Shelters for women and children leaving domestic, intimate partner violence are full and increasingly complex calls keep coming as Ontario's third stay-at-home order remains in effect.
Experts and front-line agencies are blaming the courts for failing to hold offenders accountable and protect survivors of family violence.
"The situation is past critical. Survivors and their children are more at risk now than ever, and the justice system is not responding to them in a way that we would hope," said Debbie Zweep, executive director of the Faye Peterson House, a temporary shelter and service provider for women and children in Thunder Bay, Ont.
People are waiting more than a year for a trial date, court matters like parental custody, child support and restraining orders have been harder to come by, and more offenders are "plea bargained out to avoid jail time," said Zweep.
The courts have made use of legal tools like plea bargaining, where a defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offence in exchange for more lenient sentences, and bail to reduce prison populations and lower risk of COVID-19 transmission.
But quickly releasing perpetrators of violence fails to hold them accountable for serious actions and undermines faith in the justice system, said Zweep.
The shelter's executive director points to a recent example in Thunder Bay where a man was charged with aggravated assault on his partner, but was released from custody on the condition he stay with his parents.
"Women will say to me, 'Well, why would I engage in the justice system. Might as well just stay home and get beat up because I'm not getting any justice,'" said Zweep.
Domestic homicide rates rise during pandemic
There have already been at least 17 "femicides" — killing of women and girls because they are female — in Ontario since the beginning of the year, according to the incoming director of Western University's Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, Katreena Scott.
The associate professor said domestic homicide rates have risen around the world with the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.
In response, governments have offered additional resources and community agencies supporting victims and perpetrators of the violence who are getting help.
But the inability to get matters before a judge and some of the decisions made once the case is in court have created high-risk situations for women and children, said Scott.
She is spending this week participating in the national Preventing Domestic Homicide Conference, which is online and is focused on lessons learned from a six-year research project on domestic homicide and violence.
As one of the conference organizers, said Scott, a major takeaway from their research is the need for more funding in early intervention services before the criminal justice system gets involved.
Another theme of the conference is communicating the need for more coordination between the justice system and service providers to fill in the existing gaps
"For example, if somebody was released and the victim doesn't get notified until many, many, many hours later, that's a solvable gap," said Scott.
Agencies form anti-violence task force
To fill those gaps, a number of organizations in Thunder Bay have formed a new violence against women task force.
Zweep, a co-chair of the co-ordinating committee, said the group came together because no planning was taking place before offenders are released from custody.
"I can't call a woman working with me and say, 'OK, so-and-so is released, what does your safety plan look like? Where are you going? Do you need to come into shelter? I can't even have that conversation because we haven't had any information given to us."
The task force is trying to co-ordinate agreements so services are in place to ensure the safety of victims, their children and the perpetrators who are released from custody.
"Our hope is that if we have someone whose trial has been delayed, let's say nine months, then can we not amend those conditions of release to include that he takes a Caring Dads program, or he comes to a partner assault response program where, again, that circle of support is around him," said Zweep.
Many have joined the committee, including the city's acting Crown lawyer. But Justice Joyce Elder, who's in the northwest region of the Ontario Court of Justice, declined the invitation, citing a need for an independent judiciary.
Zweep called Elder's decision "disappointing," saying she understands judges need to be neutral, but could benefit from learning more about how their decisions affect survivors of crime.
At stake, said Zweep, is quickly eroding trust and faith in the justice system.
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