'I will never be the same'

Alisha Morrissey
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Assault victim says family violence court an important step, even if it couldn't have helped her

Krista says she spent more time imprisoned in her own home than the man who tried to kill her will spend in a jail cell.

John Ford, convicted this spring after a particularly brutal attack on Krista, his girlfriend of six months, will be released from jail in August.

Krista says she won't live in fear anymore. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Justice -

Krista says she spent more time imprisoned in her own home than the man who tried to kill her will spend in a jail cell.

John Ford, convicted this spring after a particularly brutal attack on Krista, his girlfriend of six months, will be released from jail in August.

Krista lives in fear every moment of every day as a result of Ford's regular attacks on her.

But she also lives in anger. Ford pleaded guilty to the crime and had served several months on remand before his conviction was entered. That means she didn't get to testify against him. Further, she says, she was discouraged from even going to court.

She's mad the court didn't consider the history of violence in the relationship, or that she now lives in hiding and fear.

Circumstances for Krista probably wouldn't have been much different had Ford pleaded guilty in the new family violence court. In fact, he probably never would have qualified for the court. Regardless of which court deals with the cases, Krista says she and other victims never really get to tell their story.

But Krista, who was included in consultations about the creation of the new court, says she believes counselling, instead of incarceration, can work for some families.

And that's the intent of the court, which requires people to plead guilty before treatment and sentencing.

Pilot project extended

The provincial Justice Department decided to extend the one-year pilot project for the family violence court for a second year this spring, granting just more than $500,000 for the extension in the most recent budget.

Officials determined there wasn't enough information from the small number of people who took part in the first year to make a decision on whether the court was working.

Awareness of the court has been cited as a problem, as have the criteria offenders have to meet to participate.

But with new procedures - including an effort to reach more people charged with domestic violence earlier in their court experience, and possibly expanding eligibility from medium-risk offenders to high- and low-risk as well - it's more likely a larger sample will exist this time around.

- - -

In the dining room of her hideaway house, Krista pulls her youngest daughter's hair back behind her shoulders in a loose ponytail. The girl nods as her mother explains her children have been told they don't have to take abuse or threats from anyone.

Krista bends her head towards the little girl, who's dancing around from foot to foot, in circles throughout the house. She says her three children were never there to witness the abuse, but they know what happened.

She also says she never would have guessed that she could be put in the position she was.

Like so many other women, Krista says when she first met her abuser online, he was like Prince Charming. She says he was sweet with her kids and she blinded herself to some warning signs when she shouldn't have.

Before long, Ford was telling Krista how to dress, threatening that if she ever left, her daughters would hate her, that they'd be taken away by Child Youth and Family Services or that he would kill her.

And when he finally wrapped his fingers around her throat in the front seat of their car, she says she shouldn't have been surprised.

But she was.

- - -

So far in the bi-weekly sittings of family violence court, 42 people have appeared - six since this fiscal year started. Seventeen weren't interested in taking part.

The remaining 25 went through mandatory risk assessments and 18 were determined eligible for the court. Eleven completed the counselling program; six more are slated to start it soon.

Of the groups, only one person didn't complete the program, opting to move to sentencing.

None of the participants have seen the inside of a jail cell as a part of sentencing. One man received a complete discharge.

Judge Gregory Brown, the only judge sitting in the specialized court, says the research isn't complete - there simply weren't enough participants last year to be conclusive - but that feedback from the offenders has all been positive.

"We don't have very much feedback from the victims. That is to say that I haven't received any very negative feedback from the victims," Brown says.

"Apart from that, the only other thing I can tell you is that of the people who completed the program last year, one person has been re-charged. Statistically, how important that is, it's hard to say."

He adds the province has hired an independent consultant to review the first year, with a report expected soon.

Brown would also like to see more participation from the legal community.

"With a pilot project, you sort of learn as you go sometimes, and you have a to be a little bit adaptive at times. And be flexible enough to make changes where changes need to be made," Brown says.

Amanda Hewitt, the specialty court liaison, says at least part of the reason uptake has been low is that not many people have heard about the court.

"The more we can increase public awareness, I think, the better a chance of convincing people that this is a great option. It is a therapeutic option. It deals with the root cause of the behaviour and we're looking beyond just the criminal charge."

