A partnership between Family Services of Greater Vancouver and the New Westminster Police Department has been working to keep community members safe for 25 years.
In cooperation with detectives in the NWPD’s domestic violence, elder abuse and special investigations units, Family Services victim support workers offer trauma-informed counselling, safety planning, referrals and more to its clients. They help victims of power-based crimes, including sexual assault, domestic violence, and elder abuse.
“We just really want people to know that that support and help is there,” said Maria Howard, CEO of Family Services of Greater Vancouver. “Please, always just find a way to reach out and call and ask for help and make the connection. It’s that first step that is so important, but once you make it and you have a connection with somebody else and they are there to help you figure out what to do from there.”
After being connected to the program through police or ministry officials, Family Services staff meet one-on-one with victims.
“It is about what that person’s story is and what that person needs. That might be a conviction and going to court; it might not be. It might simply be getting out of the house and getting to a safe place,” Howard said. “We want people to reach out and at least start the conversation, at least ask the question, get the information. It’s the best place to start and know that people are really wanting to help and there are people out there who have gone through this and have been really successful. We do know that it can make a difference.”
The community-based partnership has resulted in hundreds of positive outcomes for clients since it was launched 25 years ago, said Family Services of Greater Vancouver.
In one case, a woman who had been in repeated spousal assaults was reluctant to go to the police because drugs and gangs involved.
“The police knew of her. She was given information about us. She did eventually did reach out but she did not want anything to do with the police,” Howard said. “Our staff person spent a lot of time getting to know her, met her at a coffee shop, talked about all the issues going on in her life, and what were the disadvantages and advantages. Finally, she had the courage to meet with the police.”
After some “very, very low key meetings” with plain-clothes police officers in a coffee shop, the woman decided to press charges and testify.
In another case, a woman with two young children fled a dangerous spousal situation.
“She basically took her kids and jumped into the car and left, but then she knew she couldn’t really land anywhere because she would be tracked down by her partner,” Howard said. “For quite a few days, maybe almost three weeks, she lived out of her car. She had a three-year-old and six- month-old.”
Howard said the woman did go to a safe home for awhile, but left when she feared her location was known. Working with the woman, Family Services staff was able to find a very secure safe house for the woman and her children.
In that case, Howard said the woman’s partner was charged, but he wasn’t convicted.
“But for her, what the success was that she was finally away from an abusive situation, she was safe, her kids were safe, and she actually had the confidence that she could move forward in life,” she said. “One of the interesting things about the program is that the mandate for the police and us is slightly different. For them, to get a charge and a conviction is success. For us, that would be great too. But ultimate success for us is that the child, the senior or the woman is safe, they feel safe and they are out of that situation in a permanent ways. Sometimes they don’t align, sometimes they do.”
A successful partnership
When the program began 25 year ago, it started with a victim service worker from Family Services and a detective from New Westminster Police Department. Four Family Services staff are now embedded in the program, including two with the domestic violence response team, one who specializes in elder abuse and another person who helps survivors of power-based crimes and violence in relationships.”
Confidentiality is key, Howard said.
“The confidentiality to the victim of the crime of the violence is so paramount for us. Even when the police are fully involved in the situation, we still hold that confidentiality of the victim absolutely at the highest level,” she said. “I really do believe that that has helped so many people to be able to have the trust to come forward and share their story and deal with the situation.”
People are referred to Family Services through the police or the ministry of children and family development.
“It is voluntary. They don’t have to participate,” Howard said. “And sometimes it takes a long time to gain people’s trust, to get to the point where they can tell their story. But that’s typically how they would become connected to us.”
According to Family Services of Greater Vancouver, each year, 20,000 women in B.C. experience relationship violence. In 2018, almost eight in ten victims of police-reported intimate partner violence were female.
Statistics provided by Family Services indicate the rate of self-reported sexual assault among Indigenous women is almost three times as high as the rate among non-Indigenous women. Statistics also show that people with disabilities, especially women with mental disabilities, are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted.
“Survivors of elder abuse, sex assaults, and high-risk domestic violence can have confidence knowing when they reach out to the New Westminster Police Department, they will be receiving specialized support,” said Chief Const. Dave Jansen of the New Westminster Police Department. “Our partnership with Family Services of Greater Vancouver has made a big difference for victims of crime in this city.”
Howard said the program has resulted in many successes through the years.
“We have some really wonderful stories from people who have said this really changed their lives. And often it’s women with children. That becomes such a huge issue for many of these women. They have to make very tough choices between their children and themselves, their safety,” she said. “They have to know they don’t have to choose one or the other. They deserve a safe life, and that means that they and their children deserve a safe life.”
Strength and resilience
Howard said she’s amazed by the resilience and strength of women involved in these situations.
“I hear people say ‘if that ever happened to me, I would be out of there in a second.’ You know what? I have learned you can’t say that until you know,” she said. “I’ve seen many women who I think are so phenomenal in what they have endured.”
Howard said women have endured situations for many different reasons.
“So many women who put themselves last in front of children, in front of family situations, in front of finances,” she said. “It really is an Issue about women and how they see themselves. I think that’s why with the International Day, the UN is basically saying ‘this is so important because it really is a human rights issue and we need to get way more deeper awareness and create opportunities to talk about this in an open, transparent way.”
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is celebrated each year on Nov. 25. It launches 16 days of activism that ends on Dec. 10.
While society is well aware of domestic violence, as it’s something they’ve heard about through high-profile cases or seen on TV, Howard isn’t sure people really understand the depth of the issue.
“I don’t know if people really truly understand how the repercussions of domestic violence can have tentacles into everything. Certainly if there are children in the mix it just becomes a whole other issue. There are issues around culture, age and gender. I don’t know if people are aware of how many seniors are subject to physical and sexual abuse?” she said. “It really needs a lot more attention in terms of how as a society we have to be very sensitive to what people might go through and how we might see people responding in our community, not knowing they may be in a domestic violence situation.”
If someone is in immediate danger, they should call 911. The government operates VictimLinkBC, a toll-free, confidential, multilingual telephone service available across BC and the Yukon 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week at 1-800-563-0808.