What should you do if you suspect somebody in your community is a victim of family violence? How do you properly support and help people who disclose incidents of trauma? These are difficult questions, but in the age of #MeToo, the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter believes there’s a strong desire to start the conversation.
In March 2017, the shelter relaunched a program called Take a Stand, which works to empower and educate community members when it comes to supporting victims of family violence and abuse.
“The initiative is a project that looks to work with community stakeholders to help them learn how to respond to disclosures of family violence and abuse in the community,” says Kim Ruse, the shelter’s executive director.
“There’s an increased desire in the community to be socially responsive and supportive to their family and friends — they want to be helpful.”
The program is one of several in the community, but differs from others because instead of working directly with victims, Take A Stand works with people that a victim would turn to for support, like friends, family members, colleagues, and peers. Because of this, it’s a program that suits everybody.
Take A Stand was initially launched in 2014 and while the demand in Calgary was significant, the shelter was under-resourced to meet the needs of the public to do more for victims of family violence.
“We pulled the project back, redesigned it, engaged our stakeholders for feedback around where we can have the most impact, and relaunched it,” says Ruse.
This time around, they’re working around what support people want to learn, the types of encounters they’re having, and how to give them the right information at the right time.
According to the shelter’s website, 74 per cent of Albertans know at least one woman who has been assaulted, either sexually or physically. In 2014, there was an increase in women and children at the shelter and since then, the rates have not changed.
“It is an epidemic. Our rates are not going down and I think that we owe it to our children to continue to be fighting to change this,” says Ruse.
Allison McLauchlan, shelter and outreach manager at YW Calgary agrees with Ruse, stating that on average, a victim of domestic violence is abused 35 times before the police are notified and they will leave their abuser seven times before they leave for good.
However, since the #MeToo movement went viral in late 2017, there has been a shift in community support for victims of violence and abuse.
“Society encouraged people to talk about family violence and to not be afraid to talk about it,”says Ruse. “We see so many more calls coming into our help line from what I would call informal supporters – people who aren’t victims themselves.”
Ruse considers Take A Stand both preventive and interventive, emphasizing that it’s crucial to know how to respond if someone discloses to you that they are being abused.
“People who are experiencing domestic violence are most often going to talk to friends, family, neighbours, coworkers, their health professionals, prior to talking to a domestic violence specialized service,” says Carrie McManus, director of programs at Sagesse Domestic Violence Prevention Society, a Calgary organization that works with women experiencing domestic violence.
While approximately 15,500 women and children use the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter as a resource per year, only 5 per cent of victims go through the shelter.
“It is an epidemic. Our rates [of family violence] are not going down and I think that we owe it to our children to continue to be fighting to change this.” – Kim Ruse
Through Take A Stand, no one is being missed.
The program’s small team of two finds participants by reaching out to companies and organizations, but Ruse says it also involves a lot of word-of-mouth. The shelter receives a number of phone calls inquiring about the program from people who hear about it through others.
“Take A Stand is working differently because if we can raise the capacity of the average citizen to respond differently, then we can actually make real change. A positive social response by an average Calgarian is as valuable as a therapeutic session,” Ruse explains.
However, the emergency shelter is not the only organization that works towards this. Sagesse has a similar initiative, Stand By.
“Calgary is very lucky in that there is a very coordinated effort, so there’s lots of agencies that are working together to try to make sure that no one gets missed,” says Ruse.
McManus says having two different agencies with similar programs works in Calgary’s favour.
“Both the Stand By program and the Take A Stand program are programs that look at engaging in a cultural and a societal shift in how we understand domestic violence and how we respond to it,” says McManus.
More importantly, the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelterand Sagesse participate in data sharing with these programs. Both have the same program evaluations and at the end of each calendar year, the agencies pull data and share about what they are doing separately and collectively to support community members on domestic violence.
McLauchlan believes programs like Take A Stand and Stand By have every reason to be successful; victims of domestic violence in Calgary need as many resources possible to get help the first time they are abused.
Going forward, Ruse wants the city of Calgary to keep family violence and abuse at the forefront of their decisions and budgets.
“I think the answer is in the prevention. Working with our young people, working with perpetrators, working with whole families, and working differently.”