Domestic violence expert says Manitoba family court judges put victims at risk
Woman's case is perfect example of desperate situation abused victims find themselves in, says advocate
A Manitoba woman whose former partner has repeatedly breached a protection order she has against him says the tension between them is escalating as she is constantly forced to come face-to-face with her ex when he visits the couple's two young children, as the court has ordered.
CBC is not identifying the woman and is referring to her as Francis.
The man has breached the protection order she placed against him at least 78 times. She fears she will meet the same fate Camille Runke did.
Runke was shot to death outside her workplace in St. Boniface last month. She had a protection order against her former husband, whose body was later found. He had shot himself.
Francis says her situation, trying to keep her ex, who she says is abusive, away from her, while at the same time being ordered by the court to communicate with him so the children can see him, is making a bad situation more difficult.
"It's getting worse," she said Tuesday.
Francis said after a visit last weekend, her ex failed to return the children's winter clothes and made obscene hand gestures at her.
"He was giving me the finger as he walked behind the kids when I went to pick them up on Saturday," she said.
Woman's case highlights common reality for abused partners
An advocate for victims of domestic violence says it's a perfect example of the situation many abused partners find themselves in.
Angela Braun, executive director of Genesis House, a women's shelter in Winkler, Man. says family court judges put victims at risk by expecting them to set aside protection orders to deal with child visitation issues.
There is an overriding belief in family court that protection orders and visitation orders are completely separate, she said, but the reality is quite different.
"In real life they are totally connected. But when it comes to family court, they're very cautious about hearing anything about domestic violence or abuse in family court because they automatically assume the person who's saying that is using it as a ploy against the other person," Braun said. "That it may or may not be true. So even having it heard, the abuse heard at family court, often that is a huge challenge."
It's like serving her up on a tray for continued abuse.- Angela Braun, Genesis House
Braun is not involved in Francis's case, but she said what Francis is describing are signs her ex's aggression is escalating. Forcing the parents to communicate about their children constantly reintroduces the victim and the abuser, Braun said.
She wants the province to change the rules so that if domestic violence is involved in a custody case, a family court judge will factor it in to the decision regarding contact between parents. Right now, that's not the case.
"We had one lawyer say to us that domestic violence has no place in family court. So then I'm OK, 'Like where?' Why do you think the relationship is ending? A lot of times abuse plays a factor in that. So if the relationship is ending and abuse is a factor then it has to be factored in that her safety is paramount. So having her do the pickups and drop-offs at his home, or having him come to her home is not practical. It's not safe for her. As a matter of fact, it's like leading her right to his front door. It's like serving her up on a tray for continued abuse," Braun said.
Rural shelters need more funding
Braun said there are added challenges for victims of domestic violence who live outside the city. It's difficult to find people to help supervise visits with the children, as well as drop-offs and pickups. Braun said staff at rural women's shelters try to help, but their resources are thin. Braun advises against grandparents, friends, or other community members getting involved. She said that can be too risky in cases where there is conflict within the family.
Right now Francis pays $90 for her children to be supervised during two weekly visits with their dad. But that doesn't prevent her from having contact with her ex.
Braun said if Francis lived in Winnipeg, things would be different. The Winnipeg Children's Access Agency takes care of supervised visits and exchanges for families who are experiencing conflict. The non-profit agency was borne out of a report into the 1995 murder-suicide of Rhonda and Roy Lavoie.
WCAA charges nominal fees to users. It's been getting funding from the province since 1999.
Braun said with WCAA the parents never have to bump into each other. Braun said domestic victims of violence in rural areas should be entitled to the same service. She said it's time the province invested more in rural shelters and domestic violence programs which haven't had a boost in funding in a decade.
Province says it's the court's decision
The province says variation to protection orders, which could force a victim of domestic abuse to communicate with their abuser, is determined by a Court of Queen's Bench judge who will have the benefit of evidence from both parties.
It says the court is in a position to determine how communication for the purposes of custody and access is best handled.
In some cases, no custody or access is granted to the parent the protection order is against, or the court may order communication through a third party.
In other cases the protection order could be changed to allow communication between the parents related to access and custody rights.
In these situations, the balancing of protections and rights is best placed with the courts, and is made on a case-by-case basis, the province said.