Why doesn't the justice system help abused women?

Photo: flickr/meesh

A woman is being abused by her partner. She calls 911 for help. The police arrive and... arrest the woman for defending herself.

Some are under the impression that when a woman is being abused by her male partner, all she has to do is call 911 and the police will arrive like knights in shining armour. The abusive man will be charged with assault and convicted. The rescued woman will be safe from harm.

However, this is not always the reality.

For many women in Canada who experience domestic abuse and decide to call the police, they often find when the police arrive, they are also arrested because of mandatory charge policies.

To boot, several of these women are put in jail, whether they fought back in defense or not. 

According to a study conducted by The Women Abuse Council of Toronto in 2005, 'Women Charged with Domestic Violence in Toronto: The Unintended Consequences of Mandatory Charge Policies', research on dual arrests and mandatory charge policies show that the use of force by women is in response to continuous abuse by their male partner.

Charging women only increases the risk of further abuse allowing the abuser to use the criminal justice system as a harming tool. 

So, why do police officers arrest women who call the 911 for help?  

"With any incident, whether domestic or not, if both parties involved have committed a criminal offence they can be arrested and held to account for the offences they have committed. Being the one who called police does not exempt anyone from any offence they may have committed," says Constable Rich Gadreau of the Niagara Regional Police.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a society that works with criminalized women, stands firm that the justice system is not helping battered women, but assisting in their harm.

"Abused women -- who too often are not provided with state protection and are therefore essentially deputized and given the implicit message that they must protect themselves -- are not only likely to be criminalized, but also imprisoned or otherwise institutionalized, if they act to defend themselves and/or others."

A Toronto mother of two had to find this out firsthand.

"They arrested me because he had scratches on his face from my fingernails," says Sharon* who was trying to defend herself from her husband who she said was drinking too much at the time.

"Later in jail my body was all black and blue. Well, I just plead guilty to get it over with. What was I supposed to do? I was in jail. I had to go home to take care of my kids. Too many women lose their kids and thank God I didn't."

In order to keep her children, Sharon agreed to stay with her abusive husband. Any other option would have left her without her children and in a shelter.

Sharon's husband was never charged. 

Domestic violence and incarceration affects the whole family and people feel at loss when trying to figure out how to deal with the criminal justice system.

"This situation wasn't something our family had dealt with before from the side of being treated like a criminal," says Ruth*, a retired senior citizen.

Recently Ruth had to bail her granddaughter, who just graduated from university, out of jail.

"It turns out this guy had a previous assault charge against him. We had no idea how the system worked, we had no one to turn to to find out what we should do. She had a part-time job, but earned too much for legal aid and too little to afford a lawyer so here we are. She did not see the inside of the court house again and in the end she was absolved and has no criminal record, but if you don't have a Grandma and Grandpa who can put up the money what do these young women do?"

Currently across Canada, one person or both involved in the violence are charged right away with a criminal offense, taken to jail and through a costly justice system. 

"Domestic situations are often difficult to investigate," says Constable Rich Gadreau, "Especially considering police are called to a single point in time with two people that often have been together for many years. The incidences police respond to may not reflect the whole of the relationship but we must deal with the incident at hand."

What should happen? 

There must be an alternative system created to deal with domestic violence.

There is no doubt that the people involved need to be separated. However, criminal charges without knowledge of the circumstances just add more stress to an already stressful situation and makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people.

Once a person has a criminal record, their chance for survival in the legitimate world becomes minimal because the criminal justice system only encourages further abuse.

A manipulative partner can use the abused womans' criminal record as leverage for further power and control.

Threatening to call the police, or to extort money or to take children if a women wants to leave the house are common. If a woman fears going back to jail, she will do anything not to provoke the situation. 

There needs to be a separate system to step in and resolve violent domestic matters that also doesn't re-victimize these abused women. Perhaps they will be safer.


*names have been changed for safety.

Jeannette Tossounian is a Canadian visual artist and writer who recently spent two years in maximum security at Vanier Centre for Women, a provincial jail in Ontario. While she is appealing her conviction, she is self-publishing the many books she wrote in jail as well as running for regional council in Niagara Falls while advocating for incarcerated women across the country. 

Photo: flickr/meesh

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