Feature - Safe Haven
It’s a regular Tuesday afternoon at Kingston Interval House, Kingston’s safe shelter for abused women and their children. I am standing on a downtown street corner shouting uncertainly into the building’s intercom system, identifying myself, but unable to hear what, if anything, is being said back to me thanks to a large truck with its engine running just around the corner.
A woman comes to the door to let me in, verifies my identity and asks me to wait. As she leaves, the door locks firmly behind her and I am left in a small foyer between three secure doors and an overhead surveillance monitor. This level of security is both unnerving and reassuring. Unfortunately, it’s also necessary.
Michelle LaMarche, education and communications co-ordinator at Kingston Interval House (KIH) since 2006, comes to find me in the foyer. She leads me through a warren of small offices, where staff work in tight quarters. From here, all the administrative and financial work, fundraising, grant writing, human resources, volunteer co-ordination, community outreach and logistical operations take place.
LaMarche takes me through another locked door into the residential part of KIH, where the environment changes markedly from business to home. It is here that women and their children who are at risk of or are experiencing violence can seek temporary shelter. I am standing in front of a particularly beautiful brick interior wall when LaMarche casually mentions that all the glass in the place is bullet-proof. It is a moment of clarity, a searing reminder of the reality that the women and children — both residents and staff — at KIH face daily. The entire building is also under 24-hour video surveillance. Safety issues permeate everything.
Kingston Interval House officially opened its doors on December 1, 1975, making it one of the earliest safe shelters for abused women and their children in Canada. Since that time, it has changed location four times for a variety of reasons, including a growing demand for space. The shelter and its associated services have been in the present protected-but-not-secret location since 2004.
“The shelter and staffed crisis line are our primary focus, but our other services are also vitally important,” says LaMarche. “The shelter is nearly always at capacity. We operate 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Globally the rates of violence and abuse towards women are staggering. Data compiled by the United Nations states that up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime.
There is no nation, economic class, religion or ethnic group that is exempt. Some are more at risk, but both historically and geographically, the number of women affected by violence and abuse remains remarkably consistent and bears witness to the fact that there is neither a timeline nor a monopoly on misogyny.
Despite what we may want to believe, Canada is no exception. The Ontario Women’s Directorate says 51 per cent of Canadian women have experienced at least one incidence of physical/sexual violence since the age of 16. The Canadian Women’s Foundation says, “On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.” These stories go largely unreported in the news.
Add to all this Statistics Canada’s assertion that quantifying sexual assault continues to be a challenge since the majority (as many as 91 per cent) of these crimes are not reported to police. In other words, there are compelling reasons to believe that fewer than 10 per cent of all sexual assaults are reported.
Including health care, criminal justice, social services, and lost wages and productivity, the cost of violence against women in Canada has been calculated at $4.2 billion per year by the Canadian Women’s Foundation. And while economic costs are one thing, attempting to quantify the effects on victims is another thing entirely.
It is hard to know where to stop with these statistics. But in citing them, there is also the danger of perpetuating the culture of fear that in some ways might contribute to the problem in the first place. Violence against women is about power and control — instilling fear is a big part of this. There is no winning in this war on women. There is only education and the hope for change.
Inside Kingston Interval House
Places like Kingston Interval House deal with the reality behind the statistics every day. In addition to providing temporary shelter to women and their children, KIH offers second-stage transitional housing at Robin’s Hope, a longer-term supportive facility for women leaving the shelter. Services also include a community education and volunteer program, and outreach counselling services for women and children in the community.
There is an emergency fund, named in honour of Danielle Duchesneau, a young woman killed by her ex-boyfriend in Kingston. Danielle’s parents established the fund in their daughter’s memory to help women who are victims of violence with funds for court support, safety or legal assistance.
KIH can also help women at risk with personal safety planning, including providing a cell phone and house alarm program. All services except Robin’s Hope are provided free of charge. At Robin’s Hope, where residents may live for up to one year minus a day (a stipulation of the funding), rent is geared to income.
“The mandate for our services is to assist women and their children who have been abused or who are at risk of violence,” says LaMarche.
The shelter can accommodate up to 30 women and their children. There are three family suites, a number of other rooms and shared bathroom facilities. In a large communal living space with dining tables and a couple of sofas, a television is playing silently and a puzzle is started on a table. In a small resource room, a resident is working at a computer. The living area overlooks a small courtyard garden that is entirely surrounded by very tall fences — a bit like a fortress — and scattered with children’s toys that have found their way outside.
