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V-Day flash mob targets controversial Court closure

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Half of all women over the age of 15 living in Newfoundland and Labrador will experience at least one incident of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, according to the provincial government’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and only 10 per cent of them will report their victimization to police.

“We have a significant problem,” says Leslie MacLeod, Executive Director of the St. John’s Women’s Centre, which organized a vigil last week for murdered and missing women and girls in Newfoundland and Labrador. “We know very well the number of women, their names and how they were killed, in this province. Last year at least four women were murdered (and) there may have been more who aren’t accounted for.”

MacLeod is on the front lines of the struggle to end violence against women and is one among many individuals and groups calling on the provincial government to reinstate the Family Violence Intervention Court (FVIC), a progressive initiative the province introduced in 2009 to address domestic violence in a way other programs and services could not.

A flash mob demonstration is planned for noon Friday outside the Provincial Court at Atlantic Place downtown St. John’s where the FVIC operated for four years before it fell victim to the government’s 2013 austerity budget, which cut deep into social programs at a time when corporate profits as a percentage of the province’s GDP were double the national average.

The event is part of the One Billion Rising movement started by Vagina Monologues playwright and women’s rights activist Eve Ensler. According to onebillionrising.org, “one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s one billion women.” Last year, “one billion people in 207 countries rose and danced to demand an end to violence against women and girls.” The movement continues this year with the theme “Rising for Justice”.

The St. John’s events, which began Thursday with a community gathering at the Knights of Columbus hall, are being organized by St. John’s Centre MHA and NDP Justice Critic Gerry Rogers, a longtime women’s rights activist.

Last November Rogers introduced a private member’s motion in the House of Assembly calling on the government to reopen the court. Justice Minister Darin King defended the department’s decision and told the CBC despite the fact the court was “very successful for the people that went through the system,” the $520,000 – or 0.2 per cent of the department’s budget as Rogers points out – could be put to better use.

Rogers requested a copy of an internal review of the FVIC to better understand the decision to close the court, she says, but the government won’t disclose the contents of the report. “Why a review of a government program is cabinet secrecy is beyond me, but they won’t give it to me, I can’t get it. But I have spoken to people who know what’s in the review and it was really positively (received) by women, by the offenders, by the judge, by the police,” she says.

Lynn Moore, a former Crown attorney with the FVIC, says the court tracked offenders who both completed and did not complete the FVIC process, and that those who followed through were four times less likely to reoffend than those who did not. “Those were numbers that we were given at team meetings,” she explains, “and those numbers would be in the report that has not been made public.”

Moore and others who were directly involved with the Family Violence Intervention Court will speak at the demonstration on Friday.

A more victim friendly process

Tina Eddy, a former employee with the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Justice who 10 years later went through the FVIC herself, says she saw a “huge, huge difference” in the way justice was being served.

When Eddy worked at the Department of Justice, she says, legal proceedings “were long, they were drawn out, they were exhausting,” but when she went through the FVIC “everything was done and clued up within a couple months.

“The custody agreement was arranged, the issues were resolved with regards to me and my partner, and we didn’t have to go to court in the end and incur legal fees. The stability for my children in particular…was a big issue for me and it was taken care of pretty quick,” she continues. “The staff were excellent, they were very sympathetic, they were very understanding, they were patient. But not so much as to let things go any length of time. They were really fast in getting things resolved, they offered different opportunities in ways to resolve the issues, instead of having to go into this huge courtroom and deal with a judge. Having worked in that system I found that very intimidating, and I wasn’t a victim at the time but I can imagine what those women had to go through.”

Moore says the court’s shorter process and its focus on intervention and rehabilitation provided a greater degree of safety for the victims and their children going through the system, compared to the regular court system.

“The problem is that women, when they call the police they want the abuse to stop; they’re not necessarily interested in being a participant in the criminal justice system,” she says. “The criminal justice system is not victim friendly. People who make complaints about other people are subject to cross-examination, they get subpoenaed, they have to speak in public about something they find very personal, and people call them liars. It’s the best one we have, but it’s not a victim-friendly process, and (victims) don’t want to go for that, they just want (the abuse) to stop.”

Rehabilitation key to ending violence

“The way the court worked was, if the man (pleaded guilty and) was prepared to accept responsibility, then the woman was not required to give evidence against him,” Moore continues. “There was an agreed statement of facts filed and that was the basis of what the judge made the decision on. That and the steps that the accused person took to rehabilitate himself, and those steps…were effective. A lot of the men involved in the program said it was the best thing they had ever done.”

