Island groups trying to put an end to family violence

By Stephanie Drummond

Jane moved to Moncton from the Island to go to school.

She met John at a party a few months later. They hit it off and were soon a couple. She liked how sweet and funny he was. Jane, not her real name, was pregnant two months later.

That’s when she started to notice a change in John’s behavior. He became controlling. He would become angry and call her names. She blamed it on his diabetes.

“He had bad diabetes. His blood sugar would dip low and he would go into the hospital for a few days. When he got out he was fine. It was like nothing happened.”

Living in a new province, with a baby on the way, she ignored his behavior, but when the baby came things started to get worse.

“He hit me. He punched me in the face.”

She was shocked, but desperate to keep her family together. John said he would change, so she forgave him. A month later, John got angry again. She was holding their baby when he hit her.

“He grabbed me by the hair and slammed me to the ground. He kicked me and punched me. I just pleaded with him to stop. I had the baby in my arms.”

The next day John’s blood sugar dipped and he went to the hospital.

“I knew I had to do something. I couldn’t stay there and let him hit me. He could have hurt the baby. I needed to leave and it was my chance.”

She called her family and they rushed to pick her up. She filed a complaint against John, and she hasn’t spoken to him since that incident five years ago.

Her case isn’t typical. She fled after the second attack. On average, it takes seven attempts to leave because of domestic violence before a woman will escape.

Michelle Buttery is the shelter manager for Anderson House in Charlottetown and the child and youth care services manager. It’s hard for women to leave an abusive relationship for many reasons, she said.

“The first and foremost is that she genuinely loves her partner. It’s the behavior that she doesn’t like.”

It’s the behavior that is hurtful and destroying, she said. But abusive relationships are all about control for the abuser. The victim believes they are powerless.

“There could be a threat against the children. ‘If you leave me, I will take the kids away.’ Or ‘I will come and find you and the children and I will hurt you both.’”

Many women chose to stay for financial reasons, Buttery said.

“‘If you leave me, you’ll never have anything.’ She may also be worried that her children won’t have what they need.”

Many times women will stay hoping things will improve, Buttery said.

But when they are ready to leave the Anderson House is there as a safe haven.

The first thing a visitor notices about the house is it’s homey. The old historic home sits on a Charlottetown street. There are no signs announcing what the building is. The doors are locked.

Inside, the house is warm. It has all the original wood throughout the house. There is a cozy fireplace in the living room, the kitchen is renovated and inviting.

Upstairs there are bedrooms with multiple beds, and locks on the doors, Buttery noted.

“No woman has to share a room. There are no bunk beds. A woman would only have to share a room with her children. This is her private place while she is here.”

Down the hall is a bright green and periwinkle blue playroom. There are Sesame Street character toys and the room is filled with new toys.

“We have women who are shocked that this is a shelter. They say ‘I would have come here years ago, if I knew this is what it is like.’”

When women arrive, they are given everything they need for three weeks, Buttery said.

“We have all the clothing and personal hygiene products they need. If they can’t get here, we will go get them. If they have a dog, we have arrangements to have the dog housed at the Humane Society. We try to make sure there are no boundaries stopping her from getting away from that situation.”

Once women and children are at Anderson House, staff work with them. If they need an emergency protection order, workers will help them fill it out, she said.

“We need to make sure the women and children are in a supportive and safe environment.”

Phil Matusiewicz is the executive director of PEI Family Violence Prevention Services Inc. It works with the women to get them back onto their feet once they arrive at Anderson House, he said.

“We do therapy, support groups, problem solving, and group work. The women find group work fulfilling because suddenly, where they may have felt isolated before, they recognize they aren’t alone.”

The two groups work together to find women more permanent housing and help them figure out what’s next, he said.

“We’re helping 500 families on an annual basis.”

Buttery speaks to four schools on the Island each year about preventing family violence.

“Children learn what they see at home. If we can dispel some of those myths and give more positive information to children, like ways to be in healthy relationships, and what’s not healthy, then hopefully over time we’re going to see a decrease.”

