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Changes to Partner Assault Response Program put women at further risk of victimization

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Basil Borutski is accused of killing Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam, and Carol Culleton at three different locations throughout Renfrew County on September 22, 2015.  He had a well-established history of violence against women.  Over the years, several women including, including his ex-wife, Mary Anne Mask, filed charges of harassment, assault and failing to keep the peace.

In most instances the charges were stayed by the Crown. That means the charges were dropped, but could be resurrected if Borutski was charged with new offences during the one year period after the original charges were stayed.

At one point Borutski was mandated to attend a Partner Assault Response (PAR) program facilitated by Living Without Violence.  The Living Without Violence program is funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) and as such, priority for space in PAR groups is given to persons referred by Probation Services and the Crown Attorney. It remains unclear whether Borutski attended.

A high risk reoffender, banned from possessing weapons for life and ordered to provide a sample of his DNA, Borutski was released from jail on Dec. 27, 2014. He had served just over three months for assaulting Kuzyk after receiving credit for time spent in custody.

It is highly doubtful that a PAR program would have changed Borutski's violent treatment of the women in his life.  But, it raises questions about the role and effectiveness PAR programs play in increasing victim safety. 

In Toronto, the PAR program is a Domestic Violence Court initiative that delivers specialized community-based group intervention programming to domestic violence offenders who have been mandated to attend. It is an early intervention used after a first domestic violence offence not involving a weapon or resulting in serious injury. Funded by MAG, space is limited to persons referred by Probation Services and the Crown Attorney. It is meant to prevent recidivism. 

The 12-session program gives offenders an opportunity to examine their beliefs and attitudes towards domestic abuse, and to learn non-abusive conflict resolution. The program also provides victims with safety planning and support, referrals to community resources, and information about the offender's progress throughout the duration of the program.

Mandatory content includes:

  • Domestic violence; defining abuse
  • How beliefs and attitudes affect behavior
  • The effects of abuse on children, partners and self
  • The impact of substance abuse
  • Healthy relationships
  • Respectful communication
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Responsibility and accountability

This is not anger management.  Think of it as behaviour modification or cognitive bahavioural therapy. 

There are a number of principles that PAR programs adhere to, including:

  • Domestic violence is a crime
  • Abusive behavior is a choice
  • Abuse is the sole responsibility of the abuser
  • Abusive behavior is not an anger management problem
  • Victims or partners are entitled to receive support, safety planning and referrals to community services
  • Victims or partners have a right to information about the PAR program, its philosophy, structure, content and limitations
  • PAR programs must not operate in isolation from other Violence Against Women (VAW) community stakeholders
  • Domestic violence offenders and victims or partners have the right to be treated with respect

By completion of the PAR program, it is expected that an offender can admit that violence and abuse exists in his dealings with his victim. It is also hoped that he will no longer minimize or blame the victim; that he appears to accept responsibility for the abuse; that he identifies the effects of abuse; and that he has discussed his own behavior and focused on himself rather than his victim.

By the end of the PAR program men are expected to have learned control skills and have the ability to put them in place when needed.  Ideally, they have reached the maintenance stage, which should mean increased safety for past and present victims.

In 12 sessions very few men reach the maintenance stage.  A mere 24 hours of counselling is hardly sufficient to unlearn a lifetime of violence.  Instead, the best outcome hoped for is that the fear of further negative consequences, such as returning to jail, motivates men to change their violent behaviour.

PAR counsellors try to contact the victim named on the current case a minimum of four times before the program begins. She is sent information to help her understand domestic violence and create a safety plan, as well as referrals to agencies for counselling and additional help.  Most importantly, once the program begins, the named victim can find out if the offender is attending the program regularly, actively participating in sessions, and progressively changing his behaviour. 

Victims are also able to report concerns they have about the offender. These issues often revolve around victim safety. Abusers may manipulate children during visits to gain information about, or access, to the victim.  Abusers may also have a third party stalk or contact their victim to gather information about her routines and to let her know that he will always be able to find her. Having access to this information allows PAR counsellors to customize sessions. 

Unfortunately, closing reports, completed at the end of the program for each participant, are available to the public. That means offenders have the opportunity to find out everything their victim reported or discussed with PAR counsellors. To avoid repercussions for victims, it is imperative that counsellors leave all victim disclosures out of final reports. 

Upon completion of the PAR program, counsellors can recommend an offender receive additional PAR counselling, or substance abuse counselling, or private counsellor in the community. However, participants are prevented from voluntarily taking additional MAG-funded PAR classes.  

In 2014 the Ontario government attempted to cut PAR program wait lists by decreasing the number of required sessions from 16 to 12, effectively reducing counselling hours from 32 to 24 in total. This change in policy created an additional 2,200 spaces across the province, of which only 200 were actually used.  However, the larger question remains: Does putting more bodies through a shorter program really benefit offenders, victims and the communities they live in?

Another concern is the use of private PAR programs by offenders. These programs employ social workers and psychologists as counsellors, but they are not mandated to follow MAG’s curriculum.  They are also prohibited from disclosing information to victims or the police due client privilege. Private programs can use one on one counselling and some even hold sessions by Skype rather than the group setting required by MAG.

