VANCOUVER – Anti-violence advocates say physically abused women need more than police assistance to leave harmful relationships and they’re calling on governments to spend more on community supports.
The issue is coming to light once again after murder charges were announced against a father accused of killing his wife in a house fire east of Vancouver.
Domestic violence is an epidemic, said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
The organization’s work suggests women who access community services are more likely to successfully leave abusive relationships, MacDougall said, but a lack of funding has limited what they can do.
“We have only been able to scratch the surface, unfortunately,” she said. “That is due to the lack of political will.”
They have not been able to track a single domestic homicide where a woman has received support from a women’s organization, she added.
Police were initially responding to reports of a domestic assault in Port Moody, B.C., Sunday but officers arrived to find the house in flames.
Five children were rescued from the second-storey roof. Their mother died of her injuries.
Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pound with the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said Monday the woman’s husband has been charged with second-degree murder and two counts of arson causing bodily harm.
His name is not being released to protect the identity of the couples’ children, ranging in age from five to 18. Pound said he does not have a criminal record.
MacDougall said police play only a small role in the big picture of tackling domestic violence.
Only 10 to 25 per cent of women report victimization to police, owing to many complex factors tying a woman to a relationship, she said. Instead, they tell support organizations, co-workers, family and friends.
Battered Women’s Support Services receives 13,000 requests for support in B.C. each year, she said.
That could change if governments fund organizations that assist women in meeting with police, navigating the legal system and obtaining housing and employment, she said.
“Women get a personalized response,” she said. “They get support around safety planning, around the emotional complexities of a break-up and addressing an abusive situation in terms of ending it.”
On Tuesday, several B.C. government ministers joined with police to announce the opening of a new domestic violence unit, based at the West Vancouver Police Department. The new unit is unrelated to the fatal fire in Port Moody, and it is the eighth such unit in the province.
It is being established with a $100,000 grant from B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office and will include a variety of front-line workers, including police and victim services.
“Breaking the cycle of family violence for both victims and perpetrators requires expertise from many disciplines,” Minister of Public Safety Mike Morris said in a release.
“Fear, concerns about money and housing, and other factors can undermine a victim’s will to break free.”
The province also said it’s spending $5.5 million over three years on a domestic violence plan.
But the head of an organization that promotes women’s equality through the legal system said the government has cut funding for family law legal aid in B.C., making it more difficult for women to access the justice system.
Advocates are seeking increased spending that’s affordable for governments, and research shows covering legal aid saves money in the long run, said Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF.
Currently, only about 25 hours is funded, which may only be enough for a woman to obtain a protective order, she said. Women who have moved to transition housing lack funding to keep access to their children or gain property and financial benefits from the relationship, she said.
“That doesn’t help her to stay safe, that doesn’t enable her to leave,” Govender said.
The advocates said domestic violence tends to escalate when a woman is trying to leave a relationship.