‘I never feel safe’: N.S. domestic abuse survivor calls for changes to family court system

Warning: This story contains accounts of intimate-partner violence

A Nova Scotia mother who left Halifax to get away from her abusive ex-partner says police and the province’s family court system have failed her and her son by not taking their concerns for safety seriously.

Mary escaped the abusive relationship a decade ago and now carries an RCMP-issued panic button wherever she goes, but for years she’s been required by the courts to share parenting time with someone she’s afraid of. 

“I’ve left my church, I’ve started my life over. I’ve left the city. I’ve done so many things to try to have a peaceful life, and … it doesn’t matter how much peace I have, I never feel safe,” she said in an interview.

Advocates and survivors across Canada say partner violence isn’t given enough consideration in child custody matters, and there are calls for more training for lawyers and judges about the risks survivors face long after they’ve escaped abusive relationships.

CBC News has agreed not to use Mary’s real name.

Her ex-partner faces two charges of sexual assault for separate incidents involving Mary that date back to 2016. He pleaded not guilty to both charges last month and is scheduled to go to trial in September.

The man is also due to stand trial next year on a charge of uttering threats in connection with an incident last December involving Mary, her mother and her partner.

More education needed

Linda Neilson, a research associate with the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in New Brunswick, said courts sometimes assume that abuse in the past has no bearing on current custody cases. 

But research clearly shows that domestic violence is a cumulative pattern over time, said Neilson, and she believes more practical education is needed for judges.

“It’s not enough to provide judicial education on domestic violence,” Neilson said. “You really need to be able to convey practical steps that judges should be taking in the cases so that a judge, for example, doesn’t inadvertently place women and children at risk.”

Mary says she asked to keep her home address confidential, but a family court judge recently read it aloud during a virtual hearing. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Mary, who met her ex when she was 16 and he was 22, said the violence started early on in their relationship.

When she was five months pregnant, Mary said her ex kicked her in the ribs and she ended up in the hospital. 

She remembers one day picking up their infant son and trying to leave.

“He said, ‘You won’t get out of this house with that baby in your arms alive,'” she said. “So I stayed, and that’s the problem is so many women stay because they’re scared.”

One August night in 2012, she called police for the first time and left with her son, who was a toddler.

A document from Child Protection Services notes her ex was arrested and given a restraining order that night. The document describes Mary’s injuries, including bruises on her wrists, finger marks on her neck, and a swollen eye. 

Mary said her former partner was ordered to complete anger management, but those conditions were eventually dropped.

Ex-partner initially given unsupervised access

After she left, the two informally shared custody of their son for a time before going to court. In 2018, a judge granted Mary primary custody and her ex was allowed to see the child about two days a week for unsupervised visits. 

A CPS document from 2019 notes that Mary’s son, now a teenager, told a social worker his father used to hit him but that the hitting had since stopped.

In a court-ordered report called Voice of the Child that was completed in January, the teen asks to only spend time with his father when someone else is present, but he also expresses hope his dad will change.

The teen also describes not always feeling safe with his dad and talks about being taken to Toronto years earlier and not being able to contact his mom.

In court documents, Mary describes how her ex broke their court order in 2019 and took their son to Toronto for five days.

She was told her son had been picked up by his dad from school, but she had no idea where they were. 

“I was literally falling apart,” she said. “I had to quit my job because of it. My hair was falling out. I was crying all the time. I wasn’t eating.”

One day, the school called to say her son was back. Mary decided to home-school him for a time after that. 

Changes to legislation around family violence

Earlier this year, Mary said a judge read her new address aloud during a virtual court hearing after she’d asked the court to keep it confidential. She said she’s since seen her ex’s car parked outside her house. 

“This person has abused me for years, and there’s pictures and evidence showing that this has happened, but yet you’re still not doing anything to keep us safe,” she said.

Rollie Thompson, a professor emeritus in law at Dalhousie University, said recent changes to both the Divorce Act and the Parenting and Support Act attempt to provide more clarity for judges when it comes to partner violence.

Rollie Thompson is professor emeritus in law at Dalhousie University, specializing in family law. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Before the changes, domestic violence was not directly addressed by the Divorce Act, which left gaps in the way courts handled those cases. Now, the act more clearly defines family violence and directs courts to give primary consideration to a child’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being.

“So the starting point is the safety and security of the child. That in and of itself is a strong direction about the significance of family violence,” Thompson said.

However, an activist and writer who works with survivors is not optimistic those legislative changes will make a meaningful difference.

Ardath Whynacht said women and children need access to more community-based social work early on.

“When survivors are offered those early intervention and support services, they’re often able to leave quicker, they’re able to have supports sooner in the process and we’re able to create a protective network around the children,” she said.

Ardath Whynacht is a professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. (Robert Short/CBC)

Jennifer Stairs, communications director for the Nova Scotia Judiciary, said she can’t comment on specific cases. In an emailed statement she said that all parties in family court are subject to a screening for domestic violence “at the earliest stage.”

She said the information that’s gathered helps with risk assessments and informs how a file is managed.

Stairs also said individuals are encouraged to inform the court if violence, threats or other safety issues arise.

Police issue a panic button

Mary said because of the Voice of the Child report, her ex is currently only allowed to see their son once a week for a supervised visit.

She now carries a small black case about the size of a pack of gum wherever she goes. It’s a panic button that the RCMP have directed her to press if her ex-partner comes near. Cameras have also been set up to face the street in front of her house. 

Mary’s grateful to have the device, but it hasn’t taken away her fear. These days, she spends most of her time close to home.

“The fact that it’s taken 10 years for someone to do a safety plan of my home, the fact that it’s taken 10 years for me to get a panic button … that shouldn’t have taken 10 years,” she said.

Mary holds a panic button issued to her by the RCMP earlier this year. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

If you are seeking help or are looking for information about abuse, you can call the 24-hour toll-free line at 1-855-225-0220. A list of resources in Nova Scotia is available here.

Source link