Nowhere to go: Rural victims of domestic violence can struggle to find resources

Published on: September 16, 2017 | Last Updated: September 16, 2017 9:14 AM EDT
PEMBROKE, Ont. — Since 2003, a panel called the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee has studied every family homicide in Ontario for clues that might prevent future deaths.
Eventually, when all legal proceedings are complete, the committee will be able to turn its attention to the slayings of three women in Renfrew County on a single day in 2015.
Sure to be a key subject in its examination is the urban-rural divide so often cited in the wake of the deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam. One study found that domestic violence, from threatening to assault to murder, was as much as four times higher in rural parts of Canada.
One big reason can be that it’s harder for couples to separate in a rural community.
“The things that are great about being in a rural community are also things that make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence,” says Peter Jaffe, an authority on family violence and a member of the death review committee.
He continues: “Being strongly connected to everyone in the community, having a strong sense of community where everybody knows everybody else’s business and is intimately involved, whether it’s school, church, working together — those things are terrific when things are going well. They also make it more difficult to reach out for help.”
Family violence problems are acute in Canada’s most isolated communities, where access to police, to a shelter, is only by air. But the same problems exist in rural Ontario, Jaffe says.
“If you are living an hour, two hours from Ottawa or Toronto, it looks like there’s an urban centre nearby, but you might as well be 10,000 miles away because of the difficulty in accessing services.”
And changes in perception can come slowly. For one Upper Ottawa Valley crisis worker, there has been little noticeable difference in opinions about violence against women since the triple homicides.
“This is a very conservative county, both politically and ideologically,” says Bev Ritza of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County.
“You’re dealing with attitudes, not just law,” she continues. “If a woman is assaulted and/or raped, somehow there’s a prevailing attitude that something happened or she is somehow complicit.”
Rural and remote communities are one focus of an ambitious five-year project called the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative and co-directed by Jaffe and Myrna Dawson of the University of Guelph. The study has also identified Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees and children exposed to domestic violence as particularly vulnerable populations, based on U.S. and Canadian research.
Working with seven universities and dozens of government agencies and other bodies across Canada, the project has surveyed more than 1,300 professionals — social workers, doctors and others — on their tools and strategies for safety and risk management.
In rural areas, the goal is to learn what works in places with limited resources.
“Clearly people who work in rural communities understand what’s unique about rural communities and they’re trying to find innovative ways to reach out and help,” Jaffe says.
The study team is posting reports on its website and plans webinars, plus a major conference in October. It’s also been developing a database of domestic homicides since 2010 to aid researchers.
A coming phase will involve interviews with relatives of homicide victims and survivors of murder attempts.
The hope, says Jaffe, is “to understand more directly from the voices of victims” what happened and how future violence can be prevented.