'They just want the violence to end': Restorative justice program aims to stop intimate partner abuse

Winnipeg police are trying to break the cycle of violence by placing some abusers in programs, rather than in jail. 

Winnipeg Police Service program an alternative to zero-tolerance policy that 'hasn't changed our numbers'

Det. Sgt. Susan Desjardine is the domestic violence intervention co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Police Service. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Winnipeg police are trying to break the cycle of violence by placing some abusers in programs, rather than in jail. 

The goal is to put a dent in the approximately 16,000 calls involving intimate partner violence that the Winnipeg Police Service receives every year. Those calls result in about 2,000 arrests each year, according to Det. Sgt. Susan Desjardine. 

Those numbers have remained relatively constant for the past two decades, despite a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to charging abusers.

"A zero-tolerance policy hasn't changed our numbers," said Desjardine, who is optimistic the police service's restorative justice program will make a difference.

Since its inception in late 2018, a total of 53 abusers have completed the police service's restorative justice program, which focuses on rehabilitation through reconciliation with victims.

"'Instead of us asking, 'Why is she staying?' why are we not asking, 'Why is he beating her?'" said Desjardine. 

According to the latest Statistics Canada data, women account for almost eight in 10 victims of police-reported intimate partner violence. Manitoba has the second highest rate of such violence, after Saskatchewan.

Winnipeg's is the first police agency in Canada to divert offenders to a restorative justice program before charges are laid, according to Desjardine.

Offenders can participate in a program within a couple of weeks of an incident being reported. If a case goes through traditional court channels, a year can go by before goes before a judge. 

"It holds them responsible much quicker. They're getting the help that they need," said Desjardine.

In order to qualify for the program, offenders must have no previous domestic violence charges in the past five years, and no charges involving the same victim. Those charged with aggravated assault, firearm or sexual offences are not eligible. 

The offender must accept responsibility and the victim must agree to the program. 

"He or she is never going to change on their own. Whoever the offender may be, they need to get help as well. And you have to make that clear to them — this isn't going to change" without help, said Desjardine.

Police don't pursue charges against people who successfully complete the program, she said.

The offenders diverted by Winnipeg police attend programs run by Manitoba Justice's restorative justice program.

Those programs are similar to those offered through a Salvation Army domestic violence program, which is available to offenders after they've been charged, and offers treatment through group work that touches on subjects like types and effects of abuse, warning signs, the cycle of abuse and healthy relationships.

Prosecutors divert offenders after charges laid

If an offender does not fit the stringent criteria required by Winnipeg police for the intimate partner violence program, they may still be able to enter similar programming instead of going through the court process. 

Since October 2018, Manitoba Crown attorneys have referred 623 cases to various restorative justice programs, including the Salvation Army's Choose 2 Change program, which has been running since 2011. 

Hennes Doltze runs the Salvation Army's domestic violence program, which only accepts men who present a lower risk of violence. 

Hennes Doltze runs the Salvation Army's Choose 2 Change program which gives men the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and learn how to maintain healthy relationships. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

He's quick to add the program is not a "get out of jail free card."

"I would not call it a free ride. In fact, it requires ... a different level of taking responsibility."

He says he's seen tattooed tough guys reduced to tears in their first session. They have felt safe enough to be vulnerable in front of a group of men with similar experiences, says Doltze.

"They may have to face, for the first time — maybe in a different way than if they were sentenced in court — to look at their own behaviour and to take responsibility."

Doltze says he has received calls from his clients' partners thanking him. 

"In this particular case, the lady called and said, 'Hey, our marriage was saved' … not necessarily because of the program, but what he took away from the program, and the changes that he made for himself."

Nurses now document abuse

Last fall, Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre implemented a new way to help victims. The hospital's existing Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE, program — which involves nurses collecting physical evidence after a sexual assault — was expanded to include victims of intimate partner violence.

Since Nov. 1, the highly trained forensic nurses have consulted with 53 patients for intimate partner violence examinations, according to a spokesperson from Shared Health. 

"It allows the victim to seek help from a resource outside of the Winnipeg police," said Desjardine, adding police will investigate if the victim makes that request.

"She may not be ready yet to come to police, but still wants to have what's occurred to her documented," Desjardine said.

"Three or four months down the road, where she feels more safe to come forward, then she can give us access to those medical records."

Victims sometimes don't want to end relationship

Desjardine recognizes the complexity intimate partner violence creates in situations where the victim is reluctant to make a report to police, because they want to stay with their partner.  

"The victim of a relationship, especially if it's a long-term, established relationship, doesn't want the relationship to end. They just want the violence to end."

She hopes the restorative justice approach will help some couples achieve that goal.

If you're experiencing intimate partner abuse there is help out there. Contact the province-wide crisis line 1-877-977-0007 or the Winnipeg crisis line 204-615-0311. If you are in immediate danger call 911. 

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.


About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: