Premier Kathleen Wynne must “immediately address” the concerns raised by community experts on domestic violence over the province’s court-mandated counselling program, says a provincial critic on women’s issues.
The plea to Wynne comes in an open letter from MPP Peggy Sattler (London West) with the New Democratic Party. Sattler is worried about funding for the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Partner Assault Response program, as well as a 2014 move to cut the length of the group counselling program to 12 weeks from 16.
“When will your government commit to listen to the frontline agencies involved with PAR, who are imploring the attorney general to reconsider the changes to PAR funding and program delivery?” wrote Sattler.
“Premier, no one wants the changes to PAR to result in an “I told you so.” Women in Ontario should not have to wait for another intimate partner homicide or serious injury — occurring after an abuser has completed PAR and returned to the relationship — before your government takes action.”
PAR programs are used as a tool to hold lower-risk or first-time offenders accountable for their actions when there is a low chance of conviction, and provide support for and aim to reduce harm for victims.
One Toronto agency, formerly in charge of overseeing intake and referrals for five domestic courts in Ontario, described the program as being used in some cases as a “revolving door” because men with a history of domestic violence, or who used a weapon during an assault, or attacked a pregnant partner were being released on conditions and sent to PAR, rather than first facing a criminal conviction.
A ministry spokesperson told the Star the government is dedicated to the safety of women and children, and is in the process of improving the program through a two-year “staged initiative” that started a year ago. Those changes, including the decision to cut the length of the program to 12 weeks from 16, were made following consultations with PAR providers who indicated more than 3,000 men were waiting for spots, he said.
They are tracking the results and by 2017, the ministry hopes to release a recidivism study, he said. The changes also included tightening the rules around dealing with men with histories of violence.
“We remain open-minded about possible reforms as long as victim safety, accountability and program integrity are not compromised,” he said. Ministry staff have met and will continue to meet with agencies throughout the fall and are investigating all concerns, he said via email.
In the letter released Monday, Sattler includes statistics collected by the Building a Bigger Wave network, one of the groups that wrote the letters. The network, a collection of front-line workers, academics and experts, polled service providers and their support networks across the province about the changes and presented those results to the Ministry in July. More than half, the results showed, felt changes to PAR would have a negative impact on the safety of victims of violence in their community, and 86 per cent were concerned about the impact on safety.
The cut in the length of the program, wrote Sattler, was made without research on potential outcomes, including the impact on the safety of women and children.
“It was driven purely by the need to cut costs, in the face of a growing waitlist of thousands of abusers who had been ordered by the court to participate in the program. Instead of a longer-term program to engage men in ending their abusive behaviours, PAR now functions as little more than 12 weeks of anger management for often violent and dangerous offenders,” she wrote.