‘Safer men’: programs make abusers take on the system rather than victims

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

CityNews and OMNI News have launched a new investigative series “Behind Closed Doors” detailing the epidemic of family violence plaguing our communities. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please visit our dedicated resource page.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.

Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.

Statistics Canada has reported that on average a woman is killed by her partner every six days in Canada while many more are surviving abuse and living in fear. For those who flee, they are often doing so at great mortal risk. 

To watch this story in Punjabi, click here.

In order to address violence against women and girls, experts say it’s important to start with men, and get to the root causes.

Victims are often asked: Why didn’t you leave? The same question is rarely posed to those causing the abuse.

One man who says he was once abusive towards his family agreed to speak with CityNews and OMNI News to uncover why it’s often women who are forced to flee these circumstances and get help, rather than the abusers.

Jimmy is a recovering alcoholic, who turned to his addiction as work waned. It left him without a job, with multiple health problems and in debt.

“For almost a month, there wasn’t a second when there wasn’t alcohol in my blood. So I would have a drink, feel sleepy, then go to bed. When I’d wake up, I’d drink some more.”

He lived in his home with his wife, kids and parents, who watched his addiction escalate. Jimmy says the torment and abuse he subjected them to eventually led to multiple police visits

“There were a lot of conflicts. Every day there were fights in the house – yelling at each other, verbally abusing and swearing. Because at the time, all I wanted was alcohol, nothing else,” said Jimmy.

Jimmy says things escalated when his driver’s license was cancelled and his health issues sent him to hospital. He says there was a fight at home and his family called 9-1-1. Jimmy said he was charged, but the charges were eventually dropped.

He says things never got physical but threats were uttered at home with family.

Jimmy eventually sought help and has since been sober for eight years, but he says his relationships with his family were irreparably damaged by his actions.

“My kids were impacted badly. My relationship isn’t what it should be with them anymore. And I earned the label of being a bad father,” said Jimmy. “Even my relationship with my wife was impacted a lot. I don’t have the rapport with my parents that I used to have. Everything changes.”

To this day, he still feels the guilt and shame.

“When I wasn’t drinking, I’d feel like what I was doing was wrong. Sometimes, I’d remember the harsh verbal abuse, or the arguments, or what my kids, or my parents, or my wife said. I’d remember all that, and I’d feel guilty thinking this was a bad thing and I should let go of it,” said Jimmy.

There are programs across Canada that help abusers break the cycle through education and counselling to realize how harmful their actions are.

A prominent program is Ontario’s Partner Assault Response program (PAR) which is part of the court system. However, the majority of clients are mandated by court order to participate in the 12-week program, not ones who have sought out help voluntarily.

Executive Director of London’s Changing Ways, Tim Kelly, says this is why early intervention is key.

“It’s a pretty rare person, let alone a man, who looks in the mirror and says ‘I better get me into a program. I might hurt somebody.’ Generally, there’s been some sort of event that’s created a crisis for them.”

Changing Ways runs one of the few programs in Ontario where men can access voluntary services or through self-referrals without court intervention. Part of this work also involves staff providing outreach support to the victims of the men enrolled in the programs, who may continue to be at high risk because they’re still living together.

Kelly says about a quarter of their clients are seeking help themselves with the rest required to be there, a stat he would like to see reversed.

“Men who haven’t reached the threshold, who haven’t (been charged with) criminal offences, looking to seek support,” said Kelly. “I’d like to grab them sooner in that process, so having flexible and enough funding to do that piece of work would be really important.”

He said with additional funding, he would like to be able to do an aggressive public education outreach which would provide the message, “For men to do this, it’s not only illegal, it’s wrong and this is where we can help you with this.”

“When you have the guy in the system, [we can] do some work with him so that we can provide at least an opportunity to create safety for him and his family,” added Kelly.

Kelly says 12 weeks isn’t long enough for fundamental change. The program at Changing Ways was initially a 26 week program, and through a variety of different governments, there have been cutbacks to funding.

