Battered Shelters by Donna Laframboise

© Southam Inc., National Post, Canada, November 14, 1998

Used with permission of the author

This site is supported and maintained by the Equal Justice Foundation.


 

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Criminal charges, mismanagement, infighting and sexual politics have left many women's shelters as bruised as the people they serve.


 

Last week, following an investigation by Ontario's Alcohol and Gaming Commission, Barrie police charged Anne Marie Aikins, the former executive director of the Barrie and District Rape Crisis Line, with criminal breach of trust, fraud over $5,000, and theft over $5,000. Four members of the crisis line's board of directors as well as the organization's office administrator face identical charges.

Police allege the crisis line, which provided counselling at a centre in the city, misappropriated funds when it used charity bingo money to pay for Aikins' legal defence in an earlier criminal matter.

In February of this year, Aikins was convicted of fraud over $1,000 after a three-week trial. A jury heard that she used the crisis line's credit card to pay for approximately $14,000 in personal items such as clothing, furniture, airline tickets, exercise equipment, and restaurant meals.

Following her conviction, Aikins, as well as the crisis line's board of directors, continued to insist she had done nothing wrong. They say she reimbursed the organization and only used the credit card because she wasn't able to qualify for a personal one after the breakdown of her marriage.

But at the trial, the Crown said reimbursements to the centre totalled less than $1,000. And Justice Peter Howden later noted that the existence of the credit card "became a little secret, completely unrecorded in the minutes of the organization, known to some but not all of the board."

In July, the Ontario government withdrew more than $400,000 in annual funding from the crisis line, forcing its closure a month ago.

The events in Barrie are not isolated. They are part of a long history of financial disarray, weak accountability, criminal charges, lawsuits, mass resignations, and vicious infighting that have plagued crisis centres and battered women's shelters across the country [Canada].

Underlying all of it is the political context in which these services operate. They are supposed to be safe harbours in the storm. And the fact that they are run by feminists is supposed to mean that victimized women receive top priority.

But a growing chorus of critics say the highly politicized character of many facilities means that the clients' needs take second place to the agenda of the people in charge. In some cases, the critics say, these services are being run by zealots concerned with dogma who are overtly hostile to men, male children, and heterosexual relationships.

"I can't say what it's like now; I've kept my distance," says Madelyn Iler, a former shelter worker in Kingston, Ontario. "But in my experience, there was a very militant political agenda that came first. The interests of the client were way down there."

In 1991, when the author June Callwood resigned from Nellie's, the Toronto women's hostel and shelter she founded in 1974, the nation caught glimpses of the noxious political squabbles that almost destroyed that facility. Differences of opinion deteriorated into allegations of racism and homophobia, funds that should have been used to help unfortunate women were consumed by mediators, and many longtime supporters withdrew in disgust.

In 1993, a victim of an attempted abduction complained to the media that staffers at the Hamilton rape crisis centre were anti-police and anti-male. "They strongly discourage trust and respect in the police and there is no desire to help a woman continue dealing with men, not even her partner," said the woman, who questioned the propriety of counsellors expressing "such strong opinions" to vulnerable people.

After other women came forward with similar concerns, an independent review was conducted that identified a litany of problems at the centre. According to the report, the centre had a reputation among other community organizations for being "defensive, insular and 'on the fringe.'"

During the review, four members of the centre's board resigned. They claimed staff did not believe in accountability and were refusing to answer questions or take direction from the board.

A half-hour drive away, the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre was also in turmoil. During a closed-door meeting in May 1993, the old board was replaced by a new slate of 12 people who changed the locks and dismissed the executive director. The province threatened to cut off funding if stability wasn't restored, and the fired executive director filed a lawsuit.

And the list of troubled centres kept growing. In Calgary, the board of the sexual assault centre laid off the staff, closed down the agency, and resigned in 1993. The centre went into receivership, was investigated by city auditors, had its insurance cancelled, and was closed for 16 months. Among the outstanding controversies were allegations of breaches of client confidentiality, lawsuits filed by three former employees, and the improper use of funds earmarked for other purposes.

In 1994, the women's shelter in Kingston, Ontario, was in an uproar. After three damning reviews in as many years, the Ontario government withdrew $180,000 in annual funding designated for counselling and employment programs, and put the shelter on notice that another $314,000 for general services was in jeopardy if changes were not made.

A letter signed by ten shelter staffers, including Madelyn Iler, alleged that "the workplace [was] used to further extreme militant feminist philosophy" and that lesbian employees received preferential treatment while heterosexual ones were told not to "discuss their wedding plans or their wedding days with their co-workers."

