts the door, the way he throws his shoes when he walks in. You know what’s going to happen.”

Equally ingrained was the conviction she couldn’t leave.

“Everybody says that you have to stay and make the marriage work. And I’m the only one saying it’s not working for me. I must be wrong.”

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It took an outburst from her oldest daughter, then 15, to galvanize Papp to action.

“It was like somebody opened a lock in my head and this child gave me my keys.”

And she ran: Papp remembers the November day, dashing to manually lock the car doors before he could reach her.

Papp has spent the intervening decades as an advocate, author and educator condemning gender-based violence. The onus is on communities, she argues, to end and condemn domestic abuse.

“It is scary … and not having options that are safe is the same for any woman.”

Her line of work made headlines this week as the Ravens fired a star player for graphically documented domestic abuse.

IN DEPTH: The Ray Rice case

Amanda Dale was swamped on Monday, doing media interviews well into the evening.

She knows this is how the news cycle works.

And horrified as the public is at the video of football player Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in an elevator, the executive director of the Barba Schlifer Commemorative Clinic  also knows that fixation tends to be fleeting.

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Canada’s made “enormous progress” in the past 30 years when it comes to preventing, and punish perpetrators of, domestic violence, she says. But this pernicious form of abuse remains more common, and tougher to escape, than we’d like to think.

In 2010, victims of family violence made up a quarter of all victims of violent crime; half were spouses.

“My fear is that we have stalled at a level of basic awareness and lack of full coordination in response,” Dale said.

“There is, I think, a false confidence in Canada that we have the best system in the world and we’ve achieved as close to gender parity as we’re ever going to get. … We could do better.”

And some things, Dale said, are getting worse: Refugee claimants trying to escape gender-based violence in their country of origin have a harder time making a case in one of Canada’s newly designated “safe” countries.

There tends to be a bias toward shared custody in domestic cases, Dale notes, because judges assume it’s best for kids to have access to both parents.

Often, Dale says, charges are dropped if an abusive partner agrees to attend an education or therapy program. That’s great if it works – but if he shows up in court again, he won’t be flagged as a repeat or high-risk offender.

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And some women who seek help find the justice system turn on them.

Rachel Silverman was just doing what made the most sense when she called police after an ugly fight with her fiancée. What began as a shouting match escalated to blows, pots and pans thrown at her; at one point she held up a knife in self-defence.

Silverman didn’t know what to do: She knew her fiancé was struggling to get proper treatment for bipolar disorder; at the same time, she was scared for her own safety.

“I thought maybe I could just get a restraining order until he can get back on his medication and he can control himself,” she said.

“I called 911 because I didn’t know what I should do.”

Instead, they arrested her – on a weapons charge, she said, for holding the knife “menacingly.”

“He had hit me before, and I told them this, and they did nothing. … I just can’t believe how they handled the situation.”

New to Canada, the U.S. expat had no Canadian ID, no lawyer or bank account of her own; she needed to call up her rabbi to post her $1,000 bail after three days in remand. Silverman was forced to attend an anger-management workshop and the six-month restraining order forbidding contact with her fiancé meant she couldn’t access the funds she needed to pay her rent – so she lost her apartment.

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That was two and a half years ago. Silverman and her now-husband have reconciled – therapy and better medication for a bipolar disorder have helped, she says.

But long after the charge was dropped pending a peace bond, Silverman said, she’s still waiting to get her passport back. And as she prepares citizenship paperwork she worries this will come up when her application’s reviewed. She’s started the process to get a pardon, she says – a process that’ll set her back another $700.

“I love Canada, honestly,” Silverman said. “But the justice system here is completely wrong in its handling of domestic issues.”

The experience has also made her wary of police, she said.

“I just feel stupid. I wouldn’t call the police after that. Someone would have to be dying for me to call the police.”

That nightmare scenario isn’t as uncommon as it sounds, Dale said.

She also notes that much of intimate partner violence never gets to court. And for some women, she says, that’s a good thing.

“We are hearing more of these kinds of stories,” she wrote in response to text-messaged follow-up questions. “A woman should involve the police when her life is at stake. But she can also have a safety plan that includes a plan to go to a shelter … a trusted friend or relative who won’t engage with the abuser, etc.”

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In Ontario, Dale recommends the assaulted women’s helpline, available 24/7: 1.866.863.0511

The Schlifer Clinic during the day: 416-323-9149

Fem’aide for francophones: 1 877 336 2433

With a report from Sean Mallen in Toronto

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