Domestic violence deserve more attention from politicians

First published:
August 29, 2001

Issues related to domestic violence are complex. And because of this, it becomes ignored in the community.

In December 2000, 12 local organizations took on the monumental task of working co-operatively to improve services for women and their children who suffer abuse. It is called the Monitoring Committee – a rather bland name. But its work is far from ordinary.

About 200 women and their children use the 14-bed shelter operated by Northumberland Services for Women in Cobourg per year. Sometimes women from outside the area come here for safety, but most are local. An additional 400 women use the outreach services annually. Outreach caseloads are continuously high with counsellors handling an equivalent of 70 women per full-time worker. The programs are community based, so counsellors offer services in Campbellford and Brighton, as well as locally.

Most people are familiar with this aspect. But this is only a portion of the puzzle. Women who are abused often seek help from other agencies, not necessarily going directly to Northumberland Services for Women. Through the work of the committee, women are being referred to the appropriate services and getting help more quickly.

Then, as the women seek help, the various committee members are able to work more closely to ensure nobody falls through the cracks. That means the women and children are safe and the perpetrator is brought to justice. Ideally, the abuse ends.

It would seem straightforward, but it is more like herding cats. Each of the organizations has its own mandate and approach to dealing with domestic violence. Committee chairperson Susan Owles, executive director of the Peterborough/Kawartha Victim Crisis Assistance and Referral Service, says one of the highlights of these early months is the openness of each organization to work together.

One example is the Cobourg Police. The Northumberland Services for Women is running training sessions with five officers every Thursday morning. The police are becoming more aware of the services offered and increase their understanding of abuse from a women’s perspective.

This is a significant step forward and the Cobourg officers deserve credit. But it is only a beginning. Many abusers are now filing their own charges in cases of domestic violence. The double charges cause major problems. Often the charges will be dropped. It is far too easy to lay double charges than to do a full investigation. It takes time and resources, but it is an issue that must be addressed by police and crown attorney.

Municipal politicians must also wade into the issues around domestic violence. Councils need to support these 12 agencies through increased understanding of abuse. It would not hurt all municipal leaders in Northumberland to become better informed.

Local politicians can take several important steps immediately to demonstrate their commitment to ending domestic violence. First, they should engage in a letter writing campaign to provincial and federal leaders. There is a desperate need for improvements to the justice system. One such area is the release of repeat abusers who are known to re-offend. Once released on bail, they will intimidate the women. Even when ordered to stay away, they persist, Owles said.

But there are so many more areas for politicians to become engaged. County council needs to seriously address the shortage in affordable housing. Women who leave abusers often can’t find decent housing, especially if they have children. County politicians also need to invest in social services for things as basic as being able to see a dentist. Owles said children can often get funding for an appointment, but the mothers cannot.

Funding should also be made available to police for full-time victim’s assistance programs. Cobourg once had a great program, but now the system is run out of Peterborough with only volunteers and part-time people locally.

The monitoring committee is still in its early stages, having not had a year under its belt. Understandably much of its efforts are aimed at organizational matters. The overall success of its work will be in the ability to provide women with a direct voice. That means all participants will need to work hard to listen to each other when complaints are made by clients.

But that is not all. Frontline workers must be heard, too. These people have the most direct experience working with the women and children hurt by abuse. Their ideas to improve the services are only second to the clients’. The greatest tragedy would be the disintegration of the monitoring committee into a bureaucratic machine. Its greatest triumph will be its flexibility and responsiveness to the community.

It can be done. But it needs our help. Municipal politician must know taxpayers understand domestic violence is a priority for Northumberland residents. They have a key role to play. So do Northumberland MPP Doug Galt and MP Paul Macklin. They should be listening carefully to the monitoring committee and the individual agencies, as well as responding to municipal leaders.

Abuse is complex. Solutions are even more so. But we cannot keep walking away from the most serious problems in our community. It is easy to deal with cosmetic politics because it looks good. The hallmark of great leadership is to take on the tough stuff. Municipal leaders are quickly coming up on their first anniversary in office this term. Rather than sitting back and waiting for each issue to be served up like Sunday dinner, maybe politicians can be proactive on crucial issue such as this. Isn’t it time.