Harmy Mendoza, Executive Director of the Woman Abuse Counsel of Toronto (WomanACT), has extensive experience in the anti-violence field working on the front line as well as developing policy and training. WomanACT is a council of organizations dedicated to preventing violence against women and children. They promote a Toronto-wide integrated, coordinated response to violence through leadership, education, and community mobilization. 

Mendoza describes WomanACT's role as "Identify gaps in service in order to coordinate, promote, and mobilize recommendations for systemic change for victims of abuse. That’s why WomanACT was contacted by MAG to coordinate the Domestic Violence (DV) court process.  We fulfilled this role for 15 years."

WomanACT coordinated five Domestic Violence (DV) Courts; ten probation offices including over 300 probation and parole officers; and ten PAR Agencies in Toronto. WomanACT also provided statistical reporting and narrative reviews. WomanACT, a non-profit, received funding from MAG to do this work.

In this role, WomanACT processed referrals collected in person at each one of the five DV courts as well as referrals submitted by probation and parole offices on a continuous 24/7, 365 days per year basis.  Staff met with accused to provide intake assessment and PAR referrals.  They ascertained the most recent contact information for victims in each case as well as providing management for every PAR referral. In addition, WomanACT staff attended DV Court Advisory, MAG, Probation and PAR meetings.

The information collected was input into a secure database for statistical purposes.  Key issues identified by WomanACT included:

  • PAR eligibility criteria was preventing referrals for abusers who used increased levels of violence
  • An increase of non-verified private counselling certificates during times of PAR program unavailability
  • When PAR programing was unavailable some offenders chose their own counselling based on convenience and affordability, regardless of curriculum, duration, and appropriateness
  • Offenders unable to pay private counselling fees remained within the system and returned to court countless times without having completed a PAR program
  • Due to the right to have a charge dealt with in a specific timeframe, charges would occasionally be withdrawn meaning those same charges can never be revived
  • At the end of 2015 the decline in referrals to MAG funded PAR programs reached approximately 40%. The reason for this substantial change remains a mystery to Mendoza as no explanation was forthcoming.

To date, MAG has never undertaken a formal evaluation that could provide pertinent information regarding the effectiveness of the PAR program.  Instead, MAG inadequately funded the coordination of this project and continues to insist that Toronto can be coordinated by three full-time staff. 

MAG instructed WomanACT to end narrative data collection for the PAR program on March 31, 2015 when the contract was awarded to the John Howard Society based on costs to run the program.  Mendoza maintains that "WomanACT’s ultimate goal is to act as a vehicle for integrated planning and policy development to create improved responses to woman abuse within the system providing for the protection and safety of women and their children." Since MAG restrictions made it impossible to achieve this objective, on April 1, 2015 WomanACT stopped coordinating the Toronto PAR program. 

Mendoza defends WomanACT's "long history in the development and establishment of intervention programs for abusive men. The guiding philosophical premise of WomanACT’s involvement with the PAR program was based on MAG’s goal that the program enhance victim safety and hold offenders accountable for their behaviours."

In September 2015, Peggy Sattler, NDP Women's Issues Critic, began addressing the PAR program crisis focusing on the lack of reliable data and the absence of consultation with experts before making changes to the program.

During one heated question period on December 1, 2015, Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur responded to Sattler's concerns by stating that "12 weeks is better than nothing." This off-handed comment showed a callous disregard for the serious implications program changes have for vulnerable women, and their children, who are fleeing violence.  That was followed on December 2, 2015 with Premier Wynne acknowledging the crisis but refusing to halt the reorganization of the program.

According to Sattler, "Not a single sector stakeholder supported the changes to PAR made by the Liberal government. Instead, serious concerns were raised about the fundamentally flawed PAR funding formula, the unrealistic program targets, and the implications for vulnerable women and children fleeing domestic violence. The reality is that about 40% of women who experience domestic violence return to their abusive partner – for any number of reasons.  If we're not able to change the abusive behaviours, we won’t be able to end the violence."

Amongst several concerns raised throughout the years, WomanACT tracked what was believed to be inappropriate referrals sent through the Early Intervention (EI) stream. For example, accused men who had received a sentence for previous DV charges which violates the eligibility criterion that the accused have no previous DV related charges.

WomanACT also noted an increase in Section 810 Peace Bonds (Charges Withdrawn) after the successful completion of PAR programming. Essentially, this means there is no criminal history of the first assault and an offender could be screened into EI as though he had no previous DV related charges. WomanACT addressed this concern and the potential for a "revolving door" system that may not be protecting victims after all.

Mendoza offered this olive branch to the Premier:

WomanACT’s involvement with the PAR program allowed a woman centered organization to identify systemic gaps and concerning trends that may be putting women at further risk of victimization. WomanACT has voiced its interest in playing a role in a meaningful evaluation of the PAR program in consultation with other violence against women service providers. PAR programs play a critical role within the community and we want to help evaluate its impact and effectiveness for the benefit of the Ministry, our member organizations and most importantly, service users and victims of abuse.

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