Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, December 08, 2001

Cult of the domestic-violence industry

Where are the great numbers of victims we hear about?

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

There's a large poster in the guidance office at our neighbourhood high school, Earl of March. "Call us if your boyfriend breaks your heart. Call us if your boyfriend breaks your jaw." There's an 800 number for the Kids Help Phone.

I have problems with that sign. It's not just making a suggestion, it's making a statement. Girlfriends get their jaws broken by their boyfriends. Everybody knows women are the victims of male violence and here's another example.

The problem with the broken jaw suggestion is it's a lie.

Bill Clarke is the guidance counsellor at Earl of March High School. The poster is about three paces from his office door. Those who claim violence against women is the best-kept secret in Canada say they get their information from "front-line workers."

Mr. Clarke is a front-line worker, but until now nobody has asked him what he's seeing and hearing. The question: In his 21 years at the Earl, a school with an annual enrolment of 1,200, how many cases does he know of in which a girl had her jaw broken by a boyfriend? Zero.

Then why the poster? "I've been waiting for reaction to it. I'll take it down if somebody asks."

I asked. He says he hears of an occasional assault between dating couples and there seems to be a gender balance among hitters. "Girls have become more aggressive."

I called the 800 number, pushed one for English, and waited six minutes and through three promises that "a counsellor will be with you shortly" before hanging up. It was 10:30 a.m. Nov. 22. A girl with a broken jaw should not have to wait that long.

A hard question in this war against violence against women is: Where are the front lines? How does responsible journalism sort facts from propaganda? The reporter's litmus test in this kind of work is to insist: Don't tell me. Show me. (Show the phone bill for that 800 line so the public can judge if it should be expanded or shut down.)

An offer to show appeared in an Oct. 12 letter to the editor from Dr. Atul Kapur. Reacting to a column in which I challenged violence orthodoxy, he showed he was a determined protector of women. In his view, I was showing "hate-filled, bilious, vile rhetoric ... hyperbole, extremism and near-total ignorance ... vitriolic denial" by expressing doubt.

"I will limit my response to inviting him to spend a couple of shifts with me in the emergency department of a hospital to see first-hand some of the effects of domestic violence."

His letter reminded me that, in matters of violence, hospital emergency departments are staffed by front-line workers. I put some questions to Judy Brown, media relations chief at the Ottawa Hospital.

The hospital is one of several serving a populace of about 1.4 million people. How many persons were admitted last year to the Civic campus (the only one that currently keeps such statistics) with injuries from domestic assault?

None. Not one.

In the same time, how many people were treated in the Civic's emergency department for injuries involving domestic assault? "Twenty nine." The number wasn't broken down by gender, but studies outside of the violence-against-women camp put the number of men injured in domestic disputes at one-third of the total.

In a call to Dr. Kapur, I pointed out that with numbers like this, my calculator was telling me if I wanted to see domestic violence victims in his emergency room, my odds would be almost as good standing at Bank and Sparks streets waiting to see somebody hit by lightning. He said I had the wrong statistics and offered to provide his own. I pointed out I would accept only statistics approved by the hospital.

If it were possible to spend a couple of shifts with him, what were the odds of seeing domestic bloodshed? "You would see injured women I would have concerns about, but who might not admit the cause of injuries."

Dr. Kapur left me with the impression he was a good man with a deep concern, but with a mindset that could make every injury suspect. If he was called on to treat a truly battered and broken woman who denied her partner did it, but he was certain that was the case, would he call police? "No. That would be paternalistic."

I went looking for other hospital emergency workers who would be willing to go on record with their experiences in the domestic-violence field, and found registered nurse Sue Chenard. She spent 12 years in emergency at the Riverside Hospital. "I can think of a couple of cases I was suspicious about. Two at the most. The men hovered. I could only get the women alone and ask if they needed help, but in both cases they denied they were assaulted."

Secret places are anathema to a free and open society, and dangerous. The statistics that tell us women are being violently abused in great numbers in secret are coming from places that are closed to public overview, such as shelters, crisis centres and hotlines. My job is overview. I'm left asking questions.

How is it that where the "front-line workers" are open to approach there's not a whiff of the great numbers emanating from shelters? How is it that, with the lines of communication I have developed into the community after 35 years of writing a city column, not one of them signals a secret epidemic of violence?

The media has to accept much of the responsibility for turning unsubstantiated statistics into facts but, like everybody else, we're caught in confusing battle lines. How can high-profile corporations say no to buying a table at a fund-raiser when the promotion says it's to protect women from violence? Newspapers, including the Citizen, buy tables at these events, giving them legitimacy through financial support and the corporate name on the table.

Often, awards will be handed out to persons deemed to have contributed much to the war against violence against women. The award winners appear in news stories. The litmus test hasn't been applied. What did they do to win such honour? Don't tell us. Show us. Those honours when they appear in the news are the same as the poster in the high school. They say: Everybody knows women are being violated; there's no need to explain.

There is in every one of us a trigger that fires when we think there's even a remote chance a woman is being battered by a man. By playing to that trigger the violence-against-women movement continues to grow and takes on the characteristics of a cult. For example, women entering a shelter must sign a secrecy agreement that they will not divulge what they see and hear inside.

The Ontario government has committed additional millions over the next year to the protection cause. Leaders want the wholesale battering of women to stop and that's a noble thing to do -- but first confirm the problem exists and has been properly framed.

Domestic violence courts violate the Charter rights of half the population -- the male half. No presumption of innocence here. As shown earlier in this series, protocols are in place so police respond to domestic calls with orders to arrest the man. From that point, the couple can't reconcile unless he pleads guilty to the criminal charge of domestic violence. They can't even talk to each other because an automatic restraining order is part of the protocol. Plead guilty or you can't go home.

The Ontario government has committed to opening more DV courts during the next year.

There's little reaction to this spreading anti-violence net because people assume it won't fall over them. It's happening to 120 families a month in the capital.

I want to be clear. There are cases in which a man is getting what he deserves. But criminal courts, not political courts, should be dealing with him.

The Ontario government now spends $145 million a year on programs associated with preventing domestic violence and punishing its perpetrators, and the budget keeps rising. Then there's tax-funded contributions at the municipal level, and the millions of dollars raised through charities like the United Way and others.

Hey, I'm prepared to make a donation myself if it will help eradicate domestic violence. But when the lobbyists for the domestic-violence industry tell me that this social problem is not an aberration but rather an epidemic, and won't let me check it out, I'm not prepared to take it as an article of faith.

I reserve the right to ask questions.

Last of five parts

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen