Breaking the uncomfortable silence

Chance encounter sparks lifetime quest

A bouquet of roses at a hospital bedside 45 years ago provided a never-forgotten lesson about the intricacies of intimate partner abuse for Western researcher Peter Jaffe.

In the early 1970s, Jaffe was a Psychology graduate student on a placement with London Police Service. He was part of a fledgling family-consulting service that teamed civilian counsellors with uniformed officers on domestic calls.

"It dawned on me that leaving an abusive relationship wasn’t an event, it was a process and was going to take some time."

In a time of next-to-no training or support for officers in helping “battered women,” a psychologist at a crime scene was a progressive notion. Police Chief Walter Johnson spearheaded the move after he learned domestic violence was second only to motor-vehicle accidents as the most-common request for police in London.

That is where Jaffe met his first client.

He couldn’t believe what she’d been through. What she told him about the history of her abuse was overwhelming for a young psychologist.

As they worked together, the abused woman started to talk about her plans for after she left the hospital and how she would start again in a new life without her husband. Jaffe was encouraged.

But days later, there were flowers beside her hospital bed. From her abusive husband. Then the conversation changed. Maybe she had done something to cause the violence. He only drank so much because of the stress in his life. She could do – she would do – better.

“That first call stuck with me because of the complexity. It wasn’t like, here’s the problem and here’s the solution. I realized this was very, very complicated, the dynamics between the victim and the perpetrator. It dawned on me that leaving an abusive relationship wasn’t an event, it was a process and was going to take some time."

“I’ve been on a mission of discovery kind of ever since. It got me thinking more about the importance of knowing it’s what we do that makes a difference.” Since those early days, Jaffe created a body of work to do just that.

As Academic Director at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC) at Western, Jaffe seeks to understand the “predictable and preventable” nature of the issue. The work at the Centre has sparked changes to workplace legislation, shifted attitudes and created awareness around intimate partner abuse.

Housed within the Faculty of Education, the centre began 25 years ago in the wake of a national inquiry into violence against women after the Dec. 6, 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, where 14 women were shot to death and 10 others wounded by gunman Marc Lépine.

In cases of domestic homicide, which account for 1-in-5 murders in Canada, work done by the Centre has repeatedly demonstrated how involving the community, legal system, social services and health workers in recognizing and reporting abuse may prevent killings. Its public awareness campaigns detail the dozens of warning signs of abuse, while encouraging people who see them to get over their hesitancy to speak up.

“I don’t get many people who say they overreacted. Most people say they wish they could have done something.”

Jaffe was also involved in the first Canadian study looking at the laying of domestic violence charges. Women had a long wish list for what police could do to be more helpful. Stop blaming us, they said. Quit asking questions that are in truth asking what we did to cause us to be abused.

The result was the Coordinating Committee on Domestic Violence. That research led to development of agencies and policies, practices and programs, including Changing Ways, a program that provides treatment for London men to find ways to end partner and child abuse.

Domestic homicides don’t just happen “out of the blue.” Research is clear – there were warning signs along the way.

A founding member of the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, Jaffe says 80 per cent of domestic homicides are preceded by numerous risk factors: history of domestic violence in the relationship; stalking; depression; alcohol or drug abuse; obsessive behaviour; and a pending or recent separation.

To that end, CREVAWC’s Neighbours, Friends and Families campaign reminds people of the signs of abuse, along with suggesting ways to support victims and where to go for help.

The same awareness is being taught about the workplace. A CREVAWC study done with the Canadian Labour Congress and Western’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies revealed warning signs in more than half of the cases of women killed by their partners in Ontario. The red flags included workplace stalking, threatening emails and unwanted phone calls.

Peter Jaffe
Academic Director, CREVAWC

Those signs surfaced in the murder of Windsor nurse Lori Dupont, who was killed by a former partner and Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital co-worker in 2005. Jaffe testified as an expert in Dupont’s inquest. The inquest recommendations led to amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, making it mandatory for employers to deal with domestic violence if it appears in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative with Vulnerable Populations (CDHPIVP) centres its work on four at-risk populations.

The CDHPIVP identifies risk factors and ways to provide support for Indigenous populations, where women in Canada face domestic homicide rates eight times higher than non-Indigenous women. It’s also examining why the rate of domestic homicide is higher in rural and remote areas. What can be done to help immigrant and refugee women report domestic violence and access services? And what are the risks to children exposed to family violence?

Jaffe is seeing change. Domestic violence is now considered a health and safety issue. People are talking about it. The #MeToo and #TimesUp social media campaigns are also putting abuse into a global spotlight.

“When I did research on this in the late ’70s early ’80s, victims were abused, on average, 35 times before they reached out for help. We know now that victims tend to call the police earlier. So we’ve inched up in terms of people getting out of relationships or getting help earlier.”

Linda Barnard

Written by Linda Barnard