Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Domestic-abuse industry will lie low, wait for bad publicity to pass

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

The domestic-abuse industry came under attack on the weekend when a national newspaper called domestic courts unjust, and referred to their supporters as "vitriolic."

For a moment I felt less alone. Since those courts were created in 1997 I've focused on the way they add to domestic problems, rather than help solve them. The cry from those who claim to be ending violence against women is that those courts are there to help.

Watch now while the campaign to stop violence against women goes into defensive mode. It will simply lie low and wait for the brief squall of publicity to blow over. The campaigners are demanding domestic courts be expanded.

Any resistance to the movement that focuses on violence against women makes the reporter vulnerable. He or she will be accused of being in favour of partner abuse. Hate mail and ugly phone calls are a byproduct of the craft I practise and this is a hot-button topic for that kind of abuse.

The cry from many plaintiffs/victims of the domestic court system using this column as a megaphone has been: Where's the help? The system will certainly help break up a marriage, but if a woman wants help getting through a domestic crisis she finds the problems worsened by intrusion and legal bills. She won't find financial help, or help with babysitting or the housework. Many women have gone public with their experiences in the hope of warning others of its pitfalls.

Those points were repeated in a weekend feature in the Globe and Mail, but the most surprising development to me was the involvement of London, Ont., psychologist Peter Jaffe. The violence against women campaign has become something of an evangelical movement and as such, its Billy Graham is Mr. Jaffe.

In December 2001, I was in a Toronto courtroom and watched Mr. Jaffe give a slick presentation to a coroner's jury. He said he had just completed a tour of North America, educating judges about the realities of domestic violence. With slides and charts, he said the jury was getting the same presentation.

In it he claimed 29 per cent of Canadian women in relationships were being abused and needed help getting out. By the time one of them asks for help, she has likely been assaulted as many as 35 times. The source for his statistics, like most numbers in the campaign, come from front-line (shelter) workers and can't be checked by outsiders.

Mr. Jaffe was quoted in the Globe article as saying those numbers are now "dated," but he didn't give new ones. And he said: "Judges have become like neurosurgeons operating with a hammer and chisel. I think we have a lot of work to do. The system needs retooling and retraining."

A degree in psychology, it seems, is like a two-headed coin and if you've got one you can't lose.

In Ottawa, the force that created the domestic violence court calls itself the Criminal Justice Round Table Against Violence Against Women. In February 2001, I dropped into a meeting at City Hall but was told by the chair, former councillor Wendy Byrne, that I would have to leave. She said the committee was a "lobby group" and as such had a right to in-camera meetings.

She also said they would discuss "information not yet available to the general public." I wondered how just-a-lobby-group got such information, and reported that Staff Sgt. Sterling Hartley, head of the Ottawa police 12-member domestic-assault team, was at the table. Chief Vince Bevan wasn't there but was listed on the committee's letterhead as a member.

Police are invited to the tables of many interest groups as advisors. Should they be members?

I've been criticized for warning couples to think twice before dialing 911. Once the call is made, both caller and accused lose rights. Somebody is going to jail with little or no investigation and the caller loses the right to change her, or sometimes his, mind. If there are weapons in the house the caller can expect a full-scale SWAT team response. A bow and arrow counts.

A Toronto lawyer said dialling 911 was like pushing the nuclear button. Once it's done the missile can't be called back.

It's called zero tolerance. No mistakes. It's appearing more and more in many facets of our lives. British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell is getting a taste of it. He was arrested for drunk driving while vacationing and the righteous demanding his resignation have forgotten a line:

"Let he who is without sin ..."

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

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