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Policy makers need to understand lived experience when it comes to gendered violence

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Women's Monument in Minto Park, Ottawa. Flickr/lezumbalaberenjena

We’re half way through Woman Abuse Prevention Month, time to look at some initiatives Ontario’s government has put in place to make it easier for women, and their children, to leave abusive intimate partner relationships.

On September 8, 2016, Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act (RTA), 2006 underwent a significant change. Women are now able to terminate leases with only 28 days’ notice when they, or their children, experience harassment, domestic or sexual abuse at the hands of a current or former partner; or while in a dating situation; or by a person who resides in the rental unit and who is related by blood, marriage or adoption to the tenant or to a child who resides with the tenant. The change from the standard 60 days’ notice applies equally to monthly, yearly and longer leases.

Tenants claiming domestic or sexual violence as the reason for lease termination are obligated to notify landlords in writing that they, or their child(ren), have suffered harassment, domestic or sexual abuse. In addition, the landlord must be given a copy of either a court ordered restraining order, access order or peace bond issued within the past 90 days.

Landlords are prohibited from discussing the situation and from advertising or showing the unit until the current tenant has vacated the premises. Under the RTA, landlords violating confidentiality are subject to fines of up to $25,000 and corporations face fines of up to $100,000.  Landlords may also be liable for an order for damages from the Landlord and Tenant Board.

The provision falls under Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan which claims this improvement allows women to leave unsafe living environments quickly. 

While the change to the RTA does in fact make it easier for women to break their leases, it does not necessarily mean that they can leave the abusive situation sooner -- because, where is she going to go? To illustrate this scenario, let’s use the city of Hamilton which is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.

The average one bedroom apartment costs $960 per month while a two bedroom fetches $1,197. The average vacancy rate for 2015 was 1.8 per cent. Thanks to the gentrification of Hamilton this situation will only deteriorate further.

5,700 households in Hamilton are currently on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

Each month about 100 women are turned away from shelters in Hamilton. This number does not include their children.

Without a national housing strategy that includes provisions for affordable and subsidized housing options, this situation will only worsen. So, while it’s true women can break their leases with 28 days’ notice, many will have to remain in their abusive situations because they literally have nowhere else to go.

Women relying on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW) could also use a hand up when it comes to leaving and healing from abusive relationships. I’ve often written that the Provincial government needs to end the practice of clawing back child support from custodial parents receiving ODSP and OW. Child support is not income, it’s money paid by the non-custodial parent to ensure that children have the necessities they would normally enjoy if their parents were still together.

In its February 2016 budget, the Wynne government announced that it would discontinue this regressive practice. The change will be implemented Jan. 1, 2017 for ODSP recipients and Feb. 1, 2017 for OW recipients.

The exemption will put more than $75 million a year in the pockets of families receiving social assistance. This is fantastic! More children will be raised out of poverty and given a better childhood – or will they?

According to the provincial government’s press release, “The full exemption will help increase the monthly income of almost 19,000 families, most of whom are single-parent households. This exemption will mean that eligible families receiving social assistance benefits will receive an average of $282 more per month -- or $3,380 annually -- from child support payments. This will benefit some of the province's most vulnerable children.”

That means a single mother of one child on ODSP receiving $1,638 monthly will now have an additional $282 per month. A single mother of one child living on OW receiving $1,062 monthly will also have another $282 per month on average. If these women were living in Hamilton, or any other city for that matter, about $1000 per month would go towards rent alone leaving $920 and $344 respectively to cover all other living expenses. Could Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services please explain how this is raising children out of poverty?

It’s way past the time to increase social assistance payments to accurately reflect the true cost of living in Ontario. The Wynne government cannot be allowed to continue forcing women back into abusive relationships because they can’t live on inadequate social assistance payments without having to choose between paying their rent and utilities or feeding their children.  And, the provincial government should not be permitted to use the excuse that they’re implementing a pilot project to determine the efficacy of replacing social assistance programs with a guaranteed income. That study will take years to carry out, evaluate and put in place. In the meantime, social assistance rates need to be increased immediately.

The Partner Assault Response (PAR) program was originally designed to be an effective means of early intervention used after a first domestic violence offence not involving a weapon or resulting in serious injury. Funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG), space is limited to persons referred by Probation Services and the Crown Attorney.

The PAR program was intended to prevent recidivism by giving offenders the opportunity to examine their beliefs and attitudes about 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 program.

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, however only 200 were actually used. But, does putting more men through a shortened program really benefit the offenders, their victims and the communities they live in?

In September 2015, Peggy Sattler, NDP Women's Issues Critic, began addressing concerns with the PAR program by focusing on the deficit of reliable data and the lack of consultation with experts before changing the program.

On December 1, 2015, during question period, Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur responded to Sattler's concerns by stating, "12 weeks is better than nothing." Ms. Meilleur clearly did not understand the serious repercussions program changes had for at risk women and their children.

On December 2, 2015 Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged the program was in crisis but refused to stop the restructuring 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 per cent 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."

Sattler continues to work to improve the efficacy of the PAR program in order to assist women leaving and healing from abuse.

In October 2016, Sattler was once again in the spotlight when she introduced Private Member’s Bill 26, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Workplace Leave, Accommodation and Training Act which passed second reading with unanimous support.

The Act provides for up to 10 days of paid leave as well as additional "reasonable" unpaid leave for women living with or leaving abusive situations. Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault now have access to much needed paid time off which can be used to see a doctor, attend a crisis centre, find a place to live, find child care, get counselling for themselves and their children, or go to court.

The legislation includes mandatory training to help employers, and their employees, recognize the warning signs, impacts and risks associated with intimate partner violence. The training also helps organizations develop informed, effective, and appropriate workplace policies and plans.

All that’s need now is for Bill 26 to be prioritized by the standing committee so it becomes law.

There’s no substitute for lived experience which is why it’s crucial the government get input from survivors of gendered violence. The information collected should then be incorporated into the design and execution of new policy or policy changes. While the solutions to woman abuse are multi-faceted, consulting with the experts can save time, money, and precious lives.

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