Globe and Mail

Family violence: It's all too close

We can all help individuals suffering in abusive situations

Monday, January 4, 1999
by Bill Catucci, Toronto (op-ed)

Domestic violence began making headlines 20 years ago, and it has been 20 years of intensive public awareness efforts, outreach, emergency care and law reform. So why has the problem remained largely hidden?

According to the recently released United Way report Freedom from Violence, women report abuse to the police only 26 per cent of the time. A full 22 per cent never tell anyone about the violence, not even family or friends.

A few years ago it would have struck me as odd that the woman's own family and friends wouldn't have noticed that something was wrong, no matter how well she tried to hide it. Until it happened in my own circle, to someone very dear to me.

For some time she had kept the violence hidden, a secret shame. She was strong, self-sufficient, educated and well connected. Her husband seemed an upstanding member of our community. I'd always connected violence with other kinds of people, not those in my sphere. All of us, friends of the family, asked the usual questions: How could this have happened? How could it have happened to them? Why didn't she just leave?

There are many reasons why women don't leave, as the report makes clear.

First, wife assault happens in stages. In times of reconciliation and remorse, the abuse appears to have ended and the partners are once again caring, loving husbands and fathers. Until the next time. The cycle of abuse eventually beats down the woman's self-esteem.

Second, when women do try to leave they face the threat of increased physical harm. The risk of stalking, serious injury and even death at the hands of their partners can escalate. More than half of all female murders in Canada are the result of family violence. Each month in Ontario, four women are murdered by their partners. Chilling statistics.

Third, abused women and their children can flee, but with few possessions often just a couple of bags of clothing. Once away, they are most often forced into poverty and temporary homelessness. Lack of affordable housing is causing many families to stay in crowded emergency shelters for a longer term.

Once women leave the safety of those shelters, their risk of hardship increases exponentially. This is the very time when we should not abandon women and children; yet only 2 per cent of all funding for abused women's services is directed to programs that would help: housing support, counselling, advocacy, legal assistance and children's services.

The payoff from such support is immediate for the women, and long-term for our society. Time and again, family violence has been shown to be cyclical, passed down from generation to generation; but studies confirm the cycle can be broken. One study showed that one-quarter of children who had lived in a shelter thought it would be okay for a man to hit a woman if the house was messy; after attending group counselling, not one of the children supported that view.

My own view is that we can all play a role in helping individuals suffering in abusive situations. We should look for signs among our own friends and family and reach out if we think help is needed. We need to be advocates for more transitional services so that women are not worse off after having the courage to leave a violent relationship. And we need to support our community organizations doing this work.

Bill Catucci is president and CEO of AT&T Canada Long Distance Services Co., and a volunteer with the United Way.

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