Support for domestic abuse survivors ‘more challenging on every level’ in rural Alberta

Click to play video: 'Domestic abuse victims face even more hurdles in rural Alberta'
Domestic abuse victims face even more hurdles in rural Alberta
WATCH: From education around domestic abuse to reporting incidents to law enforcement to accessing support and resources, experiences of survivors can vary depending on where they live. Emily Mertz explores why this is and how things might change – Feb 19, 2022

Cara met Paul in 2008. They were both attending high school in a small central Alberta town.

It was a whirlwind romance, Cara said. She was “love bombed.”

They dated for a year at the end of high school before she started noticing red flags. But it was her first serious relationship and, with nothing to compare it to, she thought it was normal.

“He became very manipulative and controlling. I was no longer my own person. My family grew fearful for me. They saw the signs,” Cara recalled.

“The relationship became very emotionally abusive and I was manipulated into doing things that I wasn’t comfortable doing.

Story continues below advertisement

“Every time I tried to stand up for myself I was told that I was selfish, that I was crazy, that I was wrong, that I was imagining it all. It was really hard for me to stand up for myself because he was a very well-known person in our community. We live in a small town. He was born here, he was raised here, everybody knew him.”

He started following her, waiting outside her work, her home or in parking lots, Cara said.

“When I would try to leave or distance myself, he was always around. He would either miraculously show up where I was or I’d receive text messages of him telling me, ‘Oh, you’re hanging out with so and so and you went for here for dinner, hey?’ and I never gave him that information.”

He was even aggressive with members of her family, Cara said. When he cornered her in a parking lot one evening, grabbed her car keys and threw them into a snow-covered field, essentially stranding her, she was done.

“This is not OK. This is not right for me. This is not a safe relationship,” she remembers thinking. “I left the relationship but I found out I was pregnant shortly after.”

Click to play video: '‘Do whatever you need to do’: Alberta woman who fled domestic abuse during COVID-19'
‘Do whatever you need to do’: Alberta woman who fled domestic abuse during COVID-19

Looking back, Cara realizes some of the things he was doing to her were in fact criminal.

Story continues below advertisement

“Stalking, harassment, forcible confinement… He was stalking me. At the time I didn’t realize it was stalking and I brushed it under the rug when that’s something you can go to the police for.

“About 10 years ago, if it wasn’t physical abuse, I don’t think a lot of people realized it was abuse.”

At the time, Cara said she felt her truth would be dismissed and she wouldn’t be believed.

“I felt very defeated when I had to call police in that one instance and nothing was done. I did feel like the reason nothing was done was that he was known, he was respected. That took all the fight out of me.”

Small town barriers

Some of the hurdles faced by survivors of abuse can be compounded by where they live, said Mary Jane James, director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

“It definitely is more challenging on every level,” she said.

People in rural areas, for instance, might have access to fewer resources, a smaller, stretched-thin RCMP force and potentially more disincentives to report or share what happened to them.

Story continues below advertisement

“In a small town, you’ve got the survivor, who has their friends and family, and you have the perpetrator, who has their friends and family. And it’s going to be taking sides,” James said.

“The people who know the alleged perpetrator… are really going to find it difficult to believe that someone that they knew and they trusted and they worked with or they went to church with could possibly be guilty of doing such a thing.

“There’s already predetermined opinions and a lot of it, unfortunately, often goes against the survivor.”

After they broke up, Cara started dating someone else, which seemed to upset Paul, she said.

“He showed up at my house, forced his way in… he barged in, it was very scary. It got to the point where I had to call the police to have him removed.

“When I asked the police: ‘What can I do about this?’, they told me: ‘There’s nothing really. He didn’t put his hands on you. It just sounds like he’s not over you. We’ll just talk to him and if it happens again, give us a call.’

“That doesn’t make you feel good or safe when you know the extremes that this man will go to and now he’s just seen that law enforcement isn’t going to do anything, so the next time it’ll probably escalate.”

Story continues below advertisement

The behaviour escalated and was mirrored in subsequent romantic relationships. Two other women told Global News of abuse – which had intensified — incurred by the same man.

One of the women went to police and several charges were laid, but later withdrawn.

The prosecutor told Global News in an email that the Crown determined “there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction by proving beyond a reasonable doubt the allegations made against the charged person can be made out by the evidence.”

Click to play video: 'Bill C-3 will ‘help restore trust’ in criminal justice system for sexual assault survivors, Trudeau says'
Bill C-3 will ‘help restore trust’ in criminal justice system for sexual assault survivors, Trudeau says

Charges being withdrawn is not uncommon, explained Morgan Bissegger, a registered psychologist and the director of clinical services at SACE.

“When the police move forward with an investigation, they are gathering evidence… charges may be laid,” she said. “When it’s time for the process to go into court, the Crown can look at the evidence and say there’s not enough information there for a person to be found guilty. So it doesn’t mean that the person did or did not commit the crime.”

Story continues below advertisement

Cara is not the survivor’s real name. Global News has decided not to use it in order to protect her daughter’s identity and the identities of the other survivors.

James grew up in a small town too and understands the extra barriers that presents.

