Domestic violence in Canada: STILL at the wrong end of the problem, asking the wrong questions

Stats Canada has released data gleaned from a “snapshot day” that looked at women’s shelters on a day in April last year. On that day, there were more than 3500 women in the shelter system across Canada. 3500 is not a small number. Approximately one in five will return to the home they fled from. This is no surprise for anyone who understands the ways in which abused women face an uphill climb to protect themselves and their children when they have violent partners.

open door facing walkway with white picket fence“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is the wrong question. It presumes that leaving an abusive relationship is a simple solution that will end the violence. The greatest time of risk for being killed is separation. The question also places the weight for violence that is happening to her, on her. It’s ‘on her’ because the implicit assumption is that she needs to stop the abuse – by leaving. This is how victims are blamed for being victimized.

“Why doesn’t he stop being violent?” may be a better question in the sense that it acknowledges who is actively creating the threat of harm, but it is still not a good question. It is not a good question because it is the kind of question that sets up a public judgement about who is the villain. No one wants to be a villain and few see themselves, or their friends, in this light. It is a useless dynamic of finger pointing and denial that does nothing to reduce the risk of violence. People and relationships are complex and deserve to be respected as such. We know that when couples are in trouble and when the male partner is coercive and controlling there is a risk of harm. If the situation escalates, there may even be a risk of domestic homicide[1]. This is illustrated with the most difficult of statistics - the body count. 48 women in Ontario were killed by men they were involved with in 2018. Any number is unacceptable. 48 is a shocking number.

Many women who end up in shelter do not want to end their relationship. They want the violence to stop. Currently, the moment she steps across the threshold of a shelter, a system kicks in to manage the situation. All of the attention is on her and the imperative to keep her safe. There are very few or sometimes no resources that address the source of the problem – his behaviour. This is why we are always working after the fact, deep in the crisis, which is costly and ineffective.

A better question would be “how do we reduce his risk to commit more violence?” Research has shown that it is only a small percentage of people who are incapable of behaviour change.[2] Why don’t we focus on helping him to stop being violent? The question points to a gap in the system of responses and a stubborn resistance to change.

The problem is visible in the accounting. In Ontario, the provincial government funds one child welfare agency in a rural community at $23 million dollars a year. Approximately 60 percent of the cases are domestic violence related. In contrast, the entire provincial budget for the partner assault response program (PAR) is $13 million dollars a year. For the entire province. PAR is the only funded service that engages with domestic violence offenders, men and women. If we fund and mandate PAR to work hard with offenders to change behaviour and reduce risk for violence, in theory, we will be able to reduce child welfare costs by strengthening families and helping them to be safe places for children. Unfunded programs such as Caring Dads have blazed a trail in working with men who have been violent in their relationships. The focus is on being a father. A belief that change is possible is the entry point.

Every year, there are approximately 11,000 violent offenders who come into contact with the system when they enter into the criminal justice system in Ontario. The opportunity to work with them while they are involved with the system is a strength to build on. The flip side, the weakness is that men who are violent have to be involved with the criminal justice system to enter PAR. There is no funding for PAR to support those who voluntarily seek help. The idea of encouraging and incenting men to seek help, before the violence, is a strategic idea that puts us on the path to getting to the ‘right’ end of the problem.

Every point of contact with men who are at risk for violence is an opportunity for intervention with the potential for change. It won’t work for everyone but it will work for many. Imagine the difference if a women who goes to shelter learns that the system will kick in to protect her and  work with her partner to recognize and reduce his risk for violence. Not all women will choose to remain in their relationship, but we already know that at least 1 in 5 will.

How will we ever get ahead of the curve if we do not prioritize stopping the violence in the first place? We actually make him more dangerous if we simply shun him as a villain without acknowledging the possibility of change and providing resources and opportunities for this to happen. As a society, if we are going to move toward prevention, we have to be willing to hold the tension between necessary and strict accountability for those men who are engaging in violent behaviour and working to support them to change. Where there is a will, there is a way.



[1] Year after year, the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee reports show that men are the perpetrators in over 90% of domestic homicides.

[2] A project in London Ontario in 2012 showed that when modest social support is offered to domestic violence offenders, they are 55% less likely to re-offend. See: Intervening to Prevent Report Offending Among Moderate-High Risk Domestic Violence Offenders: A Second Responder Program for Men. (2013) Authors: Katreena Scott, Tim Kelly, Lisa Heslop, Kate Wiggins. See: http://ijo.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/03/0306624X13513709