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B.C.'s family law system fails abused women, puts survivors in danger: report

Last Updated Feb 8, 2021 at 2:54 pm PDT

FILE (David Zura, CityNews photo)

A new report says B.C.'s family courts rely on harmful myths, stereotypes when dealing with women who have been abused

Family court orders, processes put women in ongoing danger instead of ensuring their safety: report

Progressive changes to family law were made in 2013, the promise of those changes is not being seen in practice

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The family law system in B.C. continues to fail women who have been abused, and their children, by undermining their safety when they are most at risk, according to a new report.

Rise Women’s Legal Centre spent three years reviewing research, consulting with experts, and holding focus groups with women with lived experience of violence and the legal system in 25 communities across B.C.

Why Can’t Everyone Just Get Along: How BC’s Family Law System Puts Survivors in Danger is the 95-page report that resulted from this research.

“We learned that not only is the legal system ineffective in responding to the pervasiveness of family violence in BC, in many cases it actually exacerbates the risk to women and children who are trying to gain safety,” the introduction reads.

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Haley Hrymak, a lawyer with Rise and one of the report’s authors, says one of the persistent and pernicious problems they identified was the way that the legal system reinforces myths and stereotypes about violence and the women who disclose it.

“One big one is that women exaggerate the violence against them, and they’re putting on this story so that the dad doesn’t get to see the kids, that they’re actually being vindictive. This is a stereotype that’s very pervasive. What we actually heard from the research over and over, is that most women downplay the violence they’ve experienced, oftentimes, they’re advised to not bring it up at all,” she explains.

“Over and over again moms talked about making every effort for the dad to have time with their children and bending over backwards and often putting themselves in really unsafe situations, because they wanted their children to have a relationship with their dad. One mom said, ‘As terrified as I am for myself, I would invite him over to try and reunite him with the kids but he would take every opportunity to abuse me and abuse them. So, what do I do?”

According to Hrymak, these myths and stereotypes suffuse the entire legal system – from the way lawyers respond to their clients’ disclosures, to the way judges decide what is in a child’s best interest.

Mandatory education needed to dispel harmful myths, stereotypes

That’s why one of the report’s key recommendations is province-wide, mandatory education for everyone involved in the legal system.

“People going through the legal system are potentially in the most dangerous time period of their lives. And they’re potentially working with people who have never had any training on family violence and that is a really dangerous scenario,” Hrymak says.

“It’s not something that can just be picked up, given that the whole culture is so saturated in stereotypes that are often focused on blaming the victim. The main recommendation is for lawyers to have education on risk factors to understand what it means to be in their client’s shoes going through what’s potentially the most dangerous time period in their life with their children.”

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The report points out that women are most at risk of being murdered in the year after separating, which is the time period during which they are also most likely to be involved in family law proceedings.

“The most dangerous time for abused women is in the first twelve months after separation. Almost half of women killed by their spouses are killed within two months of separation, often when they return home to retrieve their belongings, and another 32 per cent are killed within two to 12 months after separation,” the report reads.

Hrymak says in addition to separation itself, other known risk factors for lethal violence include strangulation, and stalking.

“There’s often so many known risk factors that happen before a domestic homicide, and these are often things that are talked about in court, these are often things that are told to the police but without any understanding,” she says.

Court orders, shared parenting put women and kids at risk 

When safety concerns raised by women trying to end relationships with violent men are minimized or dismissed, what often results is a court order that ultimately puts women and their children in danger, according to Hrymak.

“You’re there with the person that maybe has threatened your life in the past, maybe is continuing to threaten your life, and you’re being told, ‘Why don’t you just get along and focus on what’s best for your kid?’ Women were often put in these impossible positions when they are ordered to have shared and unsafe parenting arrangements,” she says.

“They are being forced into these really unsafe situations for both them and their child when there’s evidence of abuse. The concern, and what we tried to raise in the report, is that they’re often just being dismissed when they’re trying to bring up those safety concerns before they can even truly be evaluated,” she says.

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Hrymak says one of the goals of the research, which was conducted from 2017 and 2020, was to see if changes to B.C.’s Family Law Act were making difference. In 2013 the law was changed to expand the definition of what constitutes family violence, broadening it to include things like financial abuse, threats, and stalking. Another key change was making it mandatory to consider how violence against mothers affects children.

“Has the legal system done a better job at understanding family violence and helping people who have experienced it be put into safer situations, particularly for their children?” Hrymak asks.

“Widely, we found that people who had experienced violence since 2013, and who had been through the family court system, felt that the legal system ignored their experiences of violence. One of the main findings of the research is that violence, in general, is not being taken seriously, and this is particularly so when it’s non-physical violence.”

Research participants motivated by desire to ‘shift system’ for other women 

In spite of the report’s finding, Hrymak says the women who participated were neither defeated nor hopeless.

“They were coming to share, oftentimes, the sheer hell that they went through so that they could try and shift the system a little bit forward for other women” she explains.

While the experience of being believed, supported, and taken seriously was rare, the women who shared their experiences reinforced how critically important it was.

“Many people talked about one person who believed them, one person who truly tried to help them. It could be something as simple as a kind gesture in the courthouse, or at the police station, or one police officer who really believed them. They talked about the positive impact that had on them and that how much that helped them keep going,” Hrymak says.

“I think if we had that underlying the family court system, it would be a huge improvement for the people who are actually accessing it, who are potentially in really dangerous situations.”

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Rise Women’s Legal Centre offers legal help to women who do not qualify for legal aid and can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Most of their clients have experienced violence and are navigating the family legal system.

“Family law is the most significant unmet legal need in the province. Due to limited legal aid funding allocated to family law cases, many women in BC are unable to access counsel,” their website says.