A male police officer and two women stand in front of a building bearing a colourful mural.

An angel on your back

Connecting high-risk women to improve safety

Helping high-risk women in the community to stay connected and offering them ways to get off the streets is the idea behind the We Care program, started by Cst. Jeff Shannon (left). Credit: Arnold Sylliboy

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When a young Mi'kmaq woman had been reported missing for three months from Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island, the community feared the worse.

The Cape Breton Regional Police and the RCMP launched an intensive search and located the young woman in Tennessee. Though she came home in late 2014, she disappeared again.

Having dealt with similar cases in the community in previous years, Eskasoni Detachment Commander S/Sgt. Dan Morrow decided it was time to take action.

"I'm sitting at my desk, thinking this is going to be an ongoing issue," says Morrow. "I kept thinking about the two unsolved homicides of women from my own Cree community. I wanted to figure out what we could do in Eskasoni to address the problem."

Morrow brought in Cst. Jeff Shannon, a member with experience on missing and murdered women in British Columbia. Working closely with local social agencies, they came up with a program to support high-risk women in the town of 4,000.

We Care, or Sespete'lmulek in Mi'kmaq, brings together the community, police and social agencies to teach, track and provide counselling to women involved in a high-risk lifestyle.

"The goal is to provide the women with tools to improve their safety and remain in contact with their community," says Shannon, who has been at Eskasoni Detachment for four years. "The program provides a path to get them off a high-risk lifestyle, and, hopefully, prevent another woman from going missing or being murdered."

We Care is based on best practices from other RCMP and municipal policing projects, such as Prince Albert's hub model, Project KARE in Alberta and the Halifax Integrated Vice Squad.

Steps to a better life

Over the past year, Morrow and Shannon have been working with the band council and local social agencies to get the program off the ground.

"The first step was to determine who was most at risk in the community," says Shannon. "We had a very powerful meeting with all the partners where we laid the foundation of the program. I have never seen so many First Nations people so proud of what was accomplished at that meeting."

Not long after this meeting, a woman from Eskasoni living a high-risk lifestyle died. This spurred community efforts even more.

Shannon is now in the process of contacting high-risk women from the community, collecting photos, notes of identifying features and information on next-of-kin — as well as DNA samples from those who agree to participate.

Once completed, each woman's file is sealed and will only be opened if she goes missing. This is intended to make it easier for police to track down a woman if she is reported missing, and, in the worst-case scenario, to have the details to identify her and provide closure to her family.

Helping through technology

One of the more interesting aspects of this program is using technology such as handheld touch-screen devices to get — and keep — the women connected to local agencies, such as family services or the mental health crisis centre.

Through a Wi-Fi connection, the devices can be used to access all manner of applications, such as email, text messaging and social media.

"We hope to keep the women in contact with their community connections or their friends," says Morrow. "So if their Facebook status says they are in Montreal, we have a place to start, a way to reach out, make sure they're okay and offer them services."

Eskasoni First Nation will distribute the touch-screen devices to all participants in the program, and global positioning system key fobs with a distress button to the highest-risk women.

"We're dealing with a lot of mental health issues, so people wander off and disappear sometimes," says Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny. "We don't want our girls to become a statistic. I am very happy with this program, because it helps women at risk. It gives us a way to connect with them and make sure they're safe."

The devices will have a reloadable app for a local coffee shop, so they will also be a means for the women, who often go hungry, to get food. To reload their account, the women will contact the Eskasoni Crisis and Referral Centre, which can download funds and check on where the women are and if they are safe.

Run by Eskasoni Mental Health Services (EMHS), the centre offers 24/7 support and referrals to a wide range of services, from rehabilitation, individual counselling and support groups to family violence intervention and traditional teachings. As such, it will be the hub for We Care.

"Our accessibility was a key element in the We Care process," says Daphne Hutt-McLeod, EMHS director. "Also, our unique case-management system ensures that your hand is held every step of the way. You're never left for three months where somebody's not working with you."

Shannon consulted with some of the high-risk women to explain the idea behind using technology as part of We Care. Once they understood how the devices would help them, they were on board.

"Most of them realize their disappearance is a distinct possibility," says Shannon. "While we can't guarantee their safety, I tell them to consider the program as an angel on their back. If they fall, we're there to catch them."

Reintegration through life skills

Another aspect of this multi-faceted program is to provide women with life and work skills, while fostering a rapport with the various agencies.

"These women may view police, social workers, addictions counsellors with distrust," says Shannon. "We want to remedy this so front-line services can provide timely intervention."

As part of the program, social agencies will host a weekly gathering at the Elders Centre where youth 12 to 16 will prepare and enjoy a meal together, followed by either information sessions on topics designed to improve well-being or fun activities such as a movie.

Despite the fact that the program is barely underway, bringing together police and social agencies to focus on high-risk individuals has already paid dividends.

"With the help of a local woman, we've gotten three girls off the street and into rehab by talking with them, showing them we care," says Shannon.

A recovering drug addict, Jillian Denny spent nearly five years on the streets. After she hit rock-bottom, she decided to get clean and get off the streets — for the sake of her kids. She has accompanied Shannon to meet with some of the girls targeted by the program, offering them food and advice.

"Nobody offered me help when I was on the streets — that's why I care so much," she says. "The girls need help, they need somewhere safe where people are not out to get them. I talk to them about getting into a program, because if I can make it, so can they."

Morrow says these early successes are a positive sign, and would not have happened without the program.

"Many of these young women are surprised that there are people, especially police officers, caring enough to engage with them, to take the time and effort to help them out," he says. "We have a very young population in Eskasoni, so the issues with high-risk lifestyles will only grow unless we take proactive measures to address them now."

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 3, 2016).

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