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Advocate says justice system still fails abuse victims

'There’s a feeling of not being heard by the justice system,' says local frustrated woman, adding things need to change
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Change is needed to the criminal and family court systems to prevent the perpetuation of family violence, says a local woman, herself a victim of violence.

“There’s a feeling of not being heard by the justice system,” said the Orillia area advocate.

Efforts over the years have resulted in some changes in how domestic assault is perceived by society, but she feels strongly that change is necessary to further protect survivors of abuse. 

Many must deal with the lingering effects of the abuse as they navigate the legal system, she says.

She said her ex-husband was twice convicted of assaulting her when they were together, in addition to a separate conviction involving another woman.

More recently, he was accused of assaulting their daughter. Although a peace bond was imposed, that case was eventually dismissed. The identity of the child is protected by a publication ban, which prevents the media from naming the woman.

Victims continue to be vulnerable as they seek justice after being attacked, said Teresa MacLennan, executive director of the Women & Children's Shelter Barrie. She regularly hears the stories and sees the individual circumstances of women falling through the cracks of the legal system.

Victims of violence are often left exposed after making an allegation, she says.

“The legal and court systems should be designed to protect victims at every cost,” MacLennan said.

An already overburdened court system was further complicated by delays during the pandemic, leaving women trying desperately to move forward with their lives in limbo, she added. 

“And, unfortunately, the abuse of women going through the court process continues as these delays put more women at risk of their abusers who continue to rely on those delays as an opportunity to harass, belittle and demean the woman’s attempts to free herself of that abuse,” MacLennan said.

She also points to the cycle of violence. MacLennan said the continuing abuse can and does escalate to include children and pets.

The local woman, meanwhile, has become an advocate for others in similar situations. But that help can be constrained by the limitations she, herself, has experienced.

The many awareness campaigns and other efforts she feels often fall on deaf ears because the changes she’s looking for have yet to materialize.

“A tipping point for me is feeling not heard by the justice system,” she said.

Her current concern, given the situation involving her daughter, is an ongoing cycle of violence and her worry that others might be harmed by people who have been identified as abusers in the past. She sees that same treatment to which she was subjected during her marriage now being perpetuated on to the next generation.

She’d like to see increased support for people leaving environments where they’ve been subject to domestic violence and the justice system to be more responsive to these people and their situations both in the criminal and family courts.

When the woman left, she had to continually communicate with her abuser over requests for access to the children, which she said dragged on in the courts for years, and in her post-relationship life that continues as they co-parent the children.

“He would try to keep the kids with him because he knew if he kept the kids I would come back. I had attempted to leave numerous times during the relationship. If he held onto the kids, then I would always return to try to find another way out with all of my children. Because I know they’re not safe alone,” she said. “When I finally did leave … he kept dragging it through family court.

“I begged and pleaded for him to have supervised access to those children. And it would never happen," said the woman. 

The history of his violence, she said, seemed not to factor into the equation.

Although there have been some changes in how victims are treated, she believes the system is still skewed, leaving some vulnerable to revictimization.

As an advocate she works to educate the public and gives women the opportunity to gain knowledge of themselves and empower them to take control of their situations. But she says she has yet to break free of that violence herself.

She’s buoyed by a $601.3-million, five-year national plan to end gender-based violence, along with $539 million in support to provinces over five years. But she wonders why it’s taken so long.

“This is two decades of my life that has been surrounded by violence … it surely has not stopped when I was forced to maintain contact with this person because we have children,” she said. “We often carry that shame and that guilt that somehow this was our fault.”

Other victims of violence have been lobbying for changes to how they are treated by the court system. 

Another Barrie-area woman is part of a group that has launched a national petition seeking to be part of the process of when a publication ban is used.

Currently, publication bans are routinely imposed to protect the identity of victims, but Brandy Mullen says that’s not right. She had to ask a court to remove the ban so that she would be free to talk about her personal circumstances. When the ban was imposed, it was never discussed with her.

Mullen’s group says it’s important for victims of assault to have the choice of whether or not they want the protection of a ban. They also seek to simplify the process to have a ban. They are in the process of becoming a not-for-profit organization and hope to effect further change in to support victims of abuse.

About the Author: Marg. Bruineman

Marg. Bruineman is an award-winning journalist who focuses on human interest stories
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