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He tried to kill her twice. Now, she helps him rehabilitate domestic abusers

Couple runs program aimed at ending domestic violence
WATCH: A Vancouver couple is behind a rehabilitation program aimed at stopping the vicious cycle of domestic violence.

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence

One day in 1980, Joe Fossella grabbed a bolt action rifle, intent on killing his wife Joyce.

But the bolt was missing, so he couldn’t fire it.

Fossella chuckled grimly to himself, put the rifle away and went to join his wife and son in the kitchen. It was the first time Fossella tried to kill the woman he loved, but not the last. Some five years later, he tried again.

On that night, Fossella was nearing blackout drunk and angry over an argument. He wrapped his hands around her throat and began choking Joyce as she lay in bed.

Watching his wife visibly struggle for air seemed to finally shake Fossella out of his alcoholic stupor.

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What am I doing? he asked himself.

He let go. He stepped back.

I’m sorry, Fossella told his wife — sorry for choking her, sorry for his drinking, sorry for his infidelities.

Joyce didn’t believe him.

“But I love you,” he tried.

“Yes, Joe. I know you love me, but one day you could love me to death,” said Joyce, her neck still red from her husband’s attack.

Vancouver couple overcomes a history of domestic violence to help others avoid same situation
Vancouver couple overcomes a history of domestic violence to help others avoid same situation

In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.

READ MORE: Feminism met gunfire at École Polytechnique. It’s taken 30 years to call it what it was

Intimate partner violence represents close to one-third of all police-reported violent crime in Canada, and 80 per cent of its victims are women, with Indigenous women like Joyce disproportionately affected. And yet, experts are still struggling with what to do with those who abuse women — can they be reformed? Or is it once an abuser, always an abuser?

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Fossella, a member of the Shíshálh First Nation on the Sunshine Coast, believes firmly that abusers can be rehabilitated if they are truly committed to change.

Once a week, Fossella, who is now 71 and recently celebrated his 52nd anniversary with Joyce, hosts a weekly meeting for Warriors Against Violence.

Warriors is a support group for people with a history of domestic violence, where you’ll often hear talk of racism, colonialism and the ongoing impact of Canada’s residential schools.

READ MORE: Stakes high for Indigenous women still waiting for action after MMIWG inquiry

Originally conceived as a resource for Indigenous men with a history of violence against women, the group has expanded to include women who have assaulted their partners and aims to give people the tools they need to explore the roots of their anger and then manage it.

One Monday in November, more than two dozen people — some of whom are ordered by courts to attend and some who come because they want to — are gathered. They meet for a potluck and then sit in a circle in a meeting room at the Kiwassa Neighbourhood House in East Vancouver.

They smudge, a First Nations cleansing ceremony that involves burning an aromatic mixture of cedar and sage and wafting smoke over participants, and then they pass around a feather.

If the feather is yours, then it’s your turn to say whatever is on your mind.

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Joe Fossella tried to kill his wife twice, but he believes firmly that abusers, like himself, can be rehabilitated if they are truly committed to change.
Joe Fossella tried to kill his wife twice, but he believes firmly that abusers, like himself, can be rehabilitated if they are truly committed to change. Global News

While some say very little — one man offers few details, saying that he’s “working through everything” and wants to “keep at it” — others speak at length about their struggles.

Matthew, a person who Global News is not identifying for privacy reasons, was fresh off four nights in jail. He’d gone to visit his ex-girlfriend and “got violent” after realizing another man was in her house.

“I went in and I assaulted him and I scared him off,” Matthew told the group. He’s not making eye contact, just staring down at the floor while he talks.

Warriors Against Violence aims to rehabilitate domestic abusers
Warriors Against Violence aims to rehabilitate domestic abusers

After Matthew, whose mother is from Gitxaala Nation, was released from jail, he said police warned him to keep his distance, telling him that even a single text message to his ex-girlfriend could see him back behind bars.

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Matthew starts to cry, and someone offers him a box of tissues.

“I’m just heartbroken. Being heartbroken sucks. That’s my family that I just sort of threw away,” he tells the group.

“To be honest, I could see getting used to being in jail.”

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Matthew’s comment strikes a chord, unsurprising considered Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system. Federally, Indigenous people make up nearly one-third of the prison population, even though they make up just four per cent of the overall adult population, according to Statistics Canada.

After Matthew, Clinton takes the feather.

Canada’s failure to end violence against women
Canada’s failure to end violence against women

Clinton, who has roots in the Nisga’a and Gitxsan nations and who Global News is also not identifying for privacy reasons, matter-of-factly tells the group it’s been nearly two years since he last laid a hand on his partner.

He has battled alcohol abuse and still struggles with temptation. Clinton tells the group about recently running into an old friend on the SkyTrain who offered to share a bottle of Crown Royal with him as they rode. Clinton turned him down, he recounts proudly.

He doesn’t always feel that strength, though. He talks about a setback and how he recently “put a hole in the door” during a moment of anger.

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But after every setback, Clinton reminds himself why he tries. It’s important to him, for his young son, that he learns how to deal with his emotional outbursts.

“I don’t want to have him grow up and be like I was, not knowing how to deal with my emotions and putting holes in the wall.”

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Warriors Against Violence is a non-profit batterer intervention program, or BIP.

BIPs were developed in the 1970s, around the time of the rise of the battered women’s movement, in an effort to find a successful way to treat men who were violent with their partners.