The Ontario government currently provides $10.6 million a year towards the PAR program and said they provided an additional $1.424M in emergency funding during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow agencies to switch to virtual sessions.

On average, there are 12,000 domestic violence offenders who are court-mandated or referred to the program each year.

Kelly said the evidence suggests these programs do help stop abuse from happening in the home.

“Do they become sensitive, new-age men? Absolutely not. Can they become safer men to be around their families? Yes, we have evidence that can happen.”

Kelly said they look at a number of different pathways to safer behaviour during the program. “We’ve looked at a number of different pathways to much safer behavior. We identify where their risk to offend and then concentrate on strategies to reduce those risk factors that would mitigate them becoming abusive again.”

He says where they differ from a program that offers help to those with addictions or anger management issues is the context of what they are talking about is their attitudes towards women and their behaviours and how it gets worked out in that intimate relationship with a woman.

“The core foundation of the work is understanding and identifying where misogyny, sexism and patriarchy layer in on this.”

Kelly said they also look at “broad cultural and social context in which men are given permission to behave in a particular kind of way, and the power structures that are both supported culturally and internally to behave in a particular way.”

A gap in the system remains, Kelly says, when a third-party reports concerns to police or the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). He said when nothing comes of the report, this is a missed opportunity for intervention.

Changing Ways has developed a program with CAS aimed at fathers who have abused or neglected their children, exposed them to abuse of their mothers, or are at high-risk for these behaviours. The program, called Caring Dads, has been replicated nation-wide and internationally.

“There’s a need for supports for men to be safer, to really begin to look at and understand contracts to masculinity, what that looks like, challenge that,” said Kelly.

He is also pushing for the development of a crisis line for family members who become violent so trained professionals can do a risk assessment.

Kelly added he would like to see the government and other social services focus the lens on the person causing the harm rather than the survivor.

“Right now, most of the lens is focused on the survivor, rightfully so we need those resources,” said Kelly. “But at the end of the day, if we aren’t able to grab him and work with him to become safer … he’s just going to go on to a new relationship.”

Jimmy said he didn’t seek help for his alcoholism that led to his abuse until his drinking sent him to hospital with pancreatic issues.

“That pain in my pancreas was beyond bearable – that’s when I realized I’d have to stop drinking or I’d die,” said Jimmy “I knew I had to live, I had a lot of responsibilities left, I needed to look after my family. That thought entered my mind when I was lying in a hospital bed, that after today, I can’t drink again.”

He said he utilized counselling, psycho-education classes and meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

“When you look for help, only then do the doors of help open to you. But if you’re in denial, then even help can’t get to you,” said Jimmy.

A system’s domino effect 

There was a point during his alcohol addiction, where Jimmy lost his job. His financial situation was dire, he could no longer afford to pay bills or buy groceries, but always managed to borrow enough money to fuel his drinking.

“I was beginning to feel like one day, I’d lose everything. It would all need to be sold, that we’d be living on the streets, I’d have nothing,” said Jimmy. “That’s when it started – the thought of what can I do? That fear – it was trying to deal with that fear that I started drinking in the evenings. Then slowly I started drinking earlier and earlier.”

About a year and a half ago, Kelly conducted a study that focused 105 men who had been through the court programs in Ontario, looking at the impact it had on their employment in the workplace.

He says, the system’s zero tolerance policies for intimate partner violence usually leads to the abuser losing his job. But Kelly says that has a domino effect on the family, potentially creating escalating risk factors.

He provides an example of a man, who was the superintendent of an apartment building, and part of his salary covered the rent for the unit he and his family lived in. He was arrested and had a non-association order, so he couldn’t return to work. That led to him losing his job, and his family getting kicked out of their home and became homeless.

“When we look at that, we think that’s not what we intended with our interventions,” he said. “Those challenges are there for us, and i think we need to have a lot more honest conversations about what we’re doing.”

With files from Mahnoor Yawar and Loveen Gill

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