In the kitchen, Amy is cooking dinner. She joined KIH in 2002 on a six-month contract and has been here ever since. She’s half-time, sharing a full-time position with Pauline, with whom she alternates. Between the two of them and three relief staff, they cook two meals a day, 365 days a year. Residents are assigned clean-up and prep duties.
Amy tours me around the kitchen facilities: the massive storage cellar downstairs, the huge chest freezer, the grocery chute (an improvised and ingenious ramp where groceries are slid in boxes through an exterior window directly into the cellar below), an industrial gas stove, an expanse of counter space and a massive glass-fronted refrigerator. The kitchen is homey, with linoleum floors, formica counters, a chore list on the blackboard and a menu in the hallway. Tonight it’s tacos for dinner.
Residents help themselves to breakfast of cereal, bagels and toast. Lunch and dinner are prepared. “We have kid-friendly food on Fridays, brunch on the weekend and dessert on Sunday nights — gives us all something to look forward to,” says Amy. By her own admission she’s not the most adventurous cook. “I’m pretty basic when it comes to cooking and when I leave here, I go home and cook again for my family.” But it’s clear that she dishes up love in the form of home-style cooking and what she refers to as “supportive listening,” a form of kitchen psychiatry.
LaMarche introduces me to a few of the residents, careful not to use their names. It’s another reminder that, despite the handshaking and smiling, the children playing nearby, the art on the walls, the semblance of normality, in fact these women are vulnerable and at risk, some at grave risk. Unfortunately the lack of available space coupled with demand means that at many shelters across Canada there is a form of triage assessment, a hierarchy of risk calculation, that assesses who is more at risk of greater violence.
“It’s systemic. In some cases women are making a choice between living with the abuse of poverty or the abuse of violence.”
— Michelle LaMarche, Kingston Interval House
Robin’s Hope Transitional Housing
Since the opening of Robin’s Hope transitional housing in July 2010, the pressure has lifted slightly and KIH has to turn fewer women at risk of violence away. LaMarche and I head over to see Robin’s Hope, which was built to provide second-stage housing for women leaving the shelter. “It’s making a dent,” says LaMarche. “It’s made a difference in opening up spaces at Interval House.”
We stand in the front hall where there is a plaque that catches my eye. On it there is a photograph of a middle-aged woman holding a gorgeous, red-headed baby girl with a sweet little black and white polka dot bow in her hair. The woman in the photograph is Robin, for whom Robin’s Hope is named. The baby is her granddaughter. Robin had been a resident at Kingston Interval House. After leaving, she returned to her husband because of a lack of affordable housing. Three months later he murdered her.
The question of why women, or why anyone, would stay in abusive relationships is often raised. The answer is complicated. There are plenty of reasons, some of them obvious: poverty, a lack of options including safe places to go, fear, lack of knowledge; sometimes it might be substance abuse. “It’s systemic,” says LaMarche. “In some cases women are making a choice between living with the abuse of poverty or the abuse of violence.” In other cases the reason is more subtle. Many abuse victims still love their partners or abusers and they hold out hope that things will improve. Hope is that dual-edged sword — essential for survival and hard to extinguish, even when circumstances and logic might dictate otherwise.
Robin’s Hope is a staffed, 19-unit apartment complex. It offers the women who need it the chance to spend up to a year to find longer-term housing in the community.
The apartments are small but efficient and nicely equipped. A different designer has volunteered time and items to decorate each of the units. The one with the lush dark purple accents throughout is a favourite, but all have unique little touches. The units have a kitchen, living room and a bedroom or two. The one-bedroom units have a double bed with a twin bed perched above, bunk-style. Some of the apartments open onto each other so that larger spaces can be created.
In the communal space in the basement, there is a room where the women come to do crafts, share skills or bring food for family potlucks. They have been doing a scrapbooking course together. Participants each have a book commemorating the happy moments of their lives, moments that many had forgotten existed. The women also paint here. There are staff on site who were moved from KIH and are shared by both facilities.
At both KIH and Robin’s Hope, men are not normally allowed on the premises. Male relatives of residents at Robin’s Hope can visit only by application and prior approval. There are exceptions for approved trades-people and police officers, in which case the residents are advised. There are the male children of the women who live here. But otherwise, the staff, board of directors, adult residents and front-line volunteers are all female. “But,” says LaMarche, “let me be clear that we are not anti-men. Men are welcome and encouraged to participate in our education and preventative initiatives, and in non-front-line positions as volunteers. It’s an important part of our outreach and community education process to have men involved."
"If there's one message from all of this, it's that it is important to listen to your intuition. There are always signs, even early on. Minimizing and denying are the fuel that feeds both the abuser and the abused."