Also in 1994, the atmosphere at Nelson House, a Nepean, Ontario, battered women's shelter, became so acrimonious that police were called in after a staffer tried to prevent the chair of the board from entering the building. Residents witnessed some pushing and shoving.

An independent consultant reported "numerous incidents of yelling, put-downs [and] disrespect for differences of viewpoints" among staffers. A second report noted that while the primary purpose of such a facility should be to help victimized women, Nelson's mission statement "begins and ends with an emphasis on striving to fulfill the needs of staff and protecting the 'personal power' of staff."

By late 1996, two factions at Nelson House were asking a judge to decide who was in charge, and for a time it was shut down.

Meanwhile, Ottawa's Interval House shelter was also in trouble. A 1994 report concluded that that facility was so dysfunctional it should be closed down. In 1995, police were called after a staffer accused a director of assaulting her. One woman was charged with assault while a stalking charge was laid against another. In June 1995, the board resigned. The following January, the entire staff was fired.

In Toronto, Shirley Samaroo House — meant to help immigrant women — collapsed in 1994. Resignations, mediators, and concern from provincial funders were elements there too, as racial squabbles, intolerance, and extremism tore the shelter apart.

In April 1996, the province of Nova Scotia yanked funding and temporarily shut down Yarmouth's Juniper House shelter after its board resigned — citing tension between staffers and the board. Ruth Ann Deveau, the former executive director, had been convicted of fraud under $1,000, after her successor found funds were unaccounted for.

At Kingston's Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, 15 volunteers quit in protest in 1996. One concern was the fact that the directors had decided to stop using a local auctioneer for charity events. The reason, in the words of one board member: "She is married to a Tory and the ramifications of that are unavoidable." The centre also began to decline free food from a local Domino's Pizza, because the American founder and then-owner of the chain is a pro-life supporter.

Five days after a summer student revealed these board decisions to the media, she was fired from her job and told she would not be welcome as a volunteer.

The havoc at two shelters in Edmonton, both run by the Women in Need organization, stretches back to the beginning of the decade. In 1992, one faction sought a court injunction over the results of a board election. Amid allegations of voting irregularities, eight board members resigned. A month later, the provincial auditor was called in to investigate. Between 1993 and 1995, the organization had three different executive directors.

Earlier this year, during a bitter labour dispute, a representative of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (to which staff now belong) alleged that "53 employees over the past three years have resigned or been dismissed" out of a "permanent complement of 28." The union has characterized management as "oppressive and controlling," while workers have told the media that shelter clients are leaving the facility because services aren't available.

While accountability is a buzzword in the women's movement where male behavior is concerned, report after report has stressed that accountability is sorely lacking in feminist-run social services. Tens of millions of public and charitable dollars are handed over every year to organizations with long records of financial and managerial scandal. Rather than attracting people who can put aside differences and comfort the afflicted, these organizations have become magnets for militants who seem instead to view such services as an opportunity to proselytize.

Barbara MacQuarrie, president of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, says that a client using these services will be urged to:

"...put her experience as an individual into a larger socioeconomic political context where women experience violence systematically. We try to tell somebody, this isn't just about you. This is about the way women are treated, and we have a whole bunch of institutions and systems that reinforce that kind of treatment."

But Jeannette McEachern, who ran the Calgary Distress Centre for 17 years and who stepped into the breach when that city's rape crisis centre closed temporarily, believes it's inappropriate to mix politics and counselling.

"What tends to happen is that they politicize clients that are really supposed to be into healing," she says. "I have no problem with political action, but I think it should be done by other people not working with clients."

McEachern read the rape crisis centre's volunteer manual in the early '90s and found that "three-quarters of it was [devoted to] strong feminist philosophy."

Pauline Green is a lawyer who helped set up Toronto's rape crisis centre in the early '70s, and says, "Every feminist organization that I've been involved in, there's been a lot of infighting." Green has resigned more than once because the male-bashing got too blatant and the attacks from colleagues too personal. "I'm sure women who go for help get this philosophy: that you have to hate men or you're lost."

As a Toronto social worker in the '70s, Raymond Selbie worked closely with a women's hostel. Today, two decades after he began practicing law in Haliburton, Ontario, Selbie says things are different.

"There's been a drastic change in the mentality that's controlling shelters. Now what I see with [the local shelter], and what I hear from other lawyers, is they don't even want you in there to help a client. They won't let you physically in the shelter. Even if I get signed releases from my client, they simply will not talk to me."

Yet despite all this strife and disgrace, the people now operating shelters and crisis centres don't admit their vision might be flawed. In the words of Vilma Rossi, executive director of the Hamilton sexual assault centre, separating feminism from sex assault counselling is like "separating Catholicism from a church service." She believes "it's the feminist philosophy that makes the service a good one."