Men going through the FVIC were referred to the John Howard Society for counseling and support, while women were referred to the St. John’s Women’s Centre.

MacLeod says the women’s centre received $10,000 a year to run empowerment programs for women who had experienced violent relationships. “We’re still running those groups but without their funding,” she explains, “because we were committed to them so we’re using our fundraised monies to do it.

“Family violence is really about power dynamics and control.”  – Lynn Moore, former Crown attorney

“All assaults are serious, but when the first assault and the level of violence isn’t extreme (the FVIC) gave the family an opportunity to opt into a program that provided them with the counseling and supports they needed.

“Some of those services are still available through Victim Services directly, but this was a basket of services delivered by people who became experts in working with families where violence was part of the relationship,” she continues. “So it provided early intervention, it actually got at the consequences of violence, but it also got at the root causes of violence: those unhealthy relationships, choices being made within the relationship that resulted in violence.”

Moore says through the rehabilitation process abusive men attended either individual or group counseling, depending on their risk and their personal situations.

“They would learn about power dynamics, because family violence is really about power dynamics and control,” she explains. “A lot of people talk about it like it’s an anger management issue, like people just explode, but a lot of people see it as a way of exercising power…as an equality issue, which is how I see it.”

Part of the deal for offenders going through the FVIC was that they had to keep in regular contact with a bail supervisor. “There was a lot of checking going on that kept the victims safe while the court process was ongoing,” Moore explains.

“There are a lot of people who are dishonest and who would lie to their bail supervisor, but it’s a lot harder once you have a relationship with someone who sits down with you and says, ‘We’re gonna get through this now, and I’m going to take your background information and this will all go in the sentencing report,’” she continues. “You have this big conversation with them about their life, their history, and then you call them a week later and say, ‘How are you doing?’ They had a relationship that they were somewhat invested in.

“If you get arrested tomorrow and you’re released on bail, the only way you get caught breaking your bail is if you commit a new offense. So what this court did in the bail period – it kept contact, it kept eyes on the accused and on the victim, so that people could know if the terms of the bail were being respected. And it was hugely important.”

One step forward, two steps back

Rogers and MacLeod say the chance of someone re-offending after going through the FVIC process dropped by 50 per cent. “So getting in early, before somebody is killed, before the children have spent their childhood and adolescence in the midst of this violence, is really important. It’s one of the tools to help us really stop the violence,” says MacLeod. “We can do lots of awareness, we can give women lots of skills, we can have services for them to leave a relationship, but the bottom line is most people stay together and most people don’t have the wherewithal to stop what’s going on – not on their own.”

"[T]his was a way that dealt with the real consequences of domestic violence.”  - Gerry Rogers. Photo by Justin Brake.
Gerry Rogers: “This was a way that dealt with the real consequences of domestic violence.”  Photo by Justin Brake.
Rogers says Newfoundland and Labrador is now one of the few provinces in Canada without such a court, and that Nova Scotia modeled its court after ours. “And the research shows that the best opportunity for intervention and treatment is if it happens as close to the event as possible.

“It took a few years for this program to get its legs because it took a while for other lawyers to trust it, because what lawyer wants their client to plead guilty, right? And it took quite a while for the police to be educated and to trust it, but everybody was on board and it was doing what it was supposed to do, and it cost $520,000 a year – that’s all it cost,” she continues. “So (now) it’s going to cost the court system way more because what happens is the (accused) doesn’t plead guilty and then they have to keep going to court, and the woman is put on the stand. Whereas this was a way that dealt with the real consequences of domestic violence.”

According to Moore men who assault their wives or intimate partners often “don’t like what they’re doing and…they want to change. So you have a group of people who are motivated to change and a system that was helping them change, at a cost that was a lot less than the cost of a murder prosecution.”

MacLeod says when the government consulted with the women’s centre during the planning stage for the FVIC, “We said to them: ‘Be careful, do it (for) low-level offenders, catch them before there’s too much harm, and it could be a very, very positive tool’. And it was turning out to be just that.”

The Independent requested a copy of the FVIC report from the Department of Justice but was told by the department’s Director of Communications Luke Joyce an access to information request would have to be filed. An interview with the minister was also requested but King did not respond by the time of publication.

The “Rise for Justice” flash mob demonstration scheduled for noon Friday, Feb. 14 inside Atlantic Place on Water Street in St. John’s was *postponed* due to poor weather conditions. For more information see the ‘One Billion Rising – St. John’s NL’ Facebook page.

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