Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, December 6, 2001

'I learned it's a system that doesn't listen'

Wife still terrified by threats from family violence specialists

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

The woman sitting across the table often breaks into tears and fits of trembling. She lives in fear. She says she has been threatened and emotionally battered by those who call themselves "front-line workers" in the war against violence against women.

Her husband is sitting at the table to my right. He says little. He too has been scarred by the intervention attempts of those who operate in the certain belief that women are weak and can't be trusted to make their own decisions or protect themselves.

Since the violence-against-women specialists invaded their lives a year ago, husband and wife say they have developed ulcers. They have been financially battered and say they survived many attempts to break up their marriage.

Now they're angry.

Stephanie Robertson says they had a pretty good fight going that night, Oct. 5, 2000. Neither she nor her husband, Dale Robertson, can remember exactly how it got rolling, but they agree it was probably about money. They are health-care workers. She's a licensed practical nurse and he's an orderly. They have a three-year-old son and their one great aim is to give him full-time parenting. They can arrange their shifts so that one of them can always be with their child.

In the middle of the fight, Dale walked away, locking himself in one end of their Sandy Hill apartment. Stephanie says: "That frightened me. He wouldn't unlock the door, and the baby was on his side of the door. I didn't know what to do. I called police to ask what to do. I wanted to know what were the proper steps to take. I was upset and wanted advice."

She knew the dangers of dialling 911. That is reporting life at risk. So she called the general police number.

A short time later, Dale was on his way out the door with his hands cuffed behind his back. It was Thanksgiving weekend. He spent the next four days and nights in jail. Stephanie says what happened to her husband was an injustice, and telling her story is part of trying to address that issue. The system had kicked in the moment police heard a woman in distress complaining about a problem with a husband.

"When they were handcuffing him I told them he wouldn't hurt anybody. He's not like that. Nobody would listen. Over the next four months, I learned it's a system that doesn't listen."

From the start, she says, the advice from support workers connected to Domestic Violence Court was that she should break up her marriage. She should not risk living with a violent man. Her attempts to defend her husband were met with we-understand-and-we-know-better attitudes: she was afraid of him and was trying to protect him so he wouldn't be angry. When it became clear she had no intention of separating from her husband, the threats from domestic violence specialists connected to the court moved to a new level that still terrifies her.

"They seemed to be threatening to take my child. They said if I wasn't going to protect my child from his father, then the system would have to."

Meanwhile, with the loss of their household routine, costs skyrocketed. Dale continued to slip money for the rent to his wife, so he couldn't afford to pay rent for himself. For most of those four months, his bed was a mat on the floor at a hostel.

Because there was a restraining order in place, he couldn't go near his home or family, so couldn't parent his son. Babysitting and day care were needed, adding up to $400 a week to their problems.

Then the system shut him out of his job. He was served with a court order telling him to report to the Royal Ottawa Hospital for an assessment. He was working at that psychiatric facility; the court order was an instant job-killer.

"We were meeting secretly," said Stephanie. "We would meet for coffee or a drink. It was scary. We were always looking over our shoulders. We were told Dale could come home if he pleaded guilty, but we agreed that would be wrong because he wasn't guilty of anything. We couldn't be together at Christmas. It was awful."

Gradually, Dale lost his determination to hold out for justice. Always dangling was the offer that if he would plead guilty he could get out of the packed, smelly hostel room and go home. Eventually, he was persuaded to sign a peace bond, and allowed to go home.

He knows now that his signature on the bond is tantamount to a guilty plea. He has gone into the records as another violent male. These records now show another woman rescued. What they don't show is a young family scrambling to financially recover from outside interference. Aside from the job loss and babysitting costs, there was a $2,000-legal bill.

Stephanie says she needs to vent. That's why she decided to tell her story. She also wants to warn other women about the consequences of reaching for the telephone while under stress.

She expected others to accept that she was smart enough to get out of the house and run for help if there was potential for harm.

That a woman would make a phone call and then wait for police means she's not at great risk and knows it.

Help, says Stephanie, would be a volunteer babysitter. Help would be a little financial support. Help would be somebody dropping in for tea and helping with the baby while mother catches up on the housework. Help would be getting husband and wife back together again as soon as possible. There's none of this kind of help in the domestic violence system.

"You know what was the worst part? It was when Dale did come back, he wouldn't fight. No matter what I said or did he just said 'Yes dear.' It was like living in a glass house with eggshell floors. We were tip-toeing around each other. That's not normal. Not for us. When I have an issue, I want the air cleared."

There was a pause as they made sappy grins at each other, remembering something. The question had to be asked. How did they get rid of the eggshells?

Dale looked at his wife, grinned, and said: "Bitch. Get me a beer!" She leapt up and reached for him. Before he could get off his chair she was on him, laughing and hugging. He also started to laugh. When they had composed themselves, he explained: "We're kinda nuts." It was 11 a.m. He didn't really want a beer. Their relationship includes a playfulness the violence-against-women camp wouldn't understand.

In September this year, things were back to normal in their home, and that meant an argument. It was a hot evening and their balcony door was open. They were being noisy and the sound was angry.

There was a knock at the door. In a flash, Dale was in handcuffs again. For reasons not explained, police took the cuffs off and told them to quiet down.

Stephanie thinks the display of discretion on the part of police was due to her impression of a woman who just couldn't take any more. It was real.

"We're being watched. You'd have ulcers, too."

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen