Monday, April 26, 1999
HAMILTON SPECTATOR PHOTO FAMILY DISCORD: Richard Nattress and daughters Jessica, left, and Katie, claim his allegations of abuse have been brushed off by police.
Abused husband demands justice from `biased' system
Former executive claims male victims aren't taken seriously by police and courtsBy Jon Wells
Torstar News Service
Let's call him Len. In October, 1996, Len is charged with assault with a weapon against his wife, accused of striking her in the face and stabbing her hand with a pen. In court, charges are withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond.
Three months later, Len is again charged with assaulting his spouse. Those charges are dropped in exchange for Len pleading guilty to uttering threats against his teenage daughter in the same incident. He receives 18 months probation and is ordered to stay away from the family.
Two months later, Len is charged with breaching his probation for failing to stay away from his spouse and daughters, and receives concurrent probation, meaning the existing sentence serves as punishment.
Clearly there is a pattern of domestic violence. One can imagine a judge admonishing Len that if he ``goes near this woman or if she so much as catches a glimpse of you, I will put you in jail for such a long time you will forget what she looks like.''
That was precisely how one judge had addressed a Hamilton man in a different case last January, before slapping him with a 90-day jail term and three years probation.
Yet Len is free to go where he pleases these days. Three charges against him for breaching probation have not been prosecuted. The Hamilton Crown attorney's office explains the move by saying there was a poor chance for conviction.
Police further decide that allegations Len is harassing his spouse and claims of physical and verbal abuse against two of their children lack sufficient evidence to press charges. They point to a myriad of allegations in the dispute from all sides of the family and a pattern of charges and countercharges between Len and his spouse.
Now consider this: Len's real name is Lana. The spouse's name is Richard. Instantly, we've gone from a standard wife-as-victim case to husband-as-victim case, suitable subject matter for Oprah.
``It's all been swept under the rug, for no other reason I can see than I'm a man and she's a woman.''
That's the view of Richard Nattress, 49, a former corporate vice-president with National Trust and small business owner who feels the justice system discriminates against men who claim abuse and harassment at the hands of their wives and who says his life has been destroyed because of it.
Proof of the bias, he says, is what he feels is a muted reaction by police and courts to his pleas for help when he accused his wife of slapping and scratching him, stalking him while she was on parole and driving her car at him while he was jogging.
Lana Nattress is his ex-wife and Richard Nattress has mounted a tireless campaign to have her thrown in jail, reap several million dollars in financial compensation for alleged lost employment and publicize his belief that the system hurts men.
This includes lobbying police and the Crown attorney to have the charges against his ex-wife revived and preparing a civil lawsuit against the Hamilton-Wentworth police service.
Nattress became a minority the second he called police about Lana in 1996. That call led Halton police to charge her with slapping him and stabbing his hand with pen. The charges were later withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond.
On Jan. 26, 1997, Richard Nattress called police again, claiming he had been assaulted by his wife, who was still living in their Stoney Creek home.
In an official complaint filed with Hamilton-Wentworth police, Nattress says an officer showed up, remarked that Lana was out of control and promptly left.
Nattress and his children left the house for his mother's apartment and phoned police again. Several hours later, Lana was charged with threatening, assault and assault with a weapon, for allegedly attacking her husband with a set of keys, slapping him and scratching his face with her fingernails.
``I told (police) this is unacceptable,'' Nattress says. ``If a woman had called to complain, they wouldn't sit around and interview her, they would pick up the guy who did it.''
His daughter Jessica says police officers were laughing at Lana's behaviour: ``They're like, `Wow, she's crazy.' ''
The charges were dropped in court when Lana pleaded guilty to another charge of threatening another daughter in the same incident. Lana received a suspended sentence and was placed on probation.
Two of Nattress' three daughters, Katie and Jessica, now 19 and 22 years old, were interviewed for this story. The third daughter did not respond to a request for an interview.
Jessica went to the police in person last summer to charge her mother with breaching probation and harassment, claiming Lana had shown up at her workplace and at a community festival where she was working.
She says an officer told her there were no grounds for action, so she didn't pursue the matter.
Nattress' two daughters, his mother and his girlfriend believe he is a blameless victim.
Or is he obsessive and annoying? That's how some may view the man who has spoken to anyone who will or will not listen, yelled at them, written letters and filed official complaints against police.
The bottom line is that Nattress believes the system is unbalanced. And most everyone in the system agrees with him.
According to Statistics Canada, in 1996, 89 per cent of spousal assaults reported to police were against women.
`A lot of men weaker than their partners'
``There's a male code that you don't report your wife or girlfriend for assault because you'll look like a wimp,'' says Dan Beckett, family violence co-ordinator for the John Howard Society of Waterloo-Wellington.
These statistics help account for a commonly held belief that domestic violence against men is extremely rare. But other research belies such certainty.
A 1996 computer-assisted, self-interviewing study in the United Kingdom showed equal percentages of women and men had been physically assaulted by a current or former partner the previous year.
It's common sense that for the most part, women are more likely to be injured in a domestic fight with men.
But some studies show that women are also more likely to use a weapon in a domestic fight.
``Obviously not all cases involve women using a weapon,'' says Iain Murray, a senior analyst with the Washington-based statistical assessment service. ``But then, not all cases involve stronger men. A lot of men out there are weaker than their partners.''
However, the prevailing societal belief is that women are overwhelmingly the lone victims in domestic violence and this drives government policy, police and the courts.
Richard Nattress has filed complaints against police for how they have handled his case. Those complaints represent the basis of a civil lawsuit he plans to file against the Hamilton-Wentworth force.
Police spokesperson Dennis Waddell declined comment, citing confidentiality of public complaints.
Lana Nattress, when asked about allegations of mistreating her daughters, replied sarcastically: ``Yes, I was the only disciplinarian in the house.''
She declined further comment, directing questions to Frank Lanza, her lawyer. Lanza says Richard Nattress was treated fairly and says he hopes the charges and countercharges between the couple are now finished.
Karen Shea, a Hamilton-Wentworth assistant Crown attorney who has dealt with Nattress, believes he received fair treatment and that significant resources from police and the Crown's office were spent on his case.
In her work on the Crown's domestic initiative team, which evolved in October, 1997, Shea says she has screened cases in which men claim abuse only to get charges laid in retaliation for having been charged themselves.
But if Richard Nattress' allegations are true, police treated the case with less seriousness than a wife-assault case.
Given Ontario's current policy on domestic assault, it would be difficult to fault police for holding such a bias when responding to a call.
For the last five years, police have followed a provincial policy on domestic violence called Police Response To Wife Assault. In the 19-page document, there is no mention of assault against a husband and only a brief mention of child and elder abuse.
This is destined to change, according to the solicitor-general's ministry. A spokesperson says a new policy that will include men is in the early stages. It will be called the Domestic Occurrence Standard and will feature specific protocols on handling violent situations involving women, men, children, the elderly and same-sex couples.
The policy should be in effect by January, 2001.
But for now, the province says police ``shall lay charges in all incidents of wife assault where there are reasonable grounds to do so.'' This differs from the federal Criminal Code, which appears more discretionary. It says police ``may'' lay charges in these incidents, not ``shall.''
Shea, the assistant crown attorney, admits there is a difference in the way the legal system treats domestic abuse against men and women.
``Let's face it, women are coming from a different perspective as far as the judges are concerned,'' she says.
Most within system agree that it's biased
``Abuse and control issues seem to concern the judges on sentencing men charged with domestic violence. You don't normally see women in a power imbalance being the ones in power. Yes, there is a difference, because historically women have not been the ones empowered. So there has to be a difference. ''
This is essentially where the issue of gender bias in domestic violence sits today. Most within the system agree it is biased and believe it is justified.
``I think, yes, the system is set up for women and, yes, it's warranted,'' says men's counsellor Dan Beckett. `` (Systemic bias) equalizes the playing field somewhat, because most of the power is still in the guy's ball court. There is still a fair amount of male privilege in society.''
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