Confronting Abuse

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Suzanne FitzGerald takes challenging new role

August 10, 2012 - As the new Domestic Violence Co-ordinator with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), Suzanne FitzGerald is staring into the teeth of a monster.

And she is determined to wrestle it into submission.

Domestic violence is a complex problem that afflicts all strata of society, FitzGerald said in an interview.

“Domestic violence encompasses physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, isolation, neglect, psychological and emotional harm. These women have their spirits extinguished – by the men who profess to love them – in a very systematic way. It is with the intent of maintaining power and control over these women. That’s a very difficult thing when these women feel isolated and alone and often dependent upon their abusers. I’ve heard a lot of people say just leave but it’s not that simple. And people need to realize that, as a provincial police service, we understand that.”

FitzGerald started training with the RNC in 2006 and was sworn in during 2007. She worked regular patrol for 30 months before taking on the role of Media Relations Officer (see previous blog entry). FitzGerald became Domestic Violence Co-ordinator in June of this year. She says domestic violence and abuse is more prevalent than many people realize.

“I had a conversation with an educated individual who said it was a shame that these ‘poor people’ had to endure such abuse, and it was clear that he was talking about financial status. I had to stop him and say domestic violence doesn’t affect one specific socio-economic status. The only mould that these women fit is the one their abuser has shaped for them. They come from every educational background and various statures within society – some are prominent individuals – but it can be difficult to see because sometimes psychological and emotional abuse doesn’t visibly show. You can see bruises and cuts, but how do you see the systematic and continuous emotional and psychological abuse… that these women endure for years and sometimes decades? And what does that do to those women and the confidence that they have in themselves in being able to get out?”

This is where the Domestic Violence Co-ordinator comes into play. FitzGerald’s role is to identify individuals and families in abusive situations and intervene as necessary to protect them, working with other support systems such as Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Social Services, Association for New Canadians, and the Family Violence Intervention Court.

“When you look at domestic violence, there are so many complexities. Not only do their victims know their abusers, they live with them and may share children. They may be financially dependent upon them. In some cases, they may love them, and may have family pressuring them to stay in the relationship. You may have translation issues, cultural issues, addictions and mental health concerns… With the Domestic Violence Co-ordinator position, there will now be someone within the RNC who knows the whole story. Often you get repeat calls for assistance in domestic violence situations involving the same couples, and the officers who are responding don’t know the past history, and these victims then have to go through the whole process again of explaining what’s happening and the history behind it. So it’s really important to … tell them they aren’t alone. And that’s a huge message that we want to get out to victims of domestic violence.”

When she first started in the position, FitzGerald reviewed all recent case files related to domestic violence. She found that, within five months, there were four homes that officers were being called to repeatedly for domestic violence issues.

“So those would have been flagged and the Domestic Violence Co-ordinator would be tasked with making contact with the victim in that house to see if they are OK, if they need help. And it is always done discreetly so the abuser is not aware. We have to be innovative in how we make contact with the victim.”

FitzGerald emphasized that men are also victims of domestic violence, and the RNC offers full support in those instances as well. “However, 90 per cent of the perpetrators are in fact male, and victimization is predominantly female.”

And sometimes, things end in the worst way imaginable. Sometimes, women are killed by gutless, pea-brained men who think they have the right to murder a girlfriend, rather than let her move on. At risk of editorializing, I think these men are the absolute lowest of the low. FitzGerald chooses her words more carefully than I do.

“Those situations are horrendous … That is the ultimate goal, to prevent instances such as that. The issue then is to identify high risk domestic violence in terms of intimate partner relationships, especially when there are no precursors, no indicators. And as many assessment tools as you can possible have, there’s going to be outliers in every situation. I think that is the most challenging. You don’t want to miss a hint or clue to what could potentially happen, so that just makes you work harder, to make sure you are meticulous and cautious in how you look at these files.”

More research is being conducted and attention given to children, who are the most vulnerable and impressionable victims of abuse. “We are looking at cutting edge research from the U.K. about ways to help women and children as well … Children who witness abuse are anxious. They’re going to bed, but they’re not sleeping. They’re not eating. They’ve just witnessed abuse within the home. It may be a continual thing they are having to endure. And then they’re being sent to school and expected to perform. So there’s really a disconnect.”

