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N.S. Domestic Violence Court addresses issue of trauma with new project

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 @ 9:21 AM | By Donalee Moulton

On the surface, Nova Scotia’s Domestic Violence Court serves women in one of two ways, as the victim of abuse or as someone who has pleaded guilty to a related criminal offence. The two groups, however, are united by one reality: trauma. Now a new project launched July 8 is under way to make the court more trauma informed and better able to assist all the women that come before it.

“This [project] will address the intersection between victimization and criminalization,” Darlene MacEachern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Cape Breton in Sydney, told The Lawyer’s Daily in an interview.

Darlene MacEachern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Cape Breton

The society and the Cape Breton Transition House Association are overseeing the $71,000 project, funded under the Nova Scotia government’s Standing Together Domestic Violence Grants initiative. At present, a researcher is investigating how to effectively integrate trauma-informed practice into the court’s programs. The goal, said MacEachern, is to enable women “to flow seamlessly from addressing court issues to addressing trauma issues.”

The idea for the program was borne out of frustration, noted Helen Morrison, executive director of the Cape Breton Transition House Association in Sydney. “The frustration came from seeing women go through the court system and how little of a voice they have.  ... The belief is if you fix the men, you fix the problem. It’s just not that simple.”

Understanding the impact of trauma is important for both the court system and the women themselves. That is especially true for those who have been charged with a crime and are appearing before the court, Morrison said. “Many women feel they can’t be criminalized and identify as a victim.”

The issue is not an inconsequential one, she added. “We were all surprised with how many more women were being charged.”

That number has been steadily increasing, noted MacEachern. Now more than 30 women a year go through the province’s Domestic Violence Court in Cape Breton. According to the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, the court, which opened in 2012, handles about 300 cases a year. The court (and its counterpart in Halifax) offer earlier intervention through programs for individuals who commit abuse to help them change their behaviour and prevent future violence.

As a condition of appearing in Domestic Violence Court, however, offenders must plead guilty.

A guilty plea comes with considerable implications for women, including potential issues with child welfare, Morrison said. “Once you’re given that designation, you’re in a completely different situation.”

MacEachern pointed out that the perception of women also changes when they have been charged with a crime, even property crimes committed during a domestic violence incident. “Women involved in the criminal justice system are really looked at in a completely different light. It doesn’t matter how they got there.”

The new program, Integrating Trauma Recovery: Improving Domestic Violence Court Interventions, will help women to understand that they are not exclusively on one side of the courtroom or the other. Trauma puts them squarely in the both camps.

The trauma-recovery initiative, which will run until March 2022, will integrate specific interventions to support women with traumatic experiences, relationship dysfunction, mental health issues and criminality. As a result, the women will be better prepared to change aggressive reactions, begin the healing process and seek out victim support services, as needed. It is anticipated the two-year program, believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, will begin with a focus on the criminal side of the process then address domestic violence issues as the women move through the process.

It’s more holistic approach than the present system, MacEachern noted. Initiatives, she said, will be piloted with women and refined as needed.