Women's shelters under veil of secrecy 

Dave Brown The Ottawa Citizen


There's a trigger in us all when the subject of women's shelters comes up. It makes men uneasy and women defensive. That there's a need for them is abhorrent to all. 

Those triggers also protect shelters from normal scrutiny. Ottawa's new domestic court is taking men out of their homes at the rate of 120 a month. The zero-tolerance approach to domestic violence includes, for most men, a restraining order meaning they can't go home, or near their homes, until calm is restored.

One would think that this would be taking some of the pressure off shelters. But the shelter movement continues to plead for more money to protect more women from more abusers who are becoming more violent. These claims can be made with impunity, because of the secrecy that surrounds shelters. 

As a reporter and a skeptic, this offends my check-it-out impulse because I can't go near them. Even the suggestion of checking one out, or challenging the claims they make, pulls triggers. Particularly in women. 

To most women, there are some things that have to be taken on faith, and one  of them is that the number of men becoming violent against women is increasing. The facts prove it, and the facts are coming from shelters. Challenge them, and you can hear the trigger click. I heard the click in June when Senator Anne Cools challenged a shelter lobbyist appearing before the Special Joint Senate-Commons Committee on Child Custody and Access. Immediately, a female member of the committee jumped to the shelter worker's defence and tempers flared. Ms. Cools left the room. Ms. Cools, a founder of the shelter movement, is now an outspoken opponent of it.

To get the inside story, I had to find a volunteer. The one I found is a prominent Ottawa businessperson who doesn't want to be identified. We didn't tie up a bed. The idea was to check out the service being provided and get a look at the inside of a shelter.

She made her first call on a recent Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., to Nelson House. My agent was told, sorry, all shelter beds in the Ottawa area were filled. I listened as she pleaded. She said she didn't want to go home. She hadn't been abused, she was just afraid. She put on an impressive display of somebody in need of help. She was told to call back in an hour.

Her report to me after the call: "Not a very warm response. She didn't seem to care. She didn't ask questions. She just kept telling me I was out of luck. She seemed to want me to go away." In the next call, she was told to go to Interval House. She found the reception there cool. She asked for a tour of the house, saying it would make her more comfortable. The answer was no. She asked to use a bathroom, and in that way got a look at some of the ground floor. She described the building as huge. Including the woman on duty in the office, she saw five women. She didn't see or hear children. It was 9:45 p.m. The house was quiet. 

"I felt unwelcome. I was told I could stay overnight and arrangements would be made in the morning to get me a lawyer and a place to stay. I had been told women could stay up to 10 weeks, and when I asked why I had to move out so quickly, there was no answer. I was asked to sign an agreement saying I would never divulge the address, and I left. All of the women I saw were members of visible minorities."

I asked my agent why she had agreed to help me. She said it was her business sense. Things don't add up, and she feels that she, as a taxpayer and an honest person, should help uncover abuses of systems. Also, she has a brother who can't see his children because his wife went through the shelter system, and he was branded as abusive without a hearing. My reporter instincts tell me the explosion in male violence is a myth perpetrated by shelters. They need it to be believed to increase their funding. Our lawmakers have believed them, and things like the new domestic court are one result. Women who report abuse can no longer recant -- at least not without difficulty and time. Domestic squabbles are being mixed in with abuse, and the easiest, fastest and least expensive way for a couple to get back together is for the man to plead guilty. The violent-male statistics are exploding. 

One of the driving forces behind the formation of the new court was Carroll Holland, liaison co-ordinator for the Gay, Lesbian, Transsexual and Trans Gender Support Group of Ottawa-Carleton. When she heard I was nosing around domestic court she delivered a large package of male-bashing material, with a warning note. 

"The Citizen has been very negligent in its lack of coverage of this topic It would be irresponsible to address this topic now in anything less than a comprehensive fashion."

 Among her list of accomplishments, Ms. Holland is a special adviser to the police hate-crimes unit. If similar unsolicited material had been sent to a minority group, including hers, Ms. Holland would have told the posse to saddle up. 

Earlier this month I attended a meeting in the office of Crown Attorney Andrejs Berzins to outline some of the growing number of complaints reaching my desk, mainly from women who believe the new system is harmful. Being unable to speak to their partners meant they were unable to resolve disputes. There were six Partner Assault Support Team (PAST) members in Mr. Berzins' office. Among many items discussed was my agent's shelter experience. 

Police officers who answered domestic calls used to act as mediators and calming agents. Now most say their hands are tied and their safest move in the zero-tolerance atmosphere is to take the man in. Marriages are being torn apart. 

The day after my meeting with the PAST group, I called Lyallen Hayes, spokeswoman for Interval House, and told her the woman who dropped in Tuesday night was my agent. "I know," she said. "I was told yesterday." 

She said Interval House currently houses 22 people, nine women and 13 children. Most are long term. "They can stay 10 weeks, or longer if there are problems." She repeated that shelters are unable to keep up with the increasing flow of victims. 

No wonder, said my agent. Ten weeks isn't sheltering. That's storage. Shelters are publicly funded. I asked Ms. Hayes if there were ever any spot audits. Did bureaucratic bean-counters ever drop around to check out who, how many, why, and for how long? 

She said that was information I would have to get from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. I read that as a no. She also warned that my agent had signed an agreement of confidentiality. "That includes not speaking about anything that goes on in here." If found, she warned, my agent could be in trouble. 

If I'd been thinking faster, I would have asked for some blank copies of that confidentiality agreement. Mr. Berzins could use some in his office. 

Copyright 1998 Ottawa Citizen