Community Outreach Counselling
One of the staff members based at Robin’s Hope is Lisa, a women’s community counsellor who is part of KIH’s outreach program. She joined the staff 12 years ago and spent 14 years prior to that working in children’s mental health. In her 26-year career she’s seen and heard a lot, but still she loves her job. “Every day I am privileged to see women changing their lives.”
Elizabeth is one of Lisa’s former clients and has agreed to tell her story, after deciding that silence is not a way forward. She and Lisa have recently wrapped up their counselling relationship.
I agreed to meet Elizabeth at her home and I arrive early one morning to find that one of her four children is ill and they have spent the night at the emergency room. I offer to come back another time but we decide to proceed.
Elizabeth is an educated and articulate professional. She and her ex-husband were married 11 years. He came from a different culture and has strong traditional opinions and values. He also had drug and alcohol issues. The abuse began insidiously, although in hindsight there were red flags. Elizabeth admits she was in denial and tried to minimize damage to protect her children. She wanted him to leave for three years before he eventually moved out in 2008. A month after he left, he came back and sexually assaulted her. At the time, Elizabeth did not want to press charges. She thought she could manage, that things might get better, and she did not want to exacerbate the situation.
During one of her ex-husband’s parental visits with the children in May 2009, Elizabeth became worried. “Something was very wrong — he was acting very bizarre and obsessive. I was worried that he was going to kill me and my children.” Elizabeth spoke to the police to make sure that if she called 911 they would respond right away. The officer who spoke to her said, “We don’t go on instincts.” But the officer questioned Elizabeth further and she disclosed the story of the previous sexual encounter. The officer told Elizabeth that she was going to charge her ex-husband with sexual assault. A warrant went out for his arrest.
“I shut down,” says Elizabeth. “My fear was that he would try to kill me. I felt that the police had taken any semblance of control away from me.”
Not knowing what to do, Elizabeth contacted her ex and told him the story, believing that if she told the truth and kept him informed they might still mange the situation. He insisted Elizabeth tell the police her story was an exaggeration. She complied. In the meantime, her ex-husband was charged with assaulting three armed police officers and uttering death threats. He was placed in a detention centre.
“I was not privy to any details of his arrest other than the fact that he had been charged with forcible confinement, sexual assault and the three charges against the officers,” she says. “I was told that he was considered a high risk for homicide. The day after the charges were laid, the real anxiety hit — my whole world had blown wide open.”
Elizabeth was still trying to do damage control with her ex and she spoke to him every day while he was in the detention centre. “I’m not a vindictive person,” she says. “I absolved him of child-support responsibility and asked him to be decent and not cause harm. That’s all I wanted.”
The victim witness protection staff suggested Elizabeth get counselling and she began seeing Lisa in 2009. “Lisa was supportive and non-judgemental,” Elizabeth says.
Lisa was by Elizabeth’s side throughout the entire process and was with her in the court room when the case went to trial in January 2011. She was instrumental in helping Elizabeth with security issues and getting restraining orders in place, as well as helping her to get back on her feet in other ways such as exploring art as means of therapy. Elizabeth, who never left her career during her long ordeal, recently remarried. Her art now graces the walls of her home, a reminder of the long journey she’s been on.
As I leave, she walks me to the door and says, “If there’s one message from all of this, it’s that it is important to listen to your intuition. There are always signs, even early on. Minimizing and denying are the fuel that feeds both the abuser and the abused.”
Like Elizabeth, Tracy is also willing to tell her story and believes silence solves nothing.
She asks me to meet her at her home because, as she says via email, “I may shed some (many) tears.” Tracy is young, energetic and friendly, the mother of two school-aged children. We sit in her dining room drinking coffee like old friends. Tracy says of her own childhood, “I came from a white-picket-fence family. I grew up knowing loyalty, love and security.”
When Tracy was 24 years old she married a man she loved. He came from an abusive background. “I was a saver,” says Tracy. She worked four jobs and felt proud of the responsibility she took on in her marriage. Her husband wasn’t as fortunate on the job front, so he worked less. Eventually they had a child, but given their shaky finances Tracy went back to work as soon as possible.
Meanwhile he started his own business and when Tracy no longer had time for it, he took over the running of the family finances. She started noticing a discrepancy between the things her husband told her and reality. He started to become meaner, threatening her, but Tracy knew that stress was playing a role. She tried to work things out.
Then in October 2005, a series of calamities occurred in Tracy’s life. Her father had a heart attack. The following month there was a tragic murder-suicide in her extended family. Two weeks after this, a newly pregnant Tracy woke up one morning to find her husband gone and her house on fire. She rescued her child and fled, ending up in hospital. In the following days she miscarried.