In the U.K., FitzGerald explained, a "safe adult" is allocated at the elementary school level to ensure that children of abuse receive the support they need. “One example they give is of a child who wanted to take his teddy bear into the classroom, which was against the rules. But they allowed it in this case, and that made all the difference for that little boy.”

FitzGerald saw numerous heart-wrenching scenes of domestic abuse when she worked as a patrol officer. When I asked her to describe some of the worst she hesitated, preferring to focus on positive outcomes.

“I’ve seen some pretty horrendous things that people do to one another, and to children … I’ve seen some good things too. Probably the nicest thing I ever saw was on a Christmas Eve and there was a single mom and two children. I was working patrol that evening. It wasn’t my call but the officer responding basically put out a call to everyone on the set, saying that the toys have all been destroyed and she has to leave with the children for her own safety. We found a safe location … but she had no tree, no gifts for her children, no Christmas. We actually went down to Quidi Vidi where there were some trees that didn’t sell. We put a tree in the back of an RNC police cruiser. We went to our own homes and got Christmas decorations off our own trees, and gifts from under the tree for our own kids, and we were able to give that family a Christmas. Those are the things that people don’t see.”

That happened years ago, FitzGerald said, adding that it was not an isolated incident. She and her RNC colleagues have responded numerous times, out of their own pockets, to place small bandages of care on the raw wounds of emotional hurt. She’s seen several instances where police officers furnished an entire home for a woman and children who had to move suddenly.

“They’ve provided toys for the children … I’ve seen entire women’s homes – their first start – given to them by the officers who first responded. It’s all done through donations. My child grows out of toys, clothes, books … and you have multiple things in your cupboard, duplicates, and you don’t need all those things. So a number of police officers come together to provide whatever’s needed and who has what – a TV stand here, a couch here, and soon the entire home is finished.”

I pointed out that these little stories, if communicated to the public, might be a public relations boost. Her response was simple and admirable: this is not something the RNC will publicize because that is not why they do it. The reward lies in the action itself – not the publicity.

One of FitzGerald’s most bittersweet memories happened during her third year of policing, and involved a little girl who had been moved into a shelter.

“If they were willing, I would always go back after a domestic and talk to the kids, simply because you want the children to see the police not always under strenuous or horrific circumstances. I went back to this one particular family, and it was a mom of two small children, two girls, and one of them was around six years old, a little older than my son at the time, and I remember sitting down talking to her and she was talking about how safe she felt. It really struck me, the real understanding and comprehension of safety that this little girl had. She was talking about how nice all the people in the shelter were and she was so happy there … but then she started to cry. I asked why and she said ‘Christmas is in a couple of weeks and I don’t have a gift for my mommy.’ So myself and my partner went up to Walmart and bought a little basket each and went back to the shelter so her and her sister could give a gift to their mom on Christmas morning. But it kind of struck me that the people at the shelter provide clothing and all sorts of necessities, but not necessarily the ‘gifty’ things for mom’s birthday, mother’s day or a special moment.”

Thus was born the Gifts for Moms project. As a hobby, FitzGerald makes aromatherapy products from plants grown in her own garden. She also has a network of friends who make a variety of craft and artisan items. Together, they agreed to support Gifts for Moms, by donating their wares in the creation of gift baskets (with a value of up to $100 each) that are given to women’s shelters across the province, as gifts for children to give to their mothers.

“And you say, how do you cope? I think that’s how. You try to make a difference with the little things. They say it’s the little things that matter … That little girl had a huge impact on me. Huge.”

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Recent comments

  • Michelle
    August 16, 2012 - 18:27

    It is very important to keep this issue in the forefront in the community. The more we talk about abuse being unacceptable, the more empowered victims will feel. I was unaware of the RNC's in-house program to help those who are recovering from abuse, and as Judy's comment states, would also like to contribute in some way. I'm sure many others would also be on board if Constable FitzGerald puts out the call.

  • Judy Snow
    August 11, 2012 - 08:38

    The RNC are to be commended for everything they do to help victims of domestic violence. I wish Cst. Gibbons well in her new position, and I encourage her to reach out to the community at large for help with things like Gifts for Moms and providing necessities to individuals and families who are leave abusive situations "without a pot to piss in" as my parents' generation would put it. Let me be the first to sign on. Geoff Meeker knows how to reach me.