“There’s too many people that I’ve known that are no longer walking this earth, so I think we need to carry their voice.”
That is why Debbie Scarborough, executive director of the South Okanagan Women In Need Society, says she got into her line of work. And it’s something to think about heading into the Walk to End Abuse, formerly called Walk a Mile In Her Shoes, happening in Penticton on June 3 along Okanagan Lake.
According to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada, intimate partner violence ended fatally for 2.4 victims out of one million Canadians. Totalled up, that’s 84 victims of intimate partner homicide in 2016, a number that disproportionately affects women, who made up 79 per cent of all intimate partner homicides that year.
It’s a rate of one victim every four days and eight hours in Canada, a rate that has held fairly steady for about a decade.
While those numbers may be difficult to put into human terms, one doesn’t have to look too far to see the impacts.
It was only six days before Christmas last year, when Jacob Daniel Forman was charged for an alleged triple homicide in Kelowna. Two days earlier, his wife of 12 years, Clara, and their two young daughters, Karina and Yesenia, are believed to have died in the family home.
Charges laid against the patriarch have not been proven in court. But the shock that rippled throughout the community was felt far and wide.
Lindsay Bysterveld, counselling services co-ordinator for SOWINS, said she and her counselling staff often have to contend with relationships that, to the victim, are often portrayed as normal.
Abusers, often coming with narcissistic personality traits, often have an innate ability to charm and manipulate, Bysterveld said.
“They break them down. Break down self-esteem, break down self-worth, and put them in a situation where they believe that they’re not good enough,” Bysterveld said.
“The abuser will say to them ‘you’re never going to get anybody else; no one else would ever want to be with you; who’s going to want you now?'”
And part of the issue, Scarborough said, is the perpetuation along family lines, as children normalize the behaviour they see in abusive parents.
That psychological abuse often comes with other tactics, like isolating victims from family and friends or financial abuse — controlling the couple’s money so the victim can’t escape.
“They take away all their support systems, and then leave the victim with no one else,” said Scarborough.
Safety, too, is an issue when it comes to victims, most often women, leaving abusive relationships.
When Bysterveld meets a client, the first stage is often planning, including safety, such as partnering with others in the community, like police or victim services. It also typically starts with a risk assessment, where the client rates themselves on how safe they feel.
“Without even realizing what they’re telling me, many will give me information that shows to me — and this is a really important word — that they have been desensitized to the abuse,” Bysterveld said, noting that because she is not emotionally invested in the relationship, she can view the risk more objectively.
Women will often rate themselves as fairly safe, but a risk assessment could place them among the highest risk levels.
When children are involved, Scarborough said they can become a tool to keep the victim in the relationship. She pointed to one particularly disturbing example of a woman who was shot with a shotgun.
After working to build a relationship with that woman, Scarborough said she was able to hear her story, despite her telling authorities she had shot herself.
“At dinner time, the four children sitting around the table, she’s sitting there, and he brings out the shotgun and puts it against her head, and says to the kids ‘what do you think, kids? Should I shoot mommy?'”
Even after all of that, and with planning to get the children out of the house, Scarborough said the woman went back to that relationship, fearing reprisal for the children if she escaped.
Another woman who stayed in the transition house with her children received messages from the abuser, threatening to kill the family pets if she didn’t return. He ultimately killed all three dogs, which Scarborough said worked in two ways.
“Number one, showing that ‘I’m not kidding.’ Number two, the children turned against her, and said ‘because of you, all our dogs are gone. Because of you, we have no pets. Dad had to kill them.’ Because it isn’t safe to be angry at the abuser, because they fear the abuser.”
But it does appear there has been some level of progress on the most drastic of intimate partner violence. That number of intimate partner homicides from the past near-decade — two to three victims per one million — is a drop from nearly four victims per one million Canadians for most of the decade prior.
“Our hope is to actually just not constantly be reacting and Band-Aid’ing the situation. We want to be proactive; we want to be preventing abuse before it happens,” Scarborough said, adding that includes providing role models that are not abusive but supportive.
“So, stopping the generational and historical abuse, working with those children. Working with children to say ‘this isn’t normal.'”
SOWINS is aiming to reach their goal of raising $50,000 this year to go towards supporting existing and new programs that reach some of the most vulnerable women and children in our town. The need is great and SOWINS has provided area women and children with a total of more than 4,000 nights of safe sleeping accommodations to date for this year alone. To register for the fundraiser or to donate visit https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/south-okanagan-women-in-need-society/p2p/walk/ or call SOWINS at 250-493-4366.