Matusiewicz hopes they can spread the message to more schools.

“There are a massive amount of students that we aren’t touching in regards to what a healthy relationship looks like. We still have lots of work to do.”

PEI Family Violence Prevention Services has joined with the PEI Advisory Council On the Status of Women on the purple ribbon campaign during family violence prevention week.

The campaign started over 20 years ago, said Jane Ledwell, executive director of the council.

“After a massacre in Montreal. Fourteen women were murdered for being women.”

Although the massacre was years ago, the issue does hit closer to home, she said.

“Since that time, there have been women die at the hands of men who knew them here on P.E.I. Those women’s stories have become part of the legacy of the purple ribbon campaign as well.”

Each year, the council comes up with a theme for the campaign. They make up booklets to go along with the ribbon.

“We usually distribute between 15, 000 to 20, 000. They are all made by hand.”

Another aspect of the campaign the public may not see is for teachers, Ledwell said.

“We usually make up a booklet for junior high and high school teachers. They go to all the health and social studies teachers on the Island.”

Along with the ribbon campaign, walks in silence take place across the Island, she said.

“There are terrific groups of people. In the last couple years, the need people are expressing for a walk is growing. This year we had over 150 people in intense cold conditions to walk.”

Valerie Docherty is the provincial minister responsible for the status of women. She encouraged the walkers at on Feb. 11, to think of the victims as they faced the cold.

“Think of them as you’re walking. Think of them as your ears and your nose are getting cold. And the pain that you’re feeling, it doesn’t compare to the pain that those who are suffering from family violence feel,” she said.

Doherty led the walk this year. She thanked the crowd for their continued support.

“We have no idea who is walking. We don’t know our circumstances. We don’t know if we are an actual victim. Whether we are someone who has been able to come through that ordeal. Who might be a sister, or a mother, or a father. We’re showing support to those who are suffering.”

Ledwell said the number of walks across the Island grew this year, thanks to grants from the premier’s action committee which was set up in 1995 by the provincial government. The committee is dedicated to ending family violence through public initiatives.

“They had little $100 grants for the municipalities to put on their own walk. So it encouraged more municipalities to take part.”

These walks are important. They shine light and encourage those suffering to seek help, she said.

“A co-worker of mine talked to a woman and she said ‘this time last year I had no job, I didn’t know where I was going to live with my children. I was just trying to feel my way out of an abusive relationship and get to safety. And this year, I’m walking in this walk as a survivor.’

“And she was walking in this walk with all the front-line workers who had helped her to get where she was.”

Ledwell hopes with each walk someone will come forward to safety and the real issues can be addressed.

“Violence against women lies in gender inequality, in the toxic ways that we assign roles to different gender. This can be prevented by creating better equality. Abusive relationships are all about power and control. We need to support equality to shift that power to an equal level.”

One of the ways Ledwell encourages people to end family violence is by voting in the upcoming provincial election.

“One of the challenges is that there need to be greater numbers of women in decision making on the Island. Often people say what difference does it make, but we want our elected officials to look like the general public. So it would make sense if 50 per cent were women.”

A major improvement in women’s rights came from then premier Catherine Callbeck in 1995, Ledwell said.

“After a tour of Anderson House, Catherine Callbeck made the premier’s action committee. She went for a tour, saw someone she knew and it moved her. This was someone that she knew. Violence affects people of all life. These are our friends and our neighbours.”

Ann Sherman is chair of the action committee. She encourages everyone to get involved.

“It happens behind drawn curtains and behind locked doors. It’s a private act but it’s an act that affects every single one of us.”

If you suspect a friend is being abused, you should trust your instincts, Sherman said.

“Reach out to that person privately and ask that person about abuse. You can let the person know that you are there for them if they ever need to talk.”

Statistics Canada says the number of cases of domestic violence are decreasing, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story, she said.

“We know many incidents of family violence are never reported to the police. And in fact, anecdotally, it seems about 30 incidents of violence happen before a victim does contact the police.

“It is up to us as members of our community to end family violence. Learn about family violence and teach your children about healthy relationships.”