Support for domestic violence victims

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 4:32 p.m. January 30, 2014

A pilot project at 41 Division is ensuring victims of domestic violence have the best supports in place so they can move forward to a better life.

Three woman stand in line in a stairwell
Victim Advocates Rebecca Shaw, Rizwana Sabri and Detective Lee Poczak

The Scarborough Family Justice Initiative began in February 2013, linking every victim of domestic violence with a Victim Advocate who helps them navigate the complex social services systems.

“We always did it,” said Toronto Police Domestic Violence Coordinator Det. John Valerio, of officers referring victims to social services organizations – most to Victim Services Toronto. “We are now using the people with the most expertise to enhance the referral process to our community partners.”

Two Victim Advocates supplied by  Victim Services Toronto , Rebecca Shaw and Rizwana Sabri, have an office at  41 Division . They act as case managers who link their victims to the best support mechanisms: an emergency shelter, long-term housing, childcare or job services.

Valerio said officers are best focused on ensuring the criminal investigation is proceeding well.

“Our officers can bring a strong case before the courts to hold the offender to account as well as ensuring the appropriate help is given to victims and their families,” he said, noting advocates have clearly taken pressure off investigators as it relates to coordinating services for victims. “Officers are now very confident that the victim is going to receive the best care possible because we have specific people who special- ize in the social work piece.”

Domestic violence accounts for a significant portion of police resources. In 2012, there were over 20,000 domestic incidents officers responded to and over 6,000 people were charged.

“We’re dealing with a large volume of calls for service for domestic situations,” he said, of alleviating pressure on officers. “These cases tend to be complicated investigations and require many resources and case coordination.”

The program is funded by  Justice Canada , which has provided $250,000 over several years.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced the funding in 2013.

“Home and family should be safe havens but, unfortunately, that is not always the case,” MacKay said. “In 2011, police reported almost 95,000 victims of family violence in Canada. Our government is committed to addressing the trauma experienced by victims of violence.”

Divisional Policing Support Unit Insp. David Saunders said crime prevention and victim support are important to police officers.

“It’s an exciting project,” Saunders said. “By utilizing the experts in Victim Services we’re getting the best result possible for the victim. It's a crucial function of policing that we support victims of crime.”

By utilizing the experts in Victim Services we’re getting the best result possible for the victim. It's a crucial function of policing that we support victims of crime.

Det. Lee Poczak, who heads the Youth and Family Violence section at 41 Division, says investigators appreciate the support as they handle approximately 500 cases a year between themselves and the Criminal Investigation Bureau at the Division.

Every victim of domestic violence, regardless of gender, where an arrest has been made or warrant in the first obtained, is contacted by an advocate and offered their services.

“Our model means that every victim is reached by one of our advocates,” said Poczak, noting that, in the best-case scenario, a victim meets with an advocate right after their interview. “We’ve given victims more support from the onset to the end of the case. The Advocates’ services can be contoured to fit the victim’s needs at the time.”

Officers have embraced the program wholeheartedly.

“It’s the one pilot project I have seen, which has had such a positive impact and been so ben- eficial to both the victims of domestic violence and to investi- gators.

“The project allows investiga- tors to focus on investigations,” said Poczak, noting that advo- cates also have more comprehensive understanding of the 1,200 social services agencies in the city. Poczak said her officers feel confident in the work of advo- cates to deliver the best results for victims.

“They’re more knowledgeable about the resources and better able to assist.”

Victim Services Toronto Programs Manager Bobbie McMurrich, who co-chairs the pilot project with Valerio, said the approach is client-based.

“One person has to coordinate the team,” she said, of the advo- cate’s role in lining up services for the victim. “We adapt our services on a case-by-case basis.”

The advocates have signed consents to share information with other agencies and will hold meetings with other agencies and the client.

“It’s an insurmountable task for some people,” McMurrich said, of getting all the necessary supports in place to leave. “They may be marginalized, traumatized or don’t know how to speak English.”

She said coping with trauma, being a newcomer to Canada, living in poverty, suffering from a mental illness or an addiction, can be enough to dissuade victims from asking for help.

The advocate is the case manager who does safety planning, counselling and coordinates services.

Advocate Rizwana Sabri says a face-to-face meeting is the usual starting point to gain the trust of victims. They meet the victim in their home, at the police station or a neutral community centre – wherever they feel comfortable or is convenient to them.

“We try to be as accessible as possible,” noting many victims are stay-at-home mothers without a means of transportation.

The first step advocates take is to create a risk-assessment and create a safety plan for the victim, which can include having a cell- phone on hand to phone 9-1-1.

A head and shoulders close up of a woman
Bobbie McMurrich, Director of Programs Victim Services Toronto

“They are often marginalized, controlled by their partners and don’t have the ability to move forward,” she said, of victims who have their phone calls and internet searches monitored. Many are not allowed to see family or friends or given house keys so they can’t leave their home.

Once they have supports in place, Sabri has found that victims follow through the court process and feel empowered to give evidence they might otherwise have concealed.

“The criminal justice system can lead victims to feel lost in the process,” she said, noting many have tried and failed in the past to have their partner convicted. “They want to speak. When they are being harassed by text or through friends by their partnerbefore the court case, they want to give that evidence in court.”

Not all will accept help, as victims of domestic violence are often abused many times before ending the cycle of abuse. Many stay in the relationship because of fear of the alternative – being left homeless with a child.

“Staying with an abusive partner is scary.” Advocate Rebecca Shaw said. “Some feel leaving an abusive relationship is an insurmountable task and we often see people returning to their abusive partners making it very difficult to move forward.”

Some clients give only a first name and no phone number – fearful an advocate may call when an abusive partner is around.

“I’ve had clients go back to abusers. I can’t call them, but they can call me.”

Advocates work as part of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals from many different sectors, including Children’s Aid Societies, provincial Victim- Witness Assistance program, Ontario Works, Toronto Community Housing and shelter staff among many others. Advocates will seek permission from clients to work directly with these social services and schedule meetings to coordinate services.

Their work, mainly, is with other agencies to avoid duplication and get the best out of each social service agency.

“We want to clarify what each other’s roles are – that’s very important,” Sabri said, noting they will organize meetings with all agencies and the client. Valerio said the only complaint he has received about the program is that every Division does not have advocates on hand. “If additional funding is received the project will be expanded to include all Scarborough Divisions. We hope to move towards having this model in all of our Divisions. The expense to the Service is minimal and it frees up our officers to do police work while using our stations as a resource for case coordination.”

Over the past year, about a half-dozen clients have been re-housed, others have gone back to their partner.

“But we were able to stop that cycle of violence,” Poczak said.

Education is a key component of what they do. Once they explain the cycle of violence, the effect on children, many will change their lives.”

Advocates also work to break down misconceptions of victims and advise them of their rights, and what services they can receive.

Shaw said advocates realize they have to be both persistent and patient.

“It is very overwhelming and can be hard to imagine life free from abuse. It becomes normalized,” she said.

Sabri and Shaw both enjoy seeing through a case with a victim.

“As a case manager, you see a lot of lows,” Sabri said. “But you see them at their highs too.”

Sabri said one client graduated from college, got a job in her field and moved her child away from the abuse.

Shaw said they love their work.

“The focus on domestic violence is something we’re both very passionate about,” she said of herself and Sabri. “We hope it will reduce frontline officers responding to repeat-offender calls in the future. We’re hoping to end that cycle of violence that happens.”

We hope it will reduce frontline officers responding to repeat-offender calls in the future. We’re hoping to end that cycle of violence that happens.

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