Vol. 78, No. 2Panel discussion

Police officer interviewing woman.

What one police action has the most positive impact when dealing with family violence?

The panellists

  • Cst. Joan Harty, Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence Coordinator, Fredericton Police Force, New Brunswick
  • Cst. Kathleen Fossen, Domestic Violence Coordinator, Spruce Grove/Stony Plain detachment, Alberta, RCMP
  • Nneka MacGregor, Executive Director of WomenatthecentrE and survivor of family violence, Toronto, Ontario

Cst. Joan Harty

In June 2014, the Fredericton Police Force developed the Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence Co-ordinator (D/IPV Co-ordinator) position, the first of its kind within the policing community in New Brunswick. The goal is reduce the cycle of domestic and intimate partner violence in the Fredericton area.

When responding to a call for service involving domestic violence, a Fredericton Police Force patrol officer investigates the complaint, lays a charge when the elements of the offence are present, completes the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA) when it meets the criteria, and completes the file. With the addition of the D/IPV Coordinator, follow-up with the victim takes place by the co-ordinator if the incident is considered high risk. Previously, the patrol officer would do the follow-up.

The D/IPV Co-ordinator reads all non-criminal and criminal domestic dispute files for the Fredericton Police Force, ensures the ODARA is complete and the D/IPV study codes are used. When the ODARA score falls in the high-risk category, the D/IPV Co-ordinator will follow-up with the victim and attempt to build a relationship and help to ensure a safety plan is in place. There are also times when the ODARA score doesn't reflect the risk associated with the case. The D/IPV Co-ordinator will make a follow-up call in these cases and flag the address as dangerous, if needed.

Offenders have a role in breaking the cycle of violence. If an offender is held for court in relation to a D/IPV incident, the co-ordinator will attend the cell area and attempt to speak to the offender. The goal is to provide information on services available for them.

Members of the public can visit the Fredericton Police Station for advice about domestic incidents, either for themselves or for someone else. In these cases, they are referred to the D/IPV Co-ordinator. The co-ordinator also takes daily calls from members of the public. The advice can be for themselves, children or relatives who live in the Fredericton area, children or family who live outside of the Fredericton area, or for friends. The Fredericton Police Force provides a consistent message to the public through the D/IPV Co-ordinator. When requested, the co-ordinator can speak about intimate partner violence to a larger audience within the community.

The D/IPV Co-ordinator and other Fredericton members instruct police officers, Atlantic Police Academy cadets and police volunteers on domestic and intimate partner violence and ODARA. This ensures that calls for service are responded to and investigated in the same manner.

Community partnerships are key in reducing the incidents of domestic and intimate partner violence. The D/IPV Co-ordinator has developed relationships with many government and non-government agencies within the City of Fredericton. Participation on committees and boards that relate specifically to domestic violence is instrumental in understanding the different needs within the community and what the community offers victims and offenders of D/IPV.

The risk in domestic and intimate partner violence complaints can be high. The D/IPV Co-ordinator meets bi-weekly with the New Brunswick Department of Social Development to discuss high-risk cases within the City of Fredericton.

The social workers set up case conferences for high-risk victims and invite the co-ordinator, other community agencies and family members who support the victim to help keep the victim safe. A case conference will also be done for the offender if he or she is willing to participate.

Will the D/IPV Co-ordinator position end domestic and intimate partner violence? That's the goal. Through partnerships, education and enforcement, the D/IPV Coordinator can have a real impact on this societal issue.

Cst. Kathleen Fossen

Family violence investigations are the most complex, high risk and difficult files that police members investigate. What's become apparent to all agencies and support services over the past several years is that we can't do this work alone. Creating partnerships and forming collaborations is key to proper investigation, intervention and ultimately prevention.

With this in mind, in 2014, the Spruce Grove/Stony Plain detachment, in partnership with a local group, the Parkland and Area Response to Family Violence Committee, created the Domestic Violence Support Team (DVST). The DVST is an inter-agency collaborative group established for the purpose of promoting safety from violence through education, accountability and support for individuals and families who are affected by family violence.

The DVST consists of a specialized family violence RCMP member, a domestic violence court caseworker, a Victim Services Society advocate, a specialized family violence probation officer and a child welfare worker. The team members possess knowledge, training and expertise specific to family violence and are able to create a supportive environment for victims using empathy, compassion and non-judgement.

The DVST ensures that families have the appropriate supports required to maintain safety and move toward a family free from violence. The specialized team engages clients in a timely manner, assesses individual client needs, makes referrals, conducts risk assessments, provides comprehensive ongoing safety planning and arranges case consultations when appropriate. By using this approach, victims, offenders and their children are able to access community supports on an ongoing basis and are connected to appropriate intervention services within the community.

One area where the DVST has seen great success is within the justice system. For many victims of family violence, once the initial crisis is over and the matters are before the courts, victims commonly lack the confidence necessary to follow through as a witness to provide the necessary evidence to support a conviction. As a result, a high number of charges are withdrawn resulting in no accountability or opportunities for offender rehabilitation. The offender then returns to the home, and the cycle begins again.

The DVST maintains ongoing contact with victims throughout the court process and provides a conduit for communication between victims and crown prosecutors. These actions keep victims engaged with the court process and ensure offender accountability, effective treatment outcomes for offenders and less recidivism.

I believe that family violence can be prevented, and that true collaboration, sharing resources and creating partnerships are the keys to achieving this.

Nneka MacGregor

In 2014, WomenatthecentrE embarked on a participatory research initiative to hear from female survivors who had experienced strangulation by an intimate partner. This came out of ongoing conversations that several members of our organization were having about their experience of violence. Although these women recognized how serious the assaults were, many were completely unaware that being strangled posed adverse short- and long-term risks to their health.

The executive summary outlines some of the key findings, including the participants' interactions with police. We know that most incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV) aren't reported to police and our findings are in keeping with the national average currently at about one in three women calling police when assaulted.

We naturally want more women to call the police, especially when the assault they've experienced is as serious as strangulation. However, we understand the real barriers that women face, including fear of reprisals or escalating violence, if there are no consequences or accountability on the perpetrator at the end of the day.

We've seen in our most recent Court Watch initiative, where we monitored three of the specialized Domestic Violence Courts in Toronto, that regardless of the severity of the assault, perpetrators were most likely to receive Peace Bonds or a Conditional Discharge. The message this sends to victims is that the criminal justice system doesn't take their safety seriously.

Women say that this message often starts with an officer who either minimizes the gravity of the situation or blames her for the violence she's experiencing. In some instances, victims have been dually charged where an officer was unable to determine the primary aggressor, something that is worrisome, since this added dimension where women run the risk of being arrested will further deter reporting.

So, in thinking about the one police action that had the most positive impact on survivors of IPV, it was something common to all officers who the women praised: they were patient/empathetic, with a genuine understanding of the socially constructed, individually willed and culturally organized roots of IPV.

We know that officers must not show bias when taking statements, but saying something as simple as "this should not happen to anyone" makes a non-judgmental statement that applies to society at large but, at that moment, puts women at ease to disclose, without the shame and guilt they may feel.

Sitting at her level is less intimidating than standing over her, especially when asking the traumatizing and intimate questions that need to be asked. Attending training programs co–facilitated by female survivors is imperative.

For the women in our strangulation research — almost all of whom thought they were going to die that day — a patient and empathetic officer would have made a world of difference.

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