Violence at home is a public matter

Opinion: by Julie Green

EDGE online

July 16, 2012

What is it going to take to make men hitting women as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving, or smoking in a restaurant? It’s going to take action by all of us – to call out abusers, to stop enabling them by remaining silent and to encourage them to seek help to change their behaviour. A 2007 GNWT survey of family violence revealed, among other things, that more than a third of 753 people surveyed believe physical violence (between men and women) is a private matter. But perhaps most revealing, the survey found a third of abusers don’t seek help because they don’t think they have a problem.

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Contrary to the survey’s findings, domestic violence is not a private matter. Police and other helping professions knew Carol Buggins was in danger in Hay River before she was allegedly murdered by her partner, Benedict Corrigal, on June 28, as he had been charged with assaulting her before. Likewise, the attack on Mary Laboucan in Fort Resolution that resulted in her death on June 19 wasn’t the first. Steven Sayine had been charged with threatening her and was under a court order to stay away.

Many people in Gameti knew Alice Black was in danger when her common-law partner Terry Vital was drinking. According to the coroner’s report on her death, family members phoned Black to warn her that Vital was returning to the community with alcohol. They suggested she leave the house. Instead, she tried to keep him out by locking the door. After he broke the window, she went out with him, likely to keep the peace. Many people heard the couple arguing and then saw Vital pull Black’s hair, and hit, slap and kick her. Family members went to check on them when they returned home but didn’t realize Black’s injuries were so profound she would be dead by morning.

What could concerned family and community members have done differently? I’m not suggesting they intervene in a fight in progress. If the community had resident RCMP, someone could have called them for help.

The real problem is identified by Coroner Cathy Menard in her report. “Domestic violence deaths almost never occur without warning,” she wrote. “In most cases there have been repeated incidents of violence and indicators of risk as well as opportunities for agencies and individuals to intervene before death.” That was certainly the case for Black; the first time Vital was convicted of beating her was 10 years before her death, and he faced a number of charges for assaulting her before being convicted of manslaughter in 2010 and sentenced to seven years in jail.

What does safety look like in communities like Gameti with such high levels of violence without resident police and community safe houses? How can we ensure women who flee to shelters are safe when they return home? Currently we cannot. What we need is for abusive men to change their behaviour.

The territorial government is ready to launch a treatment program for as many as 36 men. The focus of the program is to help men see that they are making a choice by using abusive behavior and they need to make a choice not to abuse. It’s a compassionate program that acknowledges men may be victims, as well, and yet insists men take responsibility for hurting their intimate partner.

While the Department of Justice hasn’t made public its goals for the program, at a 70 per cent effectiveness rate – a reasonable expectation – 25 men might change their lethal behaviour. Think of the benefits in addition to women feeling safe in their homes: 25 women wouldn’t need the help of medical professionals and family violence shelters and 25 men wouldn’t need to be jailed. This men’s healing program could be an important beginning.

We also need to take seriously the coroner’s recommendation for a public education campaign, and ensure that it engages young men on the question of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour with women. In the era of readily accessible porn and misogynist song lyrics, do boys know better? Probably not. Talking to boys is our best hope for restoring girls and women to an equal and dignified standing in society.

These campaigns can work. After all, having someone light a cigarette during a meal is now shocking and disgusting. We need to move family violence to the same place.

Julie Green is the Director of Community Relations with the YWCA and a former long-time CBC journalist.


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