Vol. 78, No. 2Cover stories

Police officer reading book to students.

High-risk homes

Inter-agency collaboration helps address family violence

New member Cst. Julie Bouchard learns the value of community outreach in Shamattawa, Man. Better relationships between police and residents have reduced crime and domestic violence rates in the northern community. Credit: Sgt. Ryan Merasty


In 2008, Allan Schoenborn, an abusive and mentally unstable father in Merritt, B.C., murdered his three children.

Months later, the community was shocked when the children's deaths were deemed "preventable" in a third-party report. The most surprising part: Schoenborn was known to both police and social services, and had been arrested three times in the week leading up to the murders.

"There were gaps in service delivery because of communication failure between the main agencies — the justice side and the community service groups," says Cst. Heather Hall, mental health co-ordinator at the Richmond, B.C., RCMP detachment. "It's hard to tell why it became systematic, I think people just had their own mandates. We didn't talk to each other as often as we should have."

Now eight years after the report, social services in B.C. including child protection, income assistance, mental health and the justice system are talking more to each other — and to police.

"Because of the Schoenborn case, cities started to talk about what they were doing about family and domestic violence," says Hall. "Richmond thought it was a great idea to bridge any communication gaps to really understand the high-risk nature of domestic violence cases."

But British Columbia isn't the only region that's shifting its perspective on family violence. New Brunswick is introducing collaborative groups to address the highest risk domestic violence cases. Saskatchewan is focusing on awareness and prevention, asking men, boys, women and girls to pledge against violence. And northern communities are discovering that the best solution to ending violence may be through community engagement.

Across the country, the RCMP is renewing its focus on family and domestic violence, creating partnerships and programs that incorporate prevention, intervention, enforcement and victim care.

Life-saving communication

Shortly after the Schoenborn report was released, Richmond devised a plan to make sure it would never happen again. In 2012, the city asked the RCMP, provincial bodies and community agencies to join a pilot project called Safe Relationships — Safe Children.

Together, representatives from each sector met once per month to develop training for front-line service providers such as social workers, nurses and doctors. Led by the RCMP, members of the project discussed ways to educate service providers on how to engage at-risk people, with the goal of preventing violence.

"As police, we're trained interviewers and we're not afraid to ask questions," says Hall. "We were looking at different perspectives — how might a doctor ask someone about their domestic violence issues versus a social worker versus a police officer. All of them come in contact with offenders and victims, so it's important that those people ask the right questions."

Following the pilot project, Richmond decided to take the idea of inter-agency communication to the next level. In 2012, the city introduced a new provincial initiative into the community: Inter-Agency Case Assessment Teams (ICATs).

Originally formed by the Ending Violence Association of B.C., ICATs have now expanded into many communities across the province, including Richmond. The teams create collaborative working groups to help address family violence — especially those risky cases involving other factors such as mental illness or substance abuse.

Now a permanent fixture in the community, the Richmond ICAT meets once per month to discuss the highest risk family and domestic violence cases. In the meetings, agencies exchange information on the most dangerous cases — looking at the risk factors involved, discussing updates and determining actions to take.

"There's a real appetite for various types of collaboration in communities, because we're finally realizing that we can't do it alone — we need partners," says Hall. "Our role is to keep people safe and hold offenders accountable, so we need other service agencies to take part."

Coming together

B.C.'s team-based approach to combating family violence has also taken root on Canada's East Coast. In New Brunswick, one of the RCMP's main priorities is addressing intimate partner violence.

That's why the RCMP and municipal police forces joined with the province's Department of Public Safety to create a Roundtable on Crime and Public Safety in 2011, and more recently, a Coordinated Community Response (CCR) model.

Similar to B.C.'s ICATs, the goal of CCR is to create a multi-agency team that can help address high-risk and high-danger domestic and intimate partner violence cases. Once the model is up and running, local agencies will come together in regular meetings to share information and create safety plans for at-risk residents.

"We know that risk is dynamic," says Rhonda Stairs, a community program officer in N.B. "The CCR will allow community partners to share information continuously, as risk changes."

In order to measure the risk a family or person is facing, all police in New Brunswick have been recently trained to use the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA) tool, created in 2003. With it, an officer can ask a victim key questions to determine a risk score.

If a person is in danger of revictimization, any organization can flag their case at the table. Then, the CCR group will create a plan to keep the victim and family safe.

"Different people in the community hold different pieces of information related to files — there are a lot of moving parts," says Stairs. "The RCMP is part of that discussion, and is committed to addressing domestic and intimate partner violence."

Proactive prevention

At the same time that B.C. and New Brunswick began upgrading their approaches to family violence, Saskatchewan expanded its victim services. Although these services are housed within RCMP detachments, there often isn't contact between the two. So, the RCMP hired Pat Lee as the provincial victim services liaison and domestic violence prevention co-ordinator.

She makes sure the RCMP is providing the proper tools and referrals, while ensuring that victim services have the resources to provide the best help possible. She also has the responsibility of co-ordinating and promoting initiatives to stop family and intimate partner violence.

"If we can focus on prevention, it lets people see that being reactionary, taking calls and going to scenes isn't always necessary," says Lee. "I want to do more community collaboration to get people to see that."

This year, Lee is travelling across the province, handing out white ribbons and asking people to pledge against family violence.

She's attending the RCMP Sunset Ceremonies, powwow weekends, conferences and visiting schools — all to start conversations and raise awareness on the issue.

"It's hard to acknowledge family violence, but most often, somebody in the community knows that it's going on. It's not something that can be hidden," says Lee. "We're trying to say, 'You can call this number, you can intervene, and here's how you can help.' If we can help one person — if we can prevent it one time — that's the goal."

Shamattawa, in northern Manitoba, is also focusing on preventative, proactive policing to combat family and domestic violence.

"We had one of highest rates for domestic violence, but in the last few years, it's decreased drastically," says Sgt. Ryan Merasty, detachment commander of Shamattawa. "That's a result of proactive policing — our guys going out and they know who the habitual offenders are. We target these people instantly."

Crimes against persons decreased by 38 per cent in Shamattawa between 2013 and 2015 — and a huge proportion of those crimes are sexual and domestic-related assaults, according to Merasty. Call volumes and number of prisoners also decreased in the same time frame — a sign that attitudes may be shifting.

"We've become a part of the community," says Merasty. "We set up barbecues, movie nights and gym nights where we play games with the kids and adults. We've dedicated more time to doing more community-based work, and it's helped. People understand that we're here to help."

Making a difference

Although every region in Canada faces its own set of challenges when it comes to dealing with family and domestic violence, similar solutions are reflected across the country. Communication, collaboration and proactive action have helped the RCMP face family violence in ways that have never been possible before.

Since the Schoenborn report, communication between government services, community groups and police has improved victim care in British Columbia. After four years in action, Richmond's ICAT has successfully tackled numerous cases, addressing the root causes of family violence, while keeping victims safe.

"I think we're all on the same page now — information is shared with the key partners in a much more timely manner," says Hall. "We have to remember that we're dealing with people, and people are complex. There's not an easy fix for these situations, so we have to work together to make a difference in domestic violence."

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