Nova Scotia

N.S. justice system is harming domestic violence victims and needs to change, says report author

Domestic violence prosecution policies were developed in the 1990s with the goal of taking the crime seriously. But a researcher who talked to survivors, offenders, police and prosecutors says the policies harm victims.

Nancy Ross researched issue for two years, found hardline approach by police and prosecutors needs overhaul

Nancy Ross is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University's School of Social Work. (Nancy Ross)

The case of a Dartmouth, N.S., woman who was jailed and put in a restraint chair by police after she didn't show up to testify against the man accused of abusing her shows changes are needed to the justice system, according to a researcher examining the response to intimate partner violence.

Nancy Ross, an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University, has just wrapped up two years of research into prosecution service policies on domestic violence across the country, and is now calling for an overhaul.

The need for a reform of the criminal justice system was dramatically illustrated in the case of Serrece Winter, who was arrested in November 2019 on a warrant sought by a prosecutor, and then treated like a criminal in "an abuse of power" by police, said Ross.

"It's often the people that are most vulnerable that are calling police, and yet they seem to be punished or feel punished after calling," said Ross.

Only 3 in 10 report domestic violence to police

Ross found that most provinces have adopted a pro-arrest, pro-charge, pro-prosecution policy, a hardline approach aimed at winning convictions to keep victims safe from their abusers.

The policies emerged during the 1990s, after feminists pushed politicians to elevate the widespread problem of intimate partner violence as a serious crime, she said. 

Pro-arrest means that police must arrest and then lay a charge once they determine who is the "dominant aggressor" and if it is determined that harm has occurred, said Ross.

Pro-prosecution means cases are brought "to a conclusion," according to Sarah Lane, a Nova Scotia Crown attorney.

Nova Scotia's domestic violence prosecution policy was introduced in 1996, and last revised in 2003.

But after three decades, many victims aren't turning to the justice system for help. Statistics Canada found in a 2014 survey that seven in 10 victims did not report the crime to police. 

"That was a disturbing figure to me, it really motivated my interest in exploring why," said Ross.

With a $150,000 grant from the federal Justice Department, she did a deep dive into whether prosecution and police responses were a barrier to victims seeking help.

Ross's research has culminated in a report that's due to be published next week.

Survivors, offenders, police and prosecutors participated

She interviewed and held workshops with more than 100 people in Nova Scotia, including domestic violence survivors, offenders, police officers, Crown attorneys, shelter workers and staff with the Department of Justice.

Serrece Winter said she shared her story of suffering violence with the hope it helps other victims leave abusive relationships. (Robert Short/CBC)

The workshops were held coincidentally after Winter went public last month with her story. The case was discussed as an example of the social inequities faced by marginalized and vulnerable people in the community.

"It demonstrated a lack of education, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, a lack of understanding of trauma and how it impacts individuals, and a lack of nonviolent conflict resolution skills," Ross said.

She also reviewed articles, news stories and government reports from across the country.

"Only one percent of the literature really supports those policies in the way they're currently developed," she said.

Adversarial court system can be traumatic

Domestic violence is similar to sexual assaults in that women are more likely to be victims, and the victim is often the only witness to a crime.

The adversarial court system compels their testimony, and can be a harmful experience.

"Oftentimes the domestic violence victim has to prove that they have been harmed, so therefore showing, demonstrating proof of the violence can be very challenging and traumatic for them," she said.

Also, under a system aimed at securing a guilty verdict, an offender is less likely to accept responsibility and more likely to minimize the harm they've caused, she said.

Winter testified in this Dartmouth, N.S., courtroom on Dec. 7. (Robert Short/CBC)

The crime-and-punishment approach doesn't take into account that while a victim wants the abuse to end, there may be a desire to stay with a partner, keep the family together, or maintain parental contact with children.

Earlier this week, Winter did testify in court against her ex, thanks to a peace bond that kept him away from her, and physical and emotional support provided in the courthouse.

Ross cited that as an ideal response within the current, limited system.

She is recommending a shift from the "one-size-fits-all" punitive system to a model that's responsive to the needs of victims who've been traumatized, and who may prioritize family while also wanting the abuse to stop.

The call for reform has been echoed by women's groups, and Winter's treatment has been a flashpoint.

Ross is hopeful her findings will spur government, police, prosecutors and community groups to come together to design a new way forward.

She's received additional federal funding to examine ways for the system to be trauma-informed and family-focused.

Based on the police officers who participated in her workshop, during a climate in which they're facing intense scrutiny and calls for police to be defunded, Ross thinks they're open to change.

"What I heard from the police indicates that often they feel quite overwhelmed and caught in a system that often dictates their response," she said.

While protecting victims remains the goal, Ross said the need for physical safety must be balanced with the "need to encourage people to reach out for help and to assure people that help exists."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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