Ottawa Citizen
Friday 18 December 1998

Zero tolerance adds up to zero marriage

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Wendy Woodcock warns: 'The minute you touch that phone, your partner is going to jail.'

With a degree in communications, Wendy Woodcock has learned to get directly to the point.

"Because I called police during a domestic fight, my husband is now with another woman and filing for divorce. Once we were taken into the new (domestic court) system our marriage didn't have a chance. A 24-year relationship was brought to an end by decisions made by others. I wasn't allowed to think for myself."

The "incident" is no longer the issue, she says. "Let's just say tempers were lost and there was slapping. Nobody was seriously hurt."

Had they been separated for a while to cool down, she believes they could have worked things out. "We needed some adjustments, and after the incident, some new promises. He was the man I chose 24 years ago, and fully intended to grow old with."

Cathy Kehoe is the Crown attorney in charge of domestic court and a member of the Partner Assault Support Team (PAST). Any suggestion that the new system has hidden dangers, she argues, would be irresponsible on my part. "If it caused one woman to hesitate in calling for help, and that woman was hurt, how would you feel?"

Ms. Kehoe believes she is providing an essential service in the field of domestic violence. As a user of that service, Mrs. Woodcock is just as outspoken about its dangers.

"Women have to understand that involving police in domestic disputes is not what it used to be. The minute you touch that phone, your partner is going to jail. A phalanx of police and lawyers will be placed between you. Unless the man pleads guilty, it could be months before you can speak to each other."

A week after her husband's removal from the home, Mrs. Woodcock received a letter from a mediator, proposing that she and her husband try to work things out with the specialist.

"If I had it to do over again, I would have replied in writing that it was a good idea. Just give me a little more time to settle down. I would have said I was sure we could work through it. I would have told him I loved him.

"But I was intimidated by police and lawyers, and warned that he wasn't allowed to communicate even in writing and could go to jail if we were caught talking. I was afraid to do anything, so I did nothing. He read my silence as total rejection. By the time we got into court months later, he had found a new relationship."

Mrs. Woodcock also sees a problem in the way evidence is collected. A frightened and angry woman, stretched to her emotional limit, does not make a good witness. Yet everything she says while in that state goes into the record to help ensure a conviction.

She suggests that the PAST team remove the word "support" from the name. "Once a man is taken into the system, the emphasis is on getting a conviction. It isn't difficult. The most sensible way for a man to get out of the system is to plead guilty. Support, in my view, would be an effort to help keep marriages together."

For her part, Ms. Kehoe says the complaints reaching me tell only one side of the story; many women are grateful such policies and courts are there to help them. While zero tolerance may appear to mean scooping up people who don't know the steps and plead guilty to get it over with, Ms. Kehoe says there's no excuse for that. An accused has a right to speak to a lawyer or duty counsel. "I guess to a lot of them that sounds like a breakfast cereal," she adds.

Duty counsel a breakfast cereal? That's a sign that good men are being pulled into the system; men inexperienced at being before a court. Bad guys have court experience and know the difference between lawyers and Fruit Loops.

Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General is preparing a survey on how well the new system is working. It's certain the AG will be impressed by the high conviction rate. Men may not be forced to plead guilty, but they are certainly squeezed.

Systems tend to defend themselves. If information is provided by or filtered through a body under review, the material can be tainted. With that in mind, Wendy Woodcock has volunteered to do some research.

Those who have been through the domestic court process can contact her, and she will prepare a report, a consumers' satisfaction survey. Confidentiality is guaranteed, but she must have names and if possible, case numbers. To maintain accuracy, names will be checked against files.

She can be reached at 824-3943.

In telling her story, Mrs. Woodcock wants to publicly praise the involvement of the Children's Aid Society. "They were there when I needed them. They took my son into care at a time when I just couldn't cope."

Mrs. Woodcock has been a member of REAL Women almost from its inception. REAL Women has long protested that small, powerful groups, many with public funding, are working to undermine the family unit. For almost two decades I've been watching areas the media mostly ignore -- family courts, and now domestic court. I too have come to believe the family is under attack.

Those who designed the domestic court system believe it gives men a break. If they plead guilty and promise to take anger management courses, they can go home, and after a year their record for criminal assault will be expunged. Those guilty pleas will cause the violent-male statistics to skyrocket. Also, the temporary criminal record is enough to get most men fired if their boss learns about it. And men who have to travel would be in deep trouble if caught lying about a criminal record in another country.

Interestingly, most complaints to me have come from women. One dialed 911 because her husband told her to as a joke. He had his back to her, washing dishes, and she was throwing a temper tantrum. Where was she supposed to get help, she asked. He wasn't offering any. Call 911, he replied. She hit the numbers and he walked over, disconnected the call and gave her a hug.

At the other end, an operator heard a woman crying and then the connection was cut. The operator, correctly, hit the panic button. Police came in hard and fast, and he hardly had time to take off his apron.

The man didn't appear in domestic court, but spent two weeks in a hotel running up costs that his young family could ill afford. It took time for a lawyer to get the restraining order lifted and charges withdrawn. The woman was called by a PAST team member who offered to give her a tour of the courthouse, so she would feel less intimidated by the process. She didn't want a tour, but said it would be nice if somebody would babysit for a day because she couldn't cope without her husband's help. That, she said, would be real support. The idea didn't fly.

Another woman told me she was angry and lied to police. When she tried to confess, she couldn't. It's called recanting, and women can't do that any more.

Ottawa Crown Attorney Andrejs Berzins defends that by pointing to a case where a woman recanted, let the man back into her life, and he killed her.

"Don't you think it's worth trying anything to prevent that from happening again?"

Tomorrow: Secrets of social workers.


Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen