This is the second story in a three-part series looking at domestic violence in Red Deer and Central Alberta.
The 2003 Fekete murder-suicide marked a low point for law enforcement in the city of Red Deer.
An investigation into the way the RCMP treated domestic violence cases uncovered systemic issues.
But out of these problems, the Red Deer Collaborative Court project was born in 2005.
It changed the way the entire system looked at domestic violence. No longer were such cases considered “family issues” and brushed off.
The Red Deer public was fed up and the provincial government was listening.
The project combines the Crown prosecutor, RCMP, psychotherapists, social workers, probation officers, the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter Association and Women’s Outreach Centre in one concerted effort. That team approach replaced the previous disjointed individualism of each branch.
The RCMP formed its own Domestic Violence Unit, and the Crown prosecutor’s office formed a dedicated division, complete with case co-ordinators to help determine immediate public and victim safety risks for each case.
Police services and the Crown prosecutor’s office operate from a handbook that has maximized the effectiveness of the unit.
“The lessons that have been distilled into our policy guidebook … quite literally are the result of a lot of human suffering and seeing what’s happened in the past and how we can address it in the future,” said Crown prosecutor Ed Ring. “Law is not a science, but this is as close to a scientific approach as we’ve seen.”
Red Deer was not the first community in Alberta to form a collaborative effort. According to Ring, Calgary spearheaded the program in the early 2000s. But with the growing issue of domestic violence in Central Alberta, the Fekete murder suicide fast-tracked the program here.
Cpl. Cindee Scarrott heads the Domestic Violence Unit with the Red Deer RCMP. It is one of the most comprehensive in the province.
She says the goal is a simple one, but it’s far from simple to achieve.
“The primary objective of the Domestic Violence Unit here in Red Deer is solely victim safety, which doesn’t always mean charges get laid,” she said. “Sometimes the best thing that we do is intercede in regards to having a conversation with the victim and making them aware of the signs of domestic violence in the relationship and giving them resources and access to different organizations that are plentiful in Red Deer so they can make better decisions and hopefully get some help.”
In 2013 alone, the unit investigated 1,670 cases of reported domestic violence in Red Deer. That’s a considerable jump from the roughly 2,800 cases reported between 2007 and 2012. There are a few reasons for that.
The scope over the last few years has changed dramatically for what lands on their desk, and that has accounted for part of that large jump. Not every file turns into a case where charges are filed, of the 1,670 cases last year, 426 led to charges. However, the rising number of cases is a sign that the education process in regards to domestic violence is working and people are beginning to trust the system and report to it.
The RCMP and domestic violence case workers work closely with victims to tailor safety plans, specific to each case.
Ring has great respect for the police officers who deal with this head on, diving into volatile, dangerous situations where drugs, alcohol and weapons are often involved.
“I’ve never encountered anything close to the dedication that I see working with the police and the domestic violence court workers,” he said.
But the collaboration does not just focus on incarceration and law enforcement. Much effort is put into not just the rehabilitation of the victim, but of the offender as well through a thorough domestic violence treatment program.
“There’s no other aspect of Crown prosecution where you see these multi-disciplinary views coming together,” said Ring.
The lingering problem is the domestic violence that is not reported. It is a plague within society and a generational, repeating institution, said women’s shelter executive director Ian Wheeliker.
Children who are abused or witness domestic violence often go on to be either victims or offenders as adults.
Wheeliker vigilantly goes to elementary schools throughout Central Alberta to educate children and staff about domestic violence. He says every teacher he has talked to has a girl or boy in their class who they suspect has been affected by domestic violence.
“I call domestic violence the cancer of families,” he said. “It eats up the kids, it eats up the mother, it eats up the father and in the end it destroys the family. When we hear about and witness the tragedies, the ones that end up like the Volkers and Feketes, it has a devastating impact on the community. That’s not the dollar cost on the community, that’s the emotional, safety, peaceful community cost.” (In 2011, Brian Volker, a Delburne farmer, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his estranged wife Debi, 44.)
But the dollar cost is also extreme.
According to a 2012 report from Justice Canada, family violence costs Canadians $7.4 billion every year, taking into account everything from policing and health care to funerals and lost wages.
But why has domestic violence thrived for so many years?
Ring looks directly at the changing societal views towards it.
“It appears that domestic violence was something that was considered an in-house, family problem …” he said. “The public approach to this has changed, which has contributed to the law catching up and the system catching up.”
The next step is for the law to get ahead of the issue.
Coming Monday: Domestic violence stains everything it touches with a dark cloud, but there is hope.