“Choice and the Cycle of Violence”
A transcription of comments delivered by
Trish Cheverie, QC, PEI Legal Aid Lawyer
on December 6, 2012, at the
Charlottetown Montreal Massacre Memorial Service
Trish Cheverie has been practising law for 20 years, most of that time with Legal Aid. Her practice is now exclusively criminal defense work, but she has also done family law and child protection work. She worked on the Domestic Violence Court Development Committee commencing in 2004. She was also a member of the Female Offender Re-integration Project Advisory Committee and served for five years on the Premier’s Victim Services Advisory Committee. During the winter of 2006 to 2007, Trish was the Canadian International Fellow with the International Legal Foundation, a New York-based, UN-sanctioned NGO mentoring legal aid lawyers in Afghanistan. She received her Queens Counsel designation in 2006. Trish is currently President of the New London Women’s Institute. In October, she was elected President of the John Howard Society of Canada, having served on the national board since 2004.
As I look around this room I see many distinguished faces. I also see friends and colleagues and people who have worked to address these issues for many, many years – who’ve dedicated their lives, really – so I am truly, truly humbled to be asked to speak to you today. My comments are based certainly on my experience, and, again, as I look around the room, I’m quite awed by the experience that’s in the room.
I think the [Purple Ribbon Campaign] theme that has been chosen this year – “choice,” and that use of violence is a choice – is really a significant theme. It’s significant for lots of reasons, but for me, when I think about it, the real significance is that it’s a message of hope. It’s saying that as human beings we all have the capacity to make positive changes in our lives. That happens when we recognize the circumstances that we are in, and when we realize that our own actions or behaviours are a result of choices that we’ve made.
It embodies, really, the values of our whole society. Because if we believe in choice, we believe in individual freedom – that people have power over themselves and their actions and that they are capable of accepting responsibility for themselves and their actions.
It’s that human capacity that I see every day in my work, and the frustration for myself and for many who work in this field is that sometimes we don’t offer the help that’s necessary for many people – the people that are entangled in the cycle of domestic violence – to make the positive choices that they need to make.
We need to believe, to believe in choice as well, that human beings are capable of rational decision-making, that we can decide what is in our own best interests and what is in the interests of those we love. We can decide what we need to be the person we should be.
I think it is also important as we contemplate these ideas that we recognize the factors that limit the capacity to choose and the choices that some people have.
We have to recognize in this real world that there are factors like poverty, lack of work, lack of education, addictions, and mental health issues that really limit an individual’s capacity of people to make positive choices. Just very recently, for example, I was noting that the Canadian Bar Association, a little less than two weeks ago, has called for a national inquiry in to the circumstances of Aboriginal women, because as many of you who are here know, Aboriginal women suffer exponentially the consequences of violence. So when we have an organization like the Canadian Bar Association saying that this is a national scandal that needs to be addressed, then we should be paying attention to the causes of that, as well as the implications and the consequences.
I also wanted to mention briefly my experience in Afghanistan, because what that brought to me was understanding that these issues are not limited to one society or one culture; they are cross-cultural. My expectations were pretty low when I travelled to perhaps what is considered to be one of the most misogynist countries in the world where poverty, where the depths of poverty are there. I expected the shock would be how much more virulent, how much more institutionalized, the violence would be. And the great shock to me was that it wasn’t that much different. Perhaps the difference I would describe as more [institutionalized]. But what I found was that the same issues cause the violence, and the same willing system of good, well-meaning, and kind-hearted and wonderful people working to change the circumstances of people who were engaged in the violence. And many of those young people that I worked with were the age of the victims of the Montreal Massacre, and I was completely, completely blown away by their capacity to dedicate themselves to changing the face of their nation and to ensuring that the values that I just talked about – individual autonomy and the freedom to choose – would be what would be valued in their country’s future. So those things are universal; and those problems are universal.
I also wanted to say that we need to but the notion of choice in the context of our humanity. We need to understand that part of the responsibility of the choice is accepting of the responsibility for those consequences. And sometimes people are going to make bad choices, and their going to fail. But it’s a human process. It takes a long time to create change, and it takes a lot of dedication to the process.
The criminal justice system is a very blunt instrument. People who are in desperate need continue to slip through the cracks. We still deal regularly in the provincial court system with domestic violence cases, we still see some of the same people over and over and over again, we still schedule trials knowing that the victim isn’t likely to attend or that if the victim does attend she will not give evidence. And sometimes it’s because of fear.
Almost always it’s because of fear. But not simply fear of the person who is accused. Fear that the family will be destroyed if the truth is told. Fear that the children may be taken. Fear that they will lose everything that they value, including their home and their other relationships. Fear is the reason that so often these women refuse to engage in the systems we have in place to support them.
They are doing that because they have no other choice. Or they believe that they don’t.
I think it’s also important that, even though we are empowered as an institution to ensure firstly the protection of children, we need to respect and to treat with dignity every victim, regardless of the place where they are in their own lives.
We know how to do better. We know how to do better. We don’t need to be losing these women who have the courage to call the police. We don’t need to be missing altogether the families that are never in contact with authorities for the very same reason. And these are people who continue to slip through the cracks.
