Starting this week, there is a new option for low-risk domestic violence offenders in Hay River that will see them in treatment instead of in the typical criminal justice system.
“Talk about having it in Hay River probably started when we started talking about it for Yellowknife,” said Chief Judge for the Territorial Court of the NWT, Christine Gagnon. “It came naturally to look at other communities.”
Essentially, the plan is to funnel offenders who commit what are deemed low-level acts of domestic violence into a special domestic violence court, held in Hay River roughly once every three weeks. If both the Crown and defence counsel agree, the offender may be referred to the treatment option, a five-week course run by Probation Services and Community Counselling. If they are successful in the group counselling, they go back before a judge who will take that into account when sentencing. For geographical reasons, the program is open to people in Hay River, Enterprise and the Hay River Reserve.
“There is a need for this type of program everywhere, not just in the North or in Canada,” said defence counsel Michael Hansen. “We can’t have a cookie-cutter approach… I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this is the best development I’ve seen in that time.”
Hansen explained that a low-level domestic offence may be something along the lines of a push or a shove, not anything sustained. The offender’s history of past violence would also be taken into account.
“Sending these guys to jail or on probation just isn’t working to prevent it like it needs to,” said Cpl. Greg Morrow of the Hay River RCMP detachment. “Domestic violence is a major problem in the community, and it can be anything from various types of assaults to uttering threats.”
In 2014, there were 46 domestic violence files opened with 40 charges laid. The problem is significant enough to warrant a place in the top five areas of concern for the community as defined by the detachment.
After the courts recommend the offender be entered into the treatment program, it is up to those who run it to decide whether they are a suitable candidate. First and foremost, offenders must plead guilty and accept responsibility for their actions. According to Cindy Caudron, regional probation manager and head of the counselling program in Hay River, the treatment is predicated on the offender taking ownership and truly wanting to make changes in their life.
“Do we see a high number of domestic violence (situations)? No. Do we see first time offenders? Absolutely,” she said.
While the program which started 2011 in Yellowknife runs eight-weeks, Hay River’s version will be covering the same ground in five weeks. Furthermore, there will be several teams of facilitators available in order to be able to stagger the courses which require a minimum of four people.
“The easy way to do this is to do the time,” said Hansen of the possibility that the program will be seen as way to avoid jail and a criminal record. “The hard way is to address the factors in your life that are causing the problem. We are dealing with people running the program who can tell when someone is being sincere or not. It’s a pass or fail system.”
While the Department of Justice did not respond to inquiries regarding whether the number of domestic violence offences and repeat offenders has gone down in the four years Yellowknife has been running the program, Gagnon said she believes in the system.
“So far in Yellowknife, the individuals who I recall have been part of the program have not returned,” she said.
High hopes for new program
Hansen was keen to point out that the program isn’t about just letting offenders walk away, as was Morrow.
“It’s intended to break the cycle of violence,” said Hansen. “It’s for them to learn how to react differently to stress in the future. I fully support this. I’ve been around this town long enough to see violence escalate from verbal and emotional to actual physical violence in many cases.”
One of the key differences between the capital’s program and the local one is that the latter will also allow for referrals not only from the criminal justice system, but also from mental health and counselling services. Caudron said this means the treatment program will be able to catch domestic violence before it reaches the level at which it can be charged and prosecuted, explaining that there are many steps before someone results to physical violence.
Hansen and Caudron also mentioned that there may be a sister-program in the works for victims of domestic violence, something more along the lines of education as opposed to treatment.
“I’ve known people who don’t even think they are victims,” victims’ services worker Vivian Lafleur told The Hub. “I think a program for them would be a great thing. It takes a strong person to go to the RCMP and tell them what happened in the first place.”
As for the diversion program for offenders, Lafleur said it would have an impact for victims regardless of other initiatives, even if it just means that they avoid court.
“People don’t want to do that, go to court, bring that all out in public, the whole process is scary,” she said. “This may be better, but it will be interesting to see how it rolls out.”