In my work, I encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of women who have been subjected to male violence. Some of these women engage with me: I get emails from women thanking me for something I wrote or something I said at a conference that helped them or I get cards, mailed to one of the organizations I work with, containing a similar message.
These contacts, even though I no longer work directly with individual women, are inspiring and energizing for me. After all, who doesn’t like to hear that something we did helped someone when they needed it most or that someone who was in a bad situation is now in a better one?
Here to help
I also hear from women who want my help. Most often, it is an email. Often, it begins with something like:
“I am in a terrible situation and I don’t know who to turn to. I saw you at XXX (or I read your article about XXX) and I hope you can help me.”
Following this is a long and detailed description of the woman’s situation; a story that enters my heart and doesn’t leave. Often, the story is one of extreme abuse; often, it speaks to ongoing fear and serious safety concerns; often, children are part of the story.
Usually, the woman has tried all of the usual sources for help: her family, the police, family court, counselling services, the women’s shelter in her community. Sometimes, she is isolated or estranged from her family or does not have access to services because she lives in a remote part of the province or does not speak English or is Indigenous or a woman of colour and does not trust state authorities to believe her or treat her with respect. Some women are too terrified to even try to access services.
Often, there is nothing I can do. The problem may be outside my area of expertise or it may not really be a legal problem; the woman may not live in Ontario; she may have already received the same advice or suggestions I would offer but has not liked what she has heard.
Even when I have something to offer, I am usually not in a position to do as much as she would like. I carry a very heavy workload, including a fair bit of pro bono work, and I just don’t have either the time or the emotional energy to provide ongoing assistance to individual women on my own time.
Vicarious trauma is real
One of the main reasons I left the practice of law was that I had become highly traumatized by listening to so many stories of abuse and seeing how poorly most systems responded to the women who had lived those stories. I entered therapy to cope with the impact of the work and made the decision to work at the systemic rather than the individual level.
That decision was the right one for me to make. Placing a filter between me and the stories helped me restore my emotional health so I could make different contributions to violence against women work.
Over the more than 15 years since I stopped practising law, I have, from time to time, provided pro bono assistance to individual women who needed some legal advice and support. On average, until recently, I probably helped a dozen women a year, which was quite manageable.
When Ontario began its pilot project to provide free independent legal advice to survivors of sexual assault three years ago, I decided to dip my foot back into more formal client work, and provided this service, through the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, for about two years. It was humbling and enriching work that made me feel I was making a difference for the women I spoke with. However, towards the end of that time, I realized that I was experiencing many of the same emotional challenges as I had when I was practicing law full time, so I made the decision to stop. Once again, it was the right decision for me to make.
Out of control
Through the spring of this year, the number of requests for help I received outside any of my professional obligations grew considerably. Why? Maybe because my website and this blog are becoming better known? Maybe because I won an award that got a lot of media attention? Maybe because women are ever more desperate for help since Doug Ford got elected and started slashing services?
I started to keep a list: between July 1 and August 31, I received more than 20 requests for help from individual women who had no direct connection to me. In almost every case, the request included a detailed description of the abuse to which she had been subjected. I responded to every one of these requests, with my soul cracking a little bit more with each one of them.
Matters came to a head two weeks ago when, in five days, I received seven pleas for help. In one case, a woman came to the front door of my home looking for me. After I told her that I could not help her and sent her away, I burst into tears, frustrated that women are so bereft of options for the supports they need that this one had resorted to arriving unannounced and uninvited on my doorstep.
Fortunately for me, I had a friend just a phone call away who, as soon as she heard my sobs, told me she was on her way. Between us, and with further help from other colleagues and friends, we have mapped out what I hope will be a survival strategy.
Finding new strategies
My website now states that I do not respond to individual requests for assistance. We have added a page of resources for women, which also says that I cannot respond to individual requests for help. I am in the process of getting an unlisted number for our home telephone, which I never use anyway. We will use this blog as needed to help people understand that I don’t provide legal assistance to individual women. I am learning to say no except when I make the conscious decision to say yes.
I need your help too. If you work with or know a woman you think could benefit from my help, please consider what you have just read before telling her that I can help her. If you still think I can help, write to me yourself rather than giving my telephone number or email address to her. (I know, none of you would ever do such a thing, but some people do, and it puts me in a very awkward position.)
It is an incredible honour when women entrust me with their stories and have faith that I can help them. However, the sad truth is that it will take much more than one committed but tired 65-year-old feminist lawyer to fix the very broken systems that are intended to respond to the male violence to which so many women are subjected.