Many are built on the Duluth Model, which challenges men to confront their actions and see how societal attitudes towards women have shaped their behaviour.

“Part of it is recognizing the power and control within relationships,” says Peter Jaffe, director of Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

École Polytechnique massacre: Why we remember 30 years later
École Polytechnique massacre: Why we remember 30 years later

“Domestic violence is not just hitting somebody on Saturday night when you’re drunk,” Jaffe says.

“Domestic violence is often part of how men may have been socialized in terms of not necessarily seeing women as equal, seeing women as possessions and having some fairly deep-seated notions about gender inequality and having to reconsider what respectful relationships look like.”

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The answer to the question of whether BIPs work depends on your definition of success.

People who do these programs are about three times less likely to reoffend for domestic violence and two and a half times less likely to commit other types of offences, according to a 2019 meta-analysis conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Texas at Arlington.

However, researchers found that success rate gets complicated once you look at interviews with the survivors of domestic abuse. Their lived reports indicate “no significant effect” on violent behaviour.

As the researchers put it:

“It is possible that (batterer intervention program)s may reduce criminalized behaviour but not abusive behaviour.”

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Alexandra Lysova is a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University who studies intimate partner violence.

“There is nearly zero effectiveness of these programs,” she says.

Some of the criticism centres on the programs’ one-size-fits-all approach to treating people who may be suffering from all sorts of psychological issues, from personality disorders to substance abuse issues.

READ MORE: Fearing isolation, she kept quiet through years of abuse. She’s done being silent

But a bigger obstacle is that not everyone who goes to a program — or who sits in the Kiwassa Neighbourhood House in East Vancouver on Monday nights — is ready to change.

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Offenders are often ordered by a court to attend a program, and that may alter their behaviour enough to avoid returning to the criminal justice system, Lysova says, but they may not yet be capable of true reform.

“It appears that the models that focus on the offenders (who) take responsibility for abuse may be effective,” she says.

“But the problem here is that these offenders may not have that motivation for change.”

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Fossella vowed to sober up immediately after the night he tried to choke his wife to death.

That was more than 30 years ago. The couple — who wed in 1967 when she was 23 years old and he was 19 — are happily married. They have two children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But the road between then and now hasn’t been easy.

Joyce says they tried counselling but Fossella wasn’t ready for it. Ultimately, she told him that he needed to truly commit to changing.

“You have to help yourself,” she told him. “I’m not going to even help you this time.”

It was always her trying to save their marriage, Joyce remembers.

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“I was always the one looking and seeking help.”

It took Joyce Fossella two years to feel safe around her husband after he tried to kill her. Now, she helps him rehabilitate other domestic abusers.
It took Joyce Fossella two years to feel safe around her husband after he tried to kill her. Now, she helps him rehabilitate other domestic abusers. Global News

It was only when he joined Change of Seasons, a North Vancouver group formed in 1992 to help perpetrators of domestic violence, that Fossella started to voice the trauma he’d tried to cope with by turning to alcohol.

In a room of men whose stories felt so much like his own, Fossella began to unpack the trauma of his childhood.

In that room, he finally spoke at length about how his father abused his mother and about how his father abused him.

In that room, he finally felt comfortable speaking about a secret he had never shared with anyone: as a four-year-old child, he was sexually abused by a Buddhist monk.

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READ MORE: How do you know if your child is being sexually abused? Here are the warning signs

He says immediately after the assault, he didn’t fully understand the gravity of what had happened to him, until the monk put his finger to his lips and said: “Shhh.”

“As soon as he made that noise, instantly my father came to my mind. Is my father going to beat me up when he finds out what this man has done to me?” Fossella says.

The likelihood of being abused as a kid is much higher for Indigenous children, according to a Statistics Canada survey. Forty per cent of respondents reported being sexually or physically abused or both as a child, more than the 29 per cent of non-Indigenous respondents who reported such abuse.

It isn’t unusual for survivors like Fossella to keep childhood sexual abuse a secret, Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of Victoria, told Global News earlier this year.

“I believe that many, many people are abused without telling anyone,” Roberts said. “Sexual abuse still has a stigma in our society.”

READ MORE: Shelters on the front lines help women flee violence — but they’re also in crisis

After two series of sessions with Change of Seasons, Fossella told Joyce and his family about the abuse he had suffered.

It proved to be the breakthrough he needed, although it would be two full years before Joyce finally felt safe around her husband.

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“Even though he stopped and he was taking the program, he had made changes, I still didn’t trust it. I still had that fear.”

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That journey shaped how the couple leads Warriors Against Violence.

Disclosing past traumas is a key to breaking the cycle of violence and substance abuse plaguing too many Canadian families, Fossella believes.

“I became an alcoholic trying to smother those things,” he says. “It took me 43 years.”

And so, every Monday night, Fossella sits in a circle with a room full of men and women — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — and relives the worst of his past.

When Fossella holds the feather, he speaks about the abuse he suffered and the abuse he inflicted. Speaking about it takes a toll, he says, but that pales in comparison to the freedom he feels from having nothing to hide.

“We’re all born with compassion … and I became hard, but now I’m very much open to help other people,” Fossella says.

“I have no more secrets.”

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To read the full Broken series, go here.

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For a list of resources if you need help, go here.

Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary people — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse or murder — that you want us to look at?

Email us: Jon.Azpiri@globalnews.ca