After months of being terrorized, insulted and injured, you’re finally ready to leave.
You call local transition houses, but they’re full. You turn to friends and family, but no one believes you. Finally, someone says you can stay with them and you head out the door. Your phone is in your purse, ringing over and over again.
Scenarios like this play out in households throughout New Westminster and beyond. And despite public perception, things have actually become harder for domestic violence victims in recent years, according to a New Westminster counsellor.
The housing crisis, accessibility and a lack of resources combine to make leaving abusers more difficult, Karen McAndless-Davis told the Record.
There is help, and perceptions are changing, at least on an official level. On March 3, the B.C. government announced it would provide up to five days’ paid leave for people dealing with domestic or sexual violence, or whose children are dealing with it.
Government gets involved
“I think this is a very positive step,” Karen said regarding the announcement. “Women leaving violent and abusive relationships face enormous challenges, both emotional and practical. The list of practical issues is very long – interaction with police, the Ministry of Children and Family Development or the courts to try to protect their children, housing, child care, and ensuring they have enough money to meet the basic needs.”
It is a good beginning, she said, but it is only a beginning.
“Having some time off work to focus on these matters would be very helpful. Five days, of course, is not long enough, but it is something,” she said. “It is a very practical way our whole society can show support to women experiencing abuse.”
How things have changed
Despite recent action from the government, the problem of domestic violence has gotten worse over the years instead of better, Karen said.
“I think society thinks we’ve got this and that we’re responding, and that women get help and support, but that isn’t women’s experiences,” she explained. “They don’t get help and support, and they actually get judged. They get judged for staying as long as they stay; they get judged for leaving and breaking up the family.”
Twenty or 30 years ago, transition house staff could get a woman registered for social assistance and they could find her housing within 30 days, but that’s often not the case today, she said.
Karen has counselled countless women. She has led support groups, and she has trained counsellors, transition house staff and crisis line employees.
She co-authored the book When Love Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships with Jill Cory.
But her experience is also personal. Her husband is Bruce McAndless-Davis, and in an interview with the Record, he was open about how he verbally, emotionally and eventually physically abused Karen.
The abuse stopped when Bruce attended counselling after injuring her.
“I experienced abuse and looked for help from many different quarters, and no one was helpful,” Karen said, adding one marriage counsellor gave her the dangerous advice to stand up to her husband. “So I stood up to Bruce, and then Bruce broke my ribs.”
After attending a support group, she realized she wanted to help other women in similar situations. Bruce has also found his time in counselling to be transformative and was able to work on changing his core beliefs and, ultimately, his behaviour.
“As I got my support, I realized how I had been really abusive in our relationship almost pretty much from the beginning in some ways,” Bruce told the Record. “There were behavioural changes that needed to happen in some ways that were easier than the changes in attitude that needed to happen.”
They have been married for 30 years.
He is always with you
Many abusive situations don’t end as well as things did with Karen’s experience, and there are many modern-day barriers to leaving an abusive relationship.
Accessibility has become a major issue for women dealing with domestic violence – women are more accessible by phone and by social media than ever before.
“The abuser has so many ways to get at her now,” Karen said. “If they separate, he can continue to harass her or track her.”
It means she never gets a chance to have a psychological break from him,” she added.
Abusive men may text that they love their partner or they may threaten them, Karen said.
“It becomes confusing and really overwhelming,” she said. “If you have your phone in your purse, in a way, you have him in your purse.”
No room at the inn
The housing crisis has also made things worse for women who have been abused, Karen said.
There is often nowhere for her clients to go, she said.
“When I started doing this work, we could always get a woman into a transition house. Now, transition houses regularly turn away women who are fully qualifying,” she said.
In the period from April 2018 to March 2019, Monarch Place Transition House, New Westminster’s only transition house, turned away 896 women and 522 children, according to executive director Lorrie Wasyliw.
“There are various reasons attached to that statistic,” she told the Record. “If they are eligible for our service and we do not have the space to accommodate them, we do all we can to try to get them into some other place.”
The problem is that transition house spaces have not kept pace with population growth over the years, Karen said. But even finding space at a transition house doesn’t keep a woman safe for long – those spaces are for 30-day periods only.
“Sometimes women go to a transition house for 30 days and the staff there work really hard to find housing, but they often can’t,” she said. “Sometimes women go back (to their partner) because there’s nowhere else to go.”
Doing it for the kids
When kids are involved, everything becomes a lot more complicated.
“Courts used to award custody based on who had been the primary caregiver,” Karen explained. “That started shifting about 15 years ago towards the 50-50 custody.”
While it can be an ideal setup in a healthy family, it is a problem for women who are in an abusive situation.
“They’re terrified of this man, and they know living with him they can try to minimize the harm to their children,” she said. “Whereas if they separate they’ll be there alone with him, and she won’t be there to minimize the harm.”
Some mothers stay in abusive relationships until the kids are older, she said, but others try to leave.
“They’re thrown into this really hellish situation of having to hand their children over to someone they know is dangerous, psychologically, emotionally and sometimes physically,” she said.
It’s also an issue because the mother is forced into contact with her abuser, she added.
Politician weighs in
Last month, BC Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson described domestic abuse as a “tough marriage.” (He has since apologized.)
Karen said such comments “suggests a mutuality that’s not there.”
I think it’s so minimizing about the horror, the terror, the danger and the cost – women lose sometimes decades of their life,” she said. “Then our whole society loses.”
It’s also wrong to focus on the relationship rather than the abuser as the problem, she added.
“This is not actually about marriage; this is about a man abusing his power and acting like a bully and a bulldozer,” she said.
What should be done?
What needs to change is for people to understand that women being abused are doing the best they can with what they have, Karen said.
“It takes people’s willingness to actually be educated,” she said. The women in her groups are educated – about abuse cycles, abusive men’s belief systems, and how abusers maintain power and control in a relationship.
These are things everyone should know about, she said.
“Far too often, people act like they’re the expert on a woman’s life,” Karen said. “Allow them to make the decisions that are best for them at the time. Support them.”
Women who have dealt with abusers are resourceful and articulate, she added.
“I actually get a lot of hope from this work because the women I support are amazing. They face really quite unbelievable barriers trying to move forward and create safety for themselves and their children,” she said. “They and their children do get better lives. That’s what allows me to keep doing this work.”
Where to go for help
If you or someone you know is being abused, there are resources that can help.
Karen’s website provides resources and information for women who are being abused.
Monarch Place Transition House in New Westminster is operated by WINGS (Women In Need Gaining Strength), a partner ministry of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in B.C. and the Yukon.
Battered Women’s Support Services does advocacy work and provides education and support services as well. They’re based in Vancouver.
New West Police can provide access to Victim Services and other supports if a crime is reported.