Alberta shelter spokesperson Arlene Chapman blames the difficulties feminist social services have encountered in recent years on government indifference and poor wages: "There's not a lot of support for women's services in the province of Alberta, and women's work is terribly undervalued." Chapman says this "creates some morale problems in the agencies."

Nor does MacQuarrie accept that mistakes have been made. Her organization has been known to demand that government officials step aside until allegations of sexual harassment against them have been resolved. But the fraud charges laid in 1992 against Anne Marie Aikins, the Barrie crisis line's executive director, did not stop her from serving two terms, from 1992-1996, as the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centre's president.

"Bodies make their own decisions," MacQuarrie told the National Post. "And it doesn't really matter, most times, what external people think about that." In her view, the charges against Aikins were "politically motivated."

"I think she has been targeted as a high-profile feminist. I think she was seen as a woman who has a certain amount of power and influence, and given her strong feminist perspective I think that was not appreciated by elements of the male-dominated establishment."

MacQuarrie believes Aikins is innocent and that she was convicted of fraud because she lives in a small town. "I don't know if you know Barrie. I don't know if you know what Barrie thinks of rape crisis centres," says MacQuarrie. "People in Barrie don't like feminists, or the jury didn't like feminists."


 

Shelter stories

Battered women's shelters are supposed to be caring, and supportive facilities. But women who seek refuge in them often tell a different story. Those below all requested anonymity. Some fear personal or professional reprisals, others wish to protect their own privacy and that of their children.

Winnipeg

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In May 1996, Shirley knocked on the door of a Winnipeg battered women's shelter with her two teenage daughters. The then 34-year-old aboriginal woman says she turned to the facility not because her common-law husband had been violent, but because they'd had a fight, it was late, and she had nowhere else to go. "He didn't beat me up or nothing, we just had an argument," she says. "It was just a time out. I needed a place for my kids to stay and sleep and eat."

Because the shelter serves battered women, it would have been understandable if Shirley had been re-directed to a hostel. Instead, she says, the workers who took her in ignored her actual situation and pressured her to conform to their stereotypes.

"They asked me if I was abused, and I said, 'No.' They wanted me to get a lawyer, and I said, 'For what?'"

Shirley says shelter employees tried to "trick" her into making incriminating statements about her husband. "Everything negative about him, they wrote it down. If I said something nice about him, they wouldn't write it down. I kept telling them, 'No, he didn't hit me.'"

She says she was offered incentives such as housing and furniture to leave her husband. "They said, 'If you leave him, we can help you find a place right away.' But I said, 'I don't want to leave him.'"

Two years later, Shirley is adamant she wouldn't turn to a shelter again. "For me to leave my common-law, they wanted that so bad. They were trying to break up a family, and I didn't want that."

Halifax

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In fear of her violent ex-husband, Judy stayed in a Halifax shelter six years ago before fleeing the province. She describes it as "an experience from hell. I couldn't wait to get out of there." The workers in the shelter, she says, attempted to browbeat residents whose views differed from theirs.

"Many of these women had come from situations where there was inappropriate control of them by somebody else in the household. And what I saw was that they were now being controlled by a feminist ideology. [The message was:] 'You believe what we believe, you do what we say, or get out of here.'"

Brantford

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Laura received counselling at a Southern Ontario shelter in 1989. "The counsellor I had was convinced I had suffered some kind of sexual abuse as a child," she says. She was told that she had repressed the memories and that she would heal if she could remember the identity of her abuser.

"That was a really dark year. If I had kept with her I don't know what would have happened. This woman was bound and bent that she was going to convince me I'd been abused. It was a dangerous, dangerous thing to do."

Toronto

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Lisa, an unemployed social worker, sought refuge at a Toronto shelter earlier this year [1998]. "It was awful," she says. "I lasted two days. I will never do it again." She says she needed assistance putting her life back together, but that shelter staff wasn't much help.

"If you wanted to talk, you had to stand in line and buttonhole them. Staff stayed in the office and residents stayed in the living area. If this is supportive housing, they've got a lot to learn about the word 'support.'"

Winnipeg

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Samantha says the RCMP had to break down the front door to pull her abusive husband off her so often that "it got to the point where you couldn't even close the door any more." But after fleeing to a Winnipeg shelter in 1994, Samantha says she returned to her abusive husband rather than remain at the facility. "My experience was it was a horrible place. It's such a cold atmosphere in there; you're treated like cattle."

She says shelter staff were unhelpful, inattentive, and inexperienced. "They don't assist you at all. Once they allow you into the shelter, as far as they're concerned, they've done their job."

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