Toronto Star

Nov. 26, 02:00 EDT

Battered women calling for help

Media coverage of spousal violence prompts crunch at crisis centres

Trish Crawford
Life Writer
Toronto Star

ULTIMATE ABUSE: Gillian Hadley was murdered by estranged husband Ralph, who had been ordered to stay away from her.
It happened two years ago when Gillian Hadley was killed and it's happening now during the inquest into her death.

Battered women are calling for help, looking for information and planning their escapes from abusive partners.

"The murders of women result in increased numbers of crisis calls. In a community, where it makes front page news, women call," says Eileen Morrow, co-ordinator of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, adding that the extensive inquest coverage has had the same effect.

"The women see their situation is similar, there are the same patterns, the same language was used. They recognize the signs and they call," she says. "Whether they come in to a shelter depends on the information they receive, their lives and what is appropriate."

Gillian Hadley was shot to death by her estranged husband Ralph Hadley, who had violated court orders to stay away from her and been charged with assault. According to Morrow, threats, escalating violence and open defiance of court orders are warning signs that a woman is in extreme danger.

Isolation of the victim is a common technique of abusive partners, says Morrow, and that is why the role of the media is so important in informing women.

"He can keep her away from everybody, but it is difficult to keep her from the daily news."

And the news is not good for battered women.

Six women died in the summer of 1999 when Gillian Hadley was killed and 21 have died so far this year in Ontario at the hands of their partners. The Hadley inquest began a month ago and is expected to last eight weeks.

"The thing to remember is that violence against women is rooted in the social, political and economic environments of women," says Beth Jordan, director of programs and services for the Assaulted Women's Helpline. Cutbacks to welfare payments and a shortage of affordable rental housing are an economic reality playing out in the lives of women facing violence, Jordan says.

"Choices for these women get whittled away."

Calls to the hotline jumped when Gillian Hadley died, says Jordan, adding, "Women calling were feeling so angry and depressed. In the Hadley case, she tried to do everything you are supposed to do. Women are calling scared that there aren't structures to protect them. When they hear their husband say, I'll kill you, they know he is serious."

While outsiders often wonder why a woman stays with such a partner, Jordan says many feel it is better for their children. Women, who face certain poverty because of lack of education and job skills and who have young children to care for, may choose "to make sure their children are clothed and fed."

(The inquest learned that Gillian Hadley had applied for subsidized housing but had not been given the highest priority.)

The help line is a 24-hour cross-cultural information and referral service that recently received $4.5 million to expand its services province-wide. It provides women with the phone numbers of shelters near their homes.

`Even in high conflict divorces ... rarely does somebody end up dead. It should be possible to come up with a system to protect the minority of women in danger'

Numbers are not listed in the phone books so angry partners can't find women who flee. There are 11 shelters in the GTA with roughly 20 to 30 beds each.

Pamela Cross, executive director of Metrac (Metro Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children) and the legal director of the Ontario Women's Justice Network, says her phones have been ringing off the hook in the past two weeks but she is unsure if publicity around the inquest has sparked the calls.

She says many women stay because they fear they will be killed once the leave. The most dangerous time in an assaulted woman's life is the first six months after separation, she says.

"Often, it is a rational decision. It is safer for them to stay."

The system of family, friends or employers giving sureties before the courts must be re-examined, says Cross, a lawyer with family law experience. While they may think they can keep the abuser away from his spouse, Cross says the reality is they have little influence over men who violate court orders.

Ralph Hadley's parents vouched for him in court and he was living in their home the day he ambushed and killed Gillian at his former residence. Abusive men should be kept in jail until the disposition of their case, she says.

Families love their sons and don't want to believe they would hurt anybody in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, says Cross, so we can't really blame them "when they screw up."

Gillian Hadley's affair after her separation has been a red herring throughout the inquest, says Cross, because it seems to justify her partner's murderous rage.

With an almost 50 per cent divorce rate in Canada, it is safe to assume a fair number of these marriages experienced infidelity, she says.

"Even in high conflict divorces, that's the less than 5 per cent that end up in the courts, rarely does somebody end up dead. It should be possible to come up with a system to protect the minority of women in danger."

People seeking information about abuse aren't necessarily the victims themselves, says Marsha Sfeir, co-ordinator of Education Wife Assault, with family, friends and co-workers calling. She has also received calls from shop foremen, worried a woman's absenteeism is caused by her being beaten at home.

Fall is traditionally a busy time of year for the education service, says Sfeir, because it takes women months to plan their escapes.

Summertime, when the kids are out of school, and the New Year, when Christmas is over, are the two busiest times for shelters.

The Hadley inquest dealt with a charge of assault from an altercation that some witnesses characterized as "only a slap." Sfeir says that people have an unrealistic idea about what consitutes abuse.

"To some people, if it's not a punch it's not physical assault."

`Many don't see (emotional abuse) as life threatening. But in many cases, the first physical act of violence is when the man kills her'

Emotional abuse, jealousy, rages, threats and isolation are far more common, she says. At the education wife assault Web site, which receives more than 300,000 hits a year, the number one page is about emotional abuse.

"They need affirmation that this isn't okay. This is abuse but no one had helped them put a name to it. The other important thing is that many don't see this as life threatening. But in many cases, the first physical act of violence is when the man kills her."

Sylvia Patfield, executive director of Barrie's Women and Children's Centre, a 21-bed shelter, says news coverage of wife assault is a double-edged sword.

"I think publicity helps in that it makes people aware. But, sometimes it frightens women who think they should just stay."

The way Gillian Hadley was denounced by people testifying at the inquest worries Patfield because people in society may not know the victim is not to blame in spousal abuse.

"What really bothers me was that there still was a need to find some justification. Bad mom, bad wife, she slept around. It was all trotted out to defend in a perverse way his decision to murder her.

``I feel so sorry to see her so denigrated."

Where to get help:

  • Education Wife Assault, 416-968-3422,

  • Ontario Women's Justice Network,

  • Assaulted Women's Help-line, 416-863-0511, TTY- 416-364-8762.

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