Soon after this, Tracy and her husband, now married for 10 years, decided to start fresh. She became pregnant again and they embarked on building a new house. Then one day, while she was on maternity leave with her infant baby, Tracy answered a knock at her front door and found RCMP officers with a search warrant. She was told nothing. Tracy frantically called her husband to no avail. He was nowhere to be found.
In the weeks and months that followed, things got stranger. Tracy’s husband disappeared once again and was later found in a ditch and taken to hospital. He said he’d been kidnapped. At some point, there was an unexplained fire at the new house.
Tracy, beginning to fear the worst and concerned for both her safety and that of her children, moved in with her parents. She pursued legal options and got the police involved, but did so in secret because she had no real idea what was actually going on.
Not long after this her husband was found on the floor with a gun-shot wound. Initially he said someone broke in and shot him. Then he said he shot himself while cleaning his gun. Finally he said that the police shot him. Tracy, who had no idea that he had a gun, began falling apart. “I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t make decisions, I was a crazed mess on auto-pilot. I couldn’t imagine how my normal life had come to this,” she says.
In 2008 she began seeing an outreach counsellor from KIH. She weighed 89 pounds when she showed up for her first counselling visit. She had no source of income, was living at her parents’ house and was wracked with fear. To begin with she saw Annie, but when Annie went on maternity leave, Tracey saw Jolie. “They both helped me tremendously in different ways,” Tracy says.
Annie advocated for her and helped Tracy find low-income housing and receive a disability pension while she was too sick to work. She went to court with Tracy and got her a panic button, an electronic device that can alert authorities in an emergency situation. “Jolie helped me to stand on my own two feet,” says Tracy. “She told me to put my wants out to the universe and helped me map out my next steps.”
Tracy was granted custody of her children in 2009, and then later awarded full custody at an uncontested trial in 2011.
Tracy is now training to be a fitness instructor and is active in her children’s school. She’s regained some weight and is starting to feel strong again. “I let him take parts of me away slowly. There are others like me. I want to help however I can,” she says. “I want to give back.”
Fund- and Friend-Raising
Joanne Young, executive director of Kingston Interval House, moved to Kingston four years ago to take up her position. She oversees all KIH operations. Young has a background working in the area of social justice issues. Her grandmother, who endured a lifelong abusive relationship, was the impetus for her career.
Young is serious, compassionate and committed, but I can feel the pressure and weight of responsibility she shoulders in this position. It hangs over us in the room.
Asked about funding, Young says, “We’re grateful for all our funding.” She says this the way a seasoned actor delivers lines.
We delve a little further. She admits that funding is an ongoing issue. Currently, KIH is funded by the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services (CSS), United Way KFL&A, and through private donations and fundraising.
CSS is the primary funding source and funds 25 of the 30 spaces at the shelter to a maximum of 80 per cent of the level required. There has been no increase in funding for the past four years. The other 20 per cent must come from fundraising. This leaves Kingston Interval House with the responsibility of raising $320,000 annually just to cover costs in an increasingly precarious and competitive fundraising environment. KIH also applies for every possible grant, but that takes time and effort for an organization that is stretched to the limit.
“Our alumni are not wealthy donors,” says Young. “But our board is developing a strategy for growing our volunteer and donor database. And we’re extremely grateful to our third-party partners.”
One of those third-party partners is the women of the Kingston Rotary Club, who organize an annual golf tournament called The Molly. KIH is the primary recipient. Royal LePage is another third-party partner. They organize the local Walk A Mile in Her Shoes event, where men walk a mile in high heels to help bring awareness to gender violence issues.
Robin’s Hope receives no government funding at all. The rent tenants are able to pay plus annual United Way funding barely meets expenses. Last year a friend of the organization approached KIH and ran the First Annual Eastron Charity Golf Tournament, raising $8,700. Every dollar counts.
This year Kingston Interval House will host their first ever friend-raising gala, Le Bal des Papillon or the Ball of the Butterflies, in order to raise friends and funds for Robin’s Hope. The theme behind the event is metamorphosis, depicting the butterfly-like transformation of all the women and children who have found safety from violence and abuse. The gala is scheduled for June 6 and will be open to the public. “We are hoping this event helps us reach out into the community,” says Young. “We are looking for more ways to interact, to build awareness and to forge friendships in the community. Ending the abuse of women and children is our responsibility as a society.”
Visit www.kingstonintervalhouse.com for more information.
*Some names have been changed and some last names have been omitted to protect the privacy of those seeking KIH’s services.