Domestic violence in Canada: limited resources for those who try to leave

WATCH: There’s often a spike in domestic violence at this time of year. But even for those who find the courage to leave a dangerous situation, there aren’t always the resources to make it happen. Shirlee Engel has the story.

OTTAWA – Melissa Chatham was just 24 years old when her boyfriend Kelly David McKenzie beat her to death in front of his young son in 2008.

She was trying to leave the abusive relationship.

“It’s been six years; it’s still pretty difficult. We think about her every day,” said her father, Ernie Chatham.

Chatham’s father and stepmother, Debby Cleveland, rarely talk about the tragedy. They are speaking publicly for the first time in the hopes of raising awareness about domestic violence.

The reality, family members and advocates say, is there are limited resources in Canada for victims, especially when they need it most — the moment they decide to walk away from the abuse.

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“I think if we had been aware how dangerous that situation could have been we might have taken more action and called somebody and got professional advice and help,” Cleveland said.

Chatham’s father said his daughter was planning to go back to school and get her life back on track.

“She tried to leave and there wasn’t any kind of plan to get out of the relationship in a safe manner,” he said.

Having a plan is only effective if proper supports are in place. For many abused women, money and housing are the biggest barriers to getting away.

READ MORE: ‘He beat me to a pulp’: B.C. faces ‘epidemic’ of domestic violence

“There are more women turned away than actually are in shelters,” said Lise Martin, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses.

Martin’s organization represents hundreds of shelters across the country supporting victims. But funding is limited, and shelters and transition houses can only accommodate women and children for short periods of time.

“Women have very little choices so often they return to their perpetrator,” Martin said.

Family violence accounts for a quarter of all police-reported crimes in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

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There is now hope that awareness is growing. An online campaign launched by the RCMP last week features Canadian country singer Shania Twain encouraging others to speak out. Twain went public in her 2011 autobiography about the physical and emotional abuse her family endured at the hands of her stepfather.

READ MORE: Shania Twain speaks out about domestic violence

The federal government has launched a new website with resources for victims, calling it an important public health issue.

“We’re moving forward with a number of initiatives on the legal side, on legislation, but also program support for violence against women,” said Minister of Status of Women, Kellie Leitch.

But there are still major gaps across provinces. Advocates have long been calling for a national strategy to address the patchwork of services, lack of reliable data and inconsistent police reporting standards.

“Those of us working in field say things are getting worse. We’ve lost funding for programs like women’s resource centres. We’ve lost legal aid at least in our province,” said Karen McAndless-Davis, co-author of the domestic violence book, “When Love Hurts.”

McAndless-Davis is a survivor of abuse. Her book is now a resource for women, and she also runs support groups in British Columbia.

“Just listening to women, letting them be the experts on their own lives and helping them decide what would be the next best steps forward for them is the most helpful thing anyone can do.”

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Knowing the government and community have their backs if they decide to leave is also crucial.

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