New domestic violence shelter offers support for an unexpected client — abusers

The southern Alberta pilot project allows victimized families to remain in their homes, while removing the perpetrators — putting the onus on abusers to disrupt behaviour patterns and receive treatment.

Pilot project in southern Alberta allows victims to remain at home, puts onus on perpetrators to break cycle

The Safe at Home residence in the southern Alberta town of Claresholm offers a space for abusers to work on breaking dangerous patterns of behaviour, while allowing their victims to stay home. (Submitted by Rowan House)

Abuse uproots a family. 

Staff at women's shelters often see a similar pattern — women and children fleeing their home for emergency housing, their lives disrupted while their abuser continues to live independently.

A new four-year pilot project by southern Alberta's Rowan House aims to flip that familiar script.

The "Safe at Home" residence — the first of its kind in a rural area — is open to men who have perpetrated domestic abuse. 

The shelter is located in Claresholm (40 kilometres southeast of Rowan House's main 24-bedroom emergency shelter in High River) and can house two men at a time. 

The program will also work with the impacted families, who can receive local resources while maintaining the stability of their home and support network.

"We're being challenged by survivors of domestic abuse to look at different ways to address the issue. They said, 'nothing's changing.' We have to be more innovative and creative. Is there something else we can do to augment what we're already doing?" said Timmi Shorr, Rowan House's CEO. 

"There is a very definite need for the work we do in the women's shelters to keep the women and children safe. But what else can we do to address the issue itself and move a little bit upstream into the preventative side of it?"

Pushing past stigma

Shorr said the organization was prepared for some level of pushback, due to stigma around the idea of supporting a perpetrator of abuse.

"We just really have to educate people to think past that. If we don't support them where they're at, especially for the ones that want to make that change, they're just going to go on and do it to the next partner … we're not really solving the problem. And, I would like to be out of work at some point."

Those who accept that their abusive behaviours need to change and who want to develop healthier patterns can apply to join the 52-week program.

The 52-week pilot program includes eight weeks where men can stay in transitional housing, to either work toward returning to their family home or toward acquiring housing to live independently. (Submitted by Rowan House)

The first eight weeks of the program see the participants staying in the transitional shelter, while they receive psychoeducation and group therapy sessions as well as individual counselling. During those eight weeks, the men will either work toward returning to their family home or toward obtaining independent housing. Ongoing supports will be available for the whole year.

"They're looking for help. They want to change. And we are here to provide that support," Shorr said. 

"The children still can go to their schools. The mom still goes to work. Then the men come into the home for eight weeks. The idea … is that sometimes you need that separation to really have the focus on yourself and what you want to change."

The program launched on March 1. Rowan House is currently evaluating its first applicants, ensuring it selects those who will have a high chance of success. 

Shorr said the hope is that families experiencing abuse will realize it's OK to ask for help — and that abusers, by reaching out, will be able to make lasting change. 

"Changing habits, changing thoughts and coping skills doesn't happen in eight weeks. So it's really important that we stay and we support these families and we're there for them on both sides for that for that full year."

A report from the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters, released late last year, found the pandemic has made it harder for women and their children to escape living situations where they're experiencing domestic violence. 

Shorr said this is something she's noticed as well.

"What we're seeing is an increase in the level of abuse. So people are just trying to stick it out as long as they can until they can't handle it anymore and then they're coming in to the shelter," she said. 

However, she has also noticed a positive increase — more friends and family members calling in to say they suspect domestic abuse is occurring, and asking how they can offer support. 

Referral and application forms for the Safe at Home program can be found on Rowan House's website

The program is funded by the federal government's Women and Gender Equality Canada department. 

If you need help, Rowan House's 24-hour crisis line can be accessed by phone or text at 403-652-3311 or 1-855-652-3311. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. 

With files from Terri Trembath