Safety first . . . or not

Everyone who has testified at the inquest so far agrees: finding ways to keep women safe needs to be a top priority. We’ve heard many different ideas about how that should be done. Some witnesses have focused on safety planning with women, others have talked about possible measures to control abusers, others have put forward ideas for information sharing.

Based on stories my clients have shared with me and the experiences of the women we serve at Luke’s Place, one thing has been clear to me for some time: until we are ready to make radical systemic changes, women will never be safe; the best they can hope for is to be safer. It’s a harm reduction approach, which is okay in the short run, but we need to do better.

Whose plan?

Faye Cassista, from Victim Services Renfrew County, talked about her work with two of the femicide victims: Nathalie and Anastasia. As she discussed the safety planning she did with both women, she pointed out to the jury:

“It’s not my safety plan, it’s hers.”

Different women need and want different approaches to their safety. Some welcome a panic button; others find it too intrusive. Some are prepared to report the abuse to the police so that charges can be laid and prosecuted; others are not. Some are willing to move; some are not. Some are ready to leave; others need more time.

Whatever the woman’s choices, as Faye reminded us, it is never her fault if further harm comes to her. It is the job of the service provider to help her build a plan to keep her as safe as possible in her circumstances.

Scatter and run

She shared a story about strategizing with a woman whose partner would physically assault her if his beer was not cold enough when he got home from work. Leaving him was not an option for her, so the safety strategy she worked out, with Faye’s support, was how to reduce the risk of harm while she remained with him. In this case, part of that strategy was about making sure his beer was as cold as possible when he came through the door at the end of the day. Not safe, but safer.

Nathalie Warmerdam knew she was at risk of harm by the man who would later kill her and two other former partners as long as he remained in the community, so she made plans to keep herself and her children as safe as she could. She always backed into parking spots so she could get away quickly if she needed to, she carried her MTS tracker with her everywhere she went, and she told her teenaged children that if the abuser managed to get close to them “everyone run in a different direction,” so he wouldn’t be able to hurt all of them. Not safe, but safer.

And, when the man who killed her came through her front door on September 22nd, her son remembered the safety plan and ran out the back door. Nathalie was killed, but he was not.

At Luke’s Place, safety planning includes talking with women about which rooms in their home are safer (two or more doors, ideally with locks on the inside, or windows large enough to jump through) and which are not (kitchens, because there are knives and hard surfaces there; bathrooms, because the window is usually very small and there are hard surfaces). Our Legal Support Workers suggest that women prepare and hide an emergency bag in case they need to make a quick escape, and talk with them about how to protect themselves from online abuse.  

None of these approaches eliminates risk or guarantees safety. Too many of them require the woman to change her life to increase safety for herself and her children. But we have these conversations with women because we know that, in the absence of anything better, all of these tips can help keep them safer than they would otherwise be.

Whose responsibility?

As one participant in last month’s community consultations – a neighbour of one of the women killed – said:

“None of these women did anything wrong. They followed the rules. No matter what you do it isn’t enough.”

Women can do all the safety planning they want, but responsibility for stopping intimate partner abuse ultimately rests with the abuser and at the systemic level. Even the protection of restraining orders and peace bonds is limited if the abuser doesn’t care about the consequences of breaching one and if police and probation services don’t impose consequences when he does.

For example, why was the perpetrator in this case released from custody — not once but twice — even though he refused to sign the terms of his release? Why was he not re-arrested when he failed to follow the terms of his probation — not once but twice — by, among other things, not showing up for the partner assault response program he had been ordered to attend? Why was he permitted to return to the community where his prior partner lived, contrary to the instructions of the criminal court judge? Why did his firearms permit remain in his possession even though a lifetime weapons prohibition had been issued against him?

These are among the questions we need to answer if women are to be truly safe and not just safer.

One thought on “Safety first . . . or not

  1. Hello,my dear friend was brutalized 2 years ago by her ex partner in the middle of the night when he illegally gained access to her apartment by posing as a delivery person to a neighbour. My friend was stabbed, bound , gagged and she feared for her life. Her sister was living with her at the time and she too was stabbed, bound and gagged. Both women managed to get away but thought they were going to die. He came back a second . Since then it’s been a bureaucratic nightmare dealing with the police, victim services and the Ontario criminal justice system. She had to immediately find safe shelter without any guidance, assistance or financial assistance. She couldn’t work because of the knife wounds to her hands, face and body as well as PTSD! Incredibly, while awaiting trial he continued to stalk, harass and threaten more harm with numerous phone calls to her and her family. He has been jailed, but without any remedial help which means that when he is up for parole he will continue to be at risk to reoffend. He is a time bomb ticking, waiting to finish what he started. My friend and her family are living with fear…..terror! Being forced to endure the emotional, social and financial hardship inflicted on ALL of them. As my friend is self employed, she did not have coverage for psychological, physical or pharmaceutical help at her disposal.This has been compounded by COVID impacting her business and health. The police victim services has not been helpful in the least! I am ashamed of them. She and her mother have had to chase, cajole, seek information ,and advocate just to survive. During COVID, legal help has been a ghost. No one available or willing to take on the judicial system on her behalf. As it is now over two years since the attack on their lives, they have missed out on attaining victims services and any financial help which was not made available to them. It’s all so wrong!
    My heart is breaking for these sisters and their fierce Mother!
    I don’t want to watch her waiting to be killed.

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