“It starts with the community as a whole standing up for survivors and saying: ‘We will not and we do not want this to be part of our society going forward. We believe survivors. We want to support them. We’re listening to them.'”

Resources and victim supports in rural Alberta

Cara has never lived in a larger city and says she wasn’t aware of any victim supports in her area.

“I only learned that recently (through) another survivor. I don’t see anybody putting those resources out there for us to see and to know they’re available.”

Click to play video: 'Lethbridge Corridor Victim Services recognized for 25 years of service'
Lethbridge Corridor Victim Services recognized for 25 years of service

There are dozens of victim services units across the province.

Story continues below advertisement

One of the services SACE offers survivors is police and court support programs, where an employee will guide a person through the reporting, court and justice process, and even accompany them to the police station and to court, if they choose to go that direction.

SACE can also help access counselling services.

Those kinds of supports are more scarce in smaller towns, Bissegger said.

“They don’t have necessarily immediate one-on-one support with an agency like SACE,” James said. “They have a 1-800 line where they’re speaking to a stranger, an anonymous person, who can give them some resources to follow up on, but that’s what they have.”

And there’s another complicating factor: in a small town, it’s more common for the people running the services to be connected to their lives.

“There’s a vulnerability that’s associated with sharing this experience, and that might not be safe or comfortable in the context of a rural community,” James said.

In rural areas, RCMP resources are also a factor, she added.

“They don’t have the capacity to assign a specific section to domestic and sexual violence like we do in the bigger cities… whose only job is to investigate allegations of sexual and domestic violence and of course they have much more expertise in this area.

Story continues below advertisement

“There’s just not a lot of support in place for them.”

Click to play video: 'Advocate explains challenges for rural Alberta domestic abuse survivors'
Advocate explains challenges for rural Alberta domestic abuse survivors

Education and understanding the law

More than a decade later, Cara is in a good place. Still, she can’t help but think about her younger self.

“If I was to tell myself 10 to 12 years ago, (I’d say): ‘Listen to your gut, set your boundaries and stand up for yourself.’”

Being taught about healthy relationships and what abusive behaviour looks like would have been helpful, she said.

Get help if you need to get help. Go to the police. Ask questions.”

Story continues below advertisement

SACE has a public education team that would, prior to the pandemic, drive around to rural communities and teach youth about healthy relationships, communication, boundaries and the law.

“Education around relationships and education around consent is something that is incredibly important,” Bissegger said. “Education around what is OK in a relationship and what is not OK in a relationship is vital for everybody… and there’s unequal access to this information.”

Alberta’s current kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum asks students to identify the characteristics of healthy relationships, how to develop and maintain effective relationships, examine stressors in relationships and develop strategies to deal with unhealthy relationships and traumatic events (such as domestic violence, assault and sexual assault).

In Grade 8, students are taught the signs, methods and consequences of various types of abuse, and in grades 10 to 12, they learn to identify unhealthy relationships and deal with exploitation and violence in relationships.

Domestic violence and consent are included in the proposed K-12 curriculum, Alberta Education said.

Click to play video: 'Former Calgary Catholic students welcome upcoming changes to province’s sex-ed curriculum'
Former Calgary Catholic students welcome upcoming changes to province’s sex-ed curriculum

“There can be really ingrained perceptions of what relationships may look like and behaviour that might be considered OK that result in some really significant challenges,” Bissegger said.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s a big job to start to shift a social narrative that certain patterns of behaviour are actually inappropriate.”

But James stresses the blame should never be put on the survivor for “letting” something happen “to” them; the blame should always be placed on the offender.

“Stalking, harassment, non-consensual sharing of photos are all criminal offences… are indictable offences.

“Those relationships are not normal, they are not healthy, they are not safe. If there is a way for them to safely reach out for help, I strongly encourage them to do so.”

Cara said she’s still working on that — the not blaming herself part. But, she feels heard, she feels strong and she’s ready to share her story.

“This is now extra important to me because I have a daughter of my own and I realize how easy it is to be tricked or manipulated. I think more women need to have that safe space and that comfort to come forward and share their experiences and help raise awareness.”

Click to play video: 'How much training do Alberta judges receive?'
How much training do Alberta judges receive?

James also believes there needs to be stronger education and cultural sensitivity awareness training for those working in all parts of the justice system for nuanced issues like sexual assault.

Story continues below advertisement

“We have to stop excusing the behaviour of assailants and perpetrators while compounding the same sorts of issues on a survivor. For instance, the consumption of drugs and/or alcohol by an alleged perpetrator is often used as an excuse… but on the flip side of that, drugs and alcohol are used against the survivor by saying, ‘Well, she or he really shouldn’t have had that much to drink.'”

James said she’s repeatedly pushed the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General about the need for this training.

“The RCMP needs to have specifically and professionally trained officers who know about sexual assault and all the myths and stereotypes and nuances that go along with it if they’re going to be able to successfully prosecute these sorts of things in rural areas.”

Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence is 1-866-403-8000, which you can call or text any time. 

The Family Violence Info Line is 780-310-1818, through which Albertans can get help anonymously in more than 170 languages.

SACE can help with advice, resources, legal counsel and counselling. The SACE support and info line is 780-423-4121.

Sponsored content