- - -

Months after Ford's first attack on Krista, after he'd mostly confined her to the house, and was dictating how she could dress and wear her hair, she was finally scared enough to reach out to a friend.

She says she could feel the confrontational mood building for days before. Finally, she looked him in the face and said, "I'm not going to be afraid of you anymore. You can't bully me anymore."

She says she started up the stairs, only making it halfway before he grabbed her by the ponytail, hitting her head off the railing. He pulled her into a back bedroom by her hair and started beating her.

He picked up a pillow, and she thought then he was going to kill her. Instead, Ford started hitting her through the pillow, and told her that way he wouldn't leave bruises. He choked her, pushed a drumstick into her neck threatening to push hard enough to kill her.

Somehow, the attack wound down. Krista slunk away and Ford fell asleep, she says.

She snuck upstairs into another bedroom, and whispered her fears over a phone to a friend in Ontario. The friend called the police.

- - -

In other places where a family violence court has been established, the pilot projects have lasted up to three years, explains Justice Minister Felix Collins.

To increase recruitment, Collins says the province has suggested that first appearance judges advise cases related to family violence of the option. As well, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary are flagging family violence cases for prosecutors and the John Howard Society is providing counselling during more flexible hours to allow for offenders who work to take part.

"If it can reduce the cycle of abuse, and if it can show results, and get a lower rate of recidivism in family abuse, then that will be the mark of success," Collins says.

"If it can get rates like Winnipeg and Calgary and Yukon courts, where the rates of recidivism have been reduced from say 30 per cent down to below eight per cent, that's worth accomplishing."

- - -

Crown prosecutor Wendy Zdebiak and legal aid lawyer Michelle Coady, sitting in the Crown's office library, both acknowledge the kinks that came with working in a totally new court.

"We're adversarial in all that we do. I do criminal law and family law too, and not many people go to family court because everything is working out well. This is very different. It's more (about) trying to help these people. We're on the same page," Coady says, with Zdebiak nodding in agreement.

"From a defence perspective the mitigating effect of therapy or intervention on sentence has played out. I'd be very disappointed if we were sort of suggesting to certain people that it would be in their best interests to pursue this court if it didn't translate into results for them," Coady says, adding that she's also attending the first appearances of all cases with a domestic slant to try and reach more people.

"Some people are prepared to roll the dice and see because of the nature of the offence. You're not getting this one videotape, you're not getting eye witnesses, or very rarely.

"There's always been people interested," Zdebiak says "I've always said even if you had one person go through it would have been worthwhile. I think it has been worthwhile; we've varied the practice a little bit."

Coady says she thinks success will come down to spending time with the accused, explaining what's expected of them and what they could see in potential returns.

"Our fear was that they were hearing 'I have to plead guilty?' ... And they were bailing.

"It's a big decision."

But more people have been asking for a risk assessment - one of the court's first steps - meaning that clearly more people are interested, the women say.

- - -

Hours after the police showed up the night Ford attacked Krista for the last time, she was being photographed by a male officer. Another officer said she never could have survived another six months with Ford.

In court, weeks and months later, Krista says she felt unsatisfied.

She was permitted only to write and read her victim impact statement, and was told that in the document she was only permitted to refer to the one violent incident and nothing that led up to it.

All little slights, Krista felt, that didn't help her emotional recovery.

"It was all about him," she says now.

Krista spent six weeks at Iris Kirby House, while her children stayed with her ex-husband. There, she learned about the cycle of violence, that it was normal for her to provoke Ford to "get it over with," and how to put her life back together from the pieces that were left.

Still, though, Krista is nervous walking alone outside. She can't sleep or shower with the door closed. She believes that Ford can still get to her and may come after her when he gets out of jail this summer.

"I will never be the same," she says matter-of-factly, admitting that she can't trust anyone but herself right now.


Organizations: Justice Department, Child Youth and Family Services, John Howard Society Iris Kirby House

Geographic location: Ontario, Winnipeg, Calgary Yukon

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Recent comments

  • john ford
    August 23, 2010 - 22:03

    half said her i was never charged with why is it she can say to you what she wants without represions