Abuse is one of the worst things a person can do to another person. What can be equally bad is witnessing that abuse and not doing anything about it.
It is not uncommon for most people to look the other way. “Silence is a major factor,” said Carolyn Albrecht, senior director of operations at the Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. “When people see their neighbours in these situations, they are more likely to be like ‘that’s kind of their own business. We really shouldn’t get involved.’ That is the attitude toward abuse. People feel discomfort. It isn’t an easy thing to talk about.”
Another major factor is that no one ever thinks this is going to happen to them, so when it does, it comes as a surprise.
“Well what made it hard for me to get out of that situation was the fact that it didn’t happen very often,” explained Ashley (who asked that her last name be omitted), a former Wilfrid Laurier University student. “It was mostly emotional and verbal abuse. It only happened a few times physically, so it was easier to make excuses. Plus he had a way of turning the tables and making it partly or entirely my fault. So sometimes I really thought and believed I was in the wrong. And of course I loved him.”
Statistics show that Ashley’s story is not unusual. In 2011, Waterloo Regional Police reported over 6,000 domestic dispute calls to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and also responded to one domestic dispute call every 1.5 hours. One of the most chilling facts is that since 1995, there have been 16 intimate partner homicides in Waterloo Region.
“Unfortunately, because of the silence it is really hard to get statistics on unreported cases. The only figures we can really get are from those who report incidents to the police,” said Ginette Lafrenière, associate professor and director of the Social Innovation Research Group at Wilfrid Laurier University. “There are tons of reasons why women are afraid and keep silent. Those who are abused might be afraid to leave because of what people will say. Women have economic hardships if they leave. They are socialized to believe it is better to stay together for the children.”
She also pointed to the stigma of being a single parent and religious factors that might prevent a woman from leaving an abusive situation.
“There are many complicated factors,” explained Albrecht. “Women in these situations are very dependent. They have become financially dependent, cut off from others, so they have no network. Isolation and dependency are fairly strong factors.”
Another reason people don’t report domestic violence is that we are also naïve to the other groups of people affected by this. “Most of our services are very heterocentric,” said Lafrenière.
When a woman comes to a shelter because of domestic violence, the assumption is that a man was the perpetrator. Men who are abused also find it difficult to find a safe space because there are no shelters for men that specifically deal with domestic violence situations.
Lafrenière noted that gaps also exist for people with disabilities, francophones and people from First Nations communities because often there isn’t enough screening time to properly serve each client. Even the perpetrators of domestic violence are left without help. “We need to question why they are violent,” said Lafrenière. “They need to get help. Often times they are violent because they were victims of violence themselves.”
However, help does exist in the region for most who need it. The Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region is a not-for-profit charity that supports women who are in need of assistance because of domestic violence. They have two shelters for women and children: Haven House in Cambridge and Anselma House in Kitchener. In addition, Women’s Crisis Services also have an outreach program for women who are either not in need of shelter or leaving them.
“Most of the beds are full all the time, which is an indication of the need,” said Albrecht. Our outreach is busy with supporting women. We offer practical support such as with legal issues, income support and housing.”
But stopping domestic violence means taking preventative, as well as responsive, measures. “We need to start in school by teaching our kids about bullying. Talk to the children,” Lafrenière said. “I think women need to be brave and listen to their instincts.
Lafrenière said that even though the Waterloo Region is not perfect, “we sure do a lot more than other communities. We are doing a relatively good job.”
There is a great deal of collaboration between local service agencies. Mosaic Counselling and Family Services at 400 Queen Street South in downtown Kitchener is headquarters of the Family Violence Project of Waterloo Region (FVP), a partnership of counselling and police services to help meet the needs of those who have suffered from domestic violence.
Getting out of an abusive situation is the first step on the journey to a healthier and more stable lifestyle. However, the impact of domestic violence continues through life. “It’s still surreal that it happened to me,” said Ashley. “It’s something you never really get over.”
If you are suffering from, have suffered from or know someone who is a victim of abuse, you can find resource information on the FVP website, fvpwaterloo.ca