Legal Aid Ontario Domestic Violence Training: A VAW best practice model

In 2014, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) introduced mandatory domestic violence awareness training for its staff. Since its implementation, more than 1,200 LAO staff and 800 lawyers have participated.

This successful program can and should serve as a model for violence against women education for other legal professionals.

Full disclosure

Before I write anything more, I need to disclose that Luke’s Place has the contract with LAO to deliver this training and I, in my role as the organization’s legal director, have been responsible for developing and delivering it.

I was a bit skeptical when we began work on this project. It was hard for me to imagine that an institution as large as LAO, an institution that has proven to be such a barrier for so many women leaving abusive relationships, would actually come through on its commitment to provide meaningful training to its staff.

Certainly, there have been bumps in the road. In particular, the budget for such an ambitious undertaking is too small. Trying to cover everything we wanted to in the time we had has been impossible. Effecting meaningful change in an organization as large and with as many different roles as LAO is challenging. The training was implemented just before LAO hit a major financial crisis, which had an impact. Changes in leadership affect institutional commitment.

However, after three years of travelling across Ontario delivering the training – approximately 100 times so far — I have no hesitation in saying that I think it has been a huge success.

LAO deserves a lot of credit for taking on such an ambitious enterprise. The model is one that should be given close consideration by any organizations considering VAW training for their legal staff or members.

Here are some of my reflections on why this program has worked so well.

Partnering with VAW experts

All too often, professional organizations make a commitment to provide VAW training to their membership and then use internal resources to develop and deliver it rather than turning to the community for its expertise.

LAO did not make this mistake. By contracting with Luke’s Place, it ensured that the trainings would reflect an intersectional, feminist analysis of the issue and would be rooted in the grassroots, frontline work that we do.

While the content of the training had to be approved by LAO, this was a broad strokes approval. In all of the details, we had free rein. We brought in frontline workers from whatever community we were in to talk with participants; we critiqued LAO; we used words like “misogyny” and “femicide;” we talked about the need for systemic change.

In other words, those who attended the training did not hear just the easy stuff.

Making it mandatory and ongoing

When this kind of training is not mandatory, there will always be those who find reasons not to attend. LAO ensured that all of its staff across the province, starting with senior management and including staff who have little or no client contact, attended a training session.

One of the most important elements of the training is that it was not a one-off. This training is now part of the orientation that all new employees must participate in.

Making it in-person

We live in a world where much happens online, including education and training. While there are online modules that make up part of the LAO training, the mandatory element is a full day, in-person session.

I think this has been critical to the success of the training. You just can’t create the space for discussion, storytelling, information sharing and interpersonal support online the way you can in person.

Participants learned from one another as well as from what I said at the front of the room. We heard personal disclosures; talked about cases in the news or in the community where the training was taking place; reflected together on systemic failures and successes.

And we laughed: humour plays an important, if delicate, role in talking about something as grim as violence against women, and I am not convinced it can be used properly online.

In conclusion

Since 2014, I have spent more days than I can count travelling from one part of Ontario to another. I have trained in rooms where the ceiling fell in partway through the day, where the participants were jammed in like sardines, where the technology did not work, where I had to use a cardboard box as a podium. I have eaten enough cardboard pizza to last me several lifetimes and have spent early mornings and late nights in hotel rooms trying to keep up with my other work (not to mention my family and friends).  I have breathed in so many germs on trains, buses and airplanes, as well as in training rooms, that I may have built up a lifetime immunity to the common cold.

Naturally, not everyone who came to the training was wildly enthusiastic about it, but out of the approximately 2,000 participants, fewer than 10 were openly hostile to what I had to say and fewer than 50 were visibly un-engaged with the session. That says a lot for the commitment of the people working for and with LAO.

More importantly, it offers me hope that the women and children my work is focused on will receive better and more-informed services and supports from LAO.

This is a model that deserves implementation by any organization of professionals working in a legal setting with survivors of family violence.

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