The Justice Options for Women project made a series of recommendations. The primary recommendation was for a domestic violence court option in this province. The first committee on this issue came together and made recommendations in 2004. We have continued to engage with government since then with respect to the necessity for a domestic violence court option. And we have had a lot of positive feedback from government. That continues to this day. I know Minister Sherry, [Minister of Environment, Labour and Justice,] recently made some remarks that they are continuing their efforts to try to get the funding to do a pilot.
I’m from the Prince County area, as many of you know. I think we are the perfect place to do the pilot. The reason for that is because we have an incredibly collaborative practice in Prince County. We have people like David O’Brien and John Diamond working for the Prosecutor’s Office. We have Victim Services people like Jean Profit. We have absolutely incredibly dedicated Correctional Services people like Mary MacDonald and Cathy Campbell… and I could just go on and on. But we are a group with a lot of experience in this area who have been working in a highly collaborative way for many years. And we can do that job. We can do a good job and we can make real change.
The piece that’s missing is the therapeutic piece. It’s the treatment piece, and it’s expensive. I wanted to just mention that Nova Scotia has just recently piloted a domestic violence court in Sydney, Cape Breton. Sydney was chosen, again, because there already was in that justice place a highly collaborative practice, and essentially what they have done is hired a manager and put in the therapeutic piece.
What the therapeutic piece offers that we don’t have right now is the immediate intervention, the risk assessment by professionals, who will then recommend the appropriate program. Their programs run from five weeks, to ten weeks, to twenty-five weeks for the most serious cases. And essentially they started that in July, and I understand from what I’ve read about the program that it is going well, and I think the provincial investment was in the range of $800,000 to $1 million to get that going for two years. The hope is that it will then eventually expand all throughout the province.
What happens in the [domestic violence] court is that the intervention is immediate and the perpetrator is given the opportunity while the window is there, while there is remorse, where there is regret, where there is a willingness to do whatever it is going to take to maintain the family. And at that point, you get them into the therapy, and they make the commitment by pleading guilty, by taking responsibility for what they have done, and then committing themselves to the work that has to be done. It also offers similar supports for the family, and I think many of these women who have been shying away from the provincial support system we have now will participate, because what they always say, no matter what they say about what they want to happen, they always say, “I just want the violence to stop.”
We can do a really good job if we had that opportunity, and I know we can.
I think also if we were able to operate that court for a six-month period of time even, we would begin to get the other families that have not contacted the system coming into the system. And in that way, we can make a real difference.
It’s always about the money, and I have the ear of a lot of powerful people in this room, and I know there have been discussions in Cabinet. I’m going to appeal to you on the basis that we’re not just talking about what we can do right now. We’re talking about the future generations.
And that’s when we get into the whole notion of a cycle of violence.
The 2011 PEI Equality Report Card had a focus group that talked a lot about the strong connection between childhood trauma and future offending. Also, addictions, mental health – the things that happen to children who are traumatized as they grow older. They suggested that we first ensure the safety of the children, and then provide services for the parents to deal with the grief, the anger – education around these issues.
We need to do everything we can because of the children.
The costs that are rising in addictions and mental health and incarcerating people – that’s just going to get worse, if we don’t get to the root.
As you all might expect, I have seen and heard some terrible things over my years in the practice of law. What sticks with me and what haunts me are the circumstances of the children. The six-year-old who was hiding behind the shower curtain. The 18-month-old in his mother’s arms as she’s being dragged around the kitchen. The ten-year-old girl in a recent case who called her aunt late at night and said, “Mommy won’t wake up, I think Daddy killed her.”
I don’t want to be seeing that little girl in ten years’ time, sitting in a jail cell, talking about her addictions. I don’t want to be the first person that’s ever talked to her about the trauma of her childhood, about post-traumatic stress disorder, about addictions. I don’t want to have to keep doing that.
I don’t want that little 18-month-old boy to be the 17-year-old that I’m talking to about the girl, his first girlfriend, who is trying to leave him, and he’s relentlessly harassing her.
We can do a lot about these issues. We have to make a commitment as a community.
We also have to make a commitment with respect to our own responsibilities as individual members of the community. When you look around your neighbourhood, we know, in PEI, who the families are that are having problems. You need to be brave enough to stick your nose in. If you can’t do that, then go to the Voluntary Resource Council. Volunteer as a Big Brother or Big Sister. There are a lot of organizations that do tremendous work with children who are in need. And sometimes it doesn’t take very much – I know that from my experience. I’ve had young children that I dealt with as children that they come up to me years later and said, “You know, you’re the only person that ever told me I was smart.” You know, “You thought I was funny.” It can be a kind word… It can be saying to the neighbour, let me take the kids to the movies. Let me give you a break.
Befriend people. Offer what you can. But most importantly, look at those children and recognize the power that you have to change their lives. Sometimes it doesn’t take very much. Be the safe haven that that child can go to when things are bad at home. There’s a lot we can do.
Finally, I just want to say I’m hopeful. I remain hopeful. We’ve done a lot of good work over the years. Each of you has. Change is happening. There’s a lot more work to do, but we can do it.