If it ain’t broke, don’t break it

Other jurisdictions are lauding the success of family violence court. Here? We cut it.

Pam Frampton pframpton@thetelegram.com
Published on November 30, 2013
Evidence shows that domestic violence can lead to homicide. Many jurisdictions in the world are touting the success of family violence court, saying it saves lives, helps offenders change their behaviour and supports victims. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the specialized court was cut in this year’s budget. — Photo by Kelly Young/Thinkstock

“Dedicating part of the court system to domestic violence issues sends a message to the community that violence will not be tolerated.”
— From the Stop Violence Against Women website, a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, an advocacy forum

It’s ironic that in the same year the provincial government decided to axe family violence intervention court, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary feels domestic violence should be a key priority.

At a discussion with Chief Robert Johnston and other members of the RNC’s top brass this week, media representatives were told that two-thirds of the 15 criminal deaths investigated by the RNC during the decade 2002-2011 were domestic or family-violence related. So it makes sense to increase focus on the issue.

It wasn’t so very long ago that the provincial government was doing the same, touting its outside-the-box thinking in setting up the family violence intervention court pilot project. This is from a Justice Department news release:

“Budget 2008 has also allocated $279,000 to fund a Family Violence Court pilot project in St. John’s. Family Violence Courts are specialized courts that help break the cycle of violence and have worked across the country to help lower the burden on the legal system. Most importantly, these courts work with victims and offenders to find solutions best suited for all involved with an end goal of breaking the cycle of violence. It is our responsibility to ensure that justice is carried out, victims are treated fairly and offenders do not appear before our courts again.”

What’s happened to that sense of responsibility?

It’s true, the province has a purple ribbon campaign that advocates respect for women. I’ve got the magnetized ribbon on my car, and I’ll support any campaign that encourages mutual respect — whatever the genders involved — but the simple fact of it is that some people don’t have respect for their partners and are controlling, psychologically abusive and violent.

What are we to do in those cases?

Well, intervention certainly seems to help, and that can involve anything from asking a friend, relative or coworker if they are in an abusive relationship and whether they need help, to reporting incidents of family violence to the police, to helping someone map a detailed plan of escape from a dangerous household.

Intervention is a cornerstone of the RNC’s efforts to prevent domestic violence — it has a full-time officer dedicated to identifying dangerous intimate relationships and helping those in peril access the tools they need to try to save themselves.

And intervention was key to the province’s family violence intervention court when it was rolled out in 2009 and touted as a worthwhile initiative.

“Women in violent relationships are often forced to choose between violence and poverty,” a news release said in March of that year. “Establishing a specialized family violence court is an important measure by this government to support and protect women and children who are victims of violence.”

By Budget 2010, the court was well-established and the province was providing funding of $519,000, saying, “The ultimate goal of this initiative is to decrease the incidents of family violence through addressing root causes.”

Budget 2011 contained $529,000 for the project.

The court heard cases of family violence where offenders pleaded guilty in exchange for supports, monitoring and treatment aimed at keeping them from making repeat appearances.

It helped the people causing the violence to identify and change the root causes of their behaviour, and it helped victims recover. It some cases, it helped keep families together.

But 2013 was the annus horribilis for family violence intervention court, as it fell victim to the blunt axe of the budget. Justice Minister Darin King defended the decision in the House, saying, “From time to time, we reflect upon whether those services are meeting the objectives or whether we want to adjust the course. Right now we are adjusting the course in Justice.”

And yet many other jurisdictions throughout the world have learned through experience that domestic violence courts do meet the objective of reducing relationship violence and domestic homicides.

In Saskatoon, domestic violence court has been operating for eight years and is making a measurable difference.

In a September 2013 story in The StarPhoenix, Judge Barry Singer noted, “(The court) has helped individuals take responsibility for their actions and make changes in their lives that end the cycle of abuse, reduce the likelihood that we’ll see them in court again and, most importantly, keep their families safe.”

A report on family violence prepared for the Government of Australia in 2010 made particular mention of the success of family violence court in Manitoba, noting, “An evaluation of that court found a significant reduction in domestic homicide and recidivism, and earlier and more frequent reporting of violent offenders.”

In the United States, this past March, Bea Hanson, acting director of the Office on Violence Against Women, said, “Providing courts with the resources they need to safely and quickly intervene in cases of intimate partner violence not only saves lives, but sends a message to offenders that reducing domestic violence is a priority for our justice system.”

Here at home, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says it has plenty of proof that relationship violence can and does lead to murders and murder/suicides. That’s why it has made the issue a responsibility and a priority.

So, ask yourself this: what, exactly, is the priority for a government that terminates an initiative that was, by all accounts, successful in addressing family violence?

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton