Cutting victim services branch, one staffer at a time

After 23 years with the Department of Justice, victim services manager Sandra Bryce “decided to take an earlier-than-planned retirement.

After 23 years with the Department of Justice, victim services manager Sandra Bryce “decided to take an earlier-than-planned retirement.”

“I tried to be a loyal public servant and roll out the decisions even though I wasn’t clear about them and didn’t totally agree with them,” said Bryce.

“But then I knew I had to move on because I couldn’t see myself fitting in the department anymore.”

She wasn’t the only one. Eleven of Bryce’s coworkers left in the last year.

Bryce was the 12th victim services worker to leave. Her last day was in October.

“We had fabulous staff at that unit,” she said. “But people were getting really disillusioned. There was a lack of direction from management; there were mixed messages — there was a lack of appreciation basically for the work that was done.”

Recognized nationally and internationally for its cutting edge approach to criminal justice, the Yukon used to be ahead of the curve.

“We had been told many, many times what an excellent program we had,” said Bryce.

That started to change two years ago.

“It felt like we were going backwards instead of forwards, and it was becoming more bureaucratic rather than community agency based,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of fear. I think there’s a lot of not being able to speak what you want to say, and I wasn’t used to working in a situation like that.

“I was used to working in a very forward-thinking, fertile department.

“Now it’s very, very stifled.”

One of the worst developments was an upper-management decision to slice victim services in half.

The severed family violence unit was lumped in with corrections and probation, while the rest of victim services was moved upstairs to crime prevention, with policing and management.

So they’re under two different directors now, said Bryce.

“The unit used to be unique because we were case-managing daily around safety issues — it’s what sparked the development of the domestic violence treatment option court, which was acclaimed not only nationally but internationally, because we managed those cases so tightly,” she said.

If a victim had an appointment, the unit would, obviously, not schedule the offender’s appointment at the same time.

However, because the units have been separated and no longer case-manage as a whole, it’s now possible for both the victim and offender to be entering the building at the same time.

“I was not consulted on the move to separate us physically from each other,” said Bryce, although some consultations were held to appease staff.

“ There’s been lots of consultation, but then they don’t move on any of the advice they get from staff — they placate and then they just go do whatever.

“We did write a letter to the assistant deputy minister, saying as a staff we didn’t feel good about that separation and the move.

“But at the end of the day he made the call, and we tried to make the best of it as best we could.”

To get to the new upstairs offices victims are expected to enter a side door, walk around a blind corner and climb a staircase with another blind corner.

There is a freight elevator for victims who are no longer mobile.

“We did highlight that there were issues around safety; that we needed video cameras, and that the elevator was inappropriate for anybody,” said Bryce.

“We had victims that have been caught in the elevator — I’ve been caught in it before,” she added.

“It’s extremely claustrophobic — it’s a cargo elevator.”

Bryce was told some of these issues would be fixed, and that they would get video cameras.

“But here we are, a year later, and there are no video cameras to monitor who is coming in and out,” she said.

Putting offender services with probation is also problematic, she added. Treatment is different than enforcement and should be kept separate.

Bryce blames “lack of experience” for the damaging decisions being made.

“People who are making decisions don’t have the expertise in domestic violence and sexual assault, and instead of consulting with those experts — and we have expertise — they just made arbitrary decisions based on the space situation,” she said.

It’s senior management making the decisions, added Bryce, citing assistant deputy minister Robert Riches and deputy minister Dennis Cooley.

“And it’s very confusing to know what they want,” she said.

“There are decisions being made that are not clearly articulated — it’s a philosophy,  it’s a team of people thinking a certain way — it’s bad leadership.”

Riches, on loan from BC, was supposed to be here for 18 months, but his secondment has been extended.

“He was brought up to build the new jail; his background is in corrections,” said Bryce.

 “It’s not in community, and its not in treatment or victim services or anything like that,”

Justice Minister Marian Horne doesn’t have any say, added Bryce.

“I think Minister Horne’s a good person, I just don’t think she’s in the know.”

A year ago, NDP Justice critic Steve Cardiff asked Horne why her department severed victim services from the family violence prevention unit.

“She seemed unaware of the move at the time and we’re still waiting for a reply,” said Cardiff in the house on Monday.

“For years, these two units worked in close communication and collaboration with shared clients and families, and their work has been instrumental in saving children at risk and working with their families, and it has been recognized nationally,” he said.

“Separating the two units means a lack of ready communication between them, which affects their daily work.

“How does the minister justify the physical separation of these two units?”

“There were perceived problems at the beginning of the move and things have seemed to move quite smoothly along,” said Horne.

“Staff is happy with the move and the victims are happy with the move — there is more protection.”

Horne is  “out of the loop,” said Bryce. And senior management uses this to its advantage.

“One foot doesn’t know what the other’s doing,” she said.

“I think the minister may be a little out of touch,” said Cardiff.

Not only has the move affected vital communications between professionals working with at-risk families, it has meant the needs of victims of abuse have been ignored, he said.

“They must now enter a windowless foyer, turn a blind corner and walk up two flights of stairs to see their workers. This dark and unprotected entrance adds to the victims’ discomfort when trying to access services.”

“None of these are applicable,” said Horne.

“When we do make any changes, we’ll make sure they’re done correctly with time.”

But the move has not increased services for victims at all, said Bryce.

“I think it’s a belief system that’s political, rather than based on people’s needs.”

Justice is becoming “very, very top-heavy, with senior managers,” added Bryce. “And it is not putting a lot of money toward frontline workers, where the real work is.”

Victims have never been an important piece of the criminal justice system, she added. “Only in the last 15 years have we made some strides, knowing that a good criminal justice system must put the victim at the centre and heart of it all.

“That was happening in the Yukon — and now it’s going backwards.”

A 2008 employee engagement survey, which looked at every government department, found several had extremely low morale, said Bryce.

“Justice was one of the low ones — across the board people do not feel supported and they do not feel heard.”

The disconnect between Justice staff and senior management has been chalked up to change and a general resistance to it, she said.

“And that’s absolutely insulting, because if change is for the better, staff will embrace it — we’d love to be part of positive change.

“We have really excellent staff who are really committed to their work.”

Bryce’s goal and passion is to work with families and victims and offenders of domestic violence and sexual assault.

And in the Yukon, where it’s a huge problem, that was becoming watered down, she said.

“I decided to leave, because I knew I no longer had any influence on the senior managers as it related to victim issues or domestic violence and sexual assaults,” said Bryce.

And, after watching coworkers who left get raked over the coals, Bryce decided to leave the territory.

“Once you leave the department you become a bit of a target; they try looking for dirt on you and try to discredit you, I’ve seen it over and over again,” she said.

Now the executive director of child abuse treatment services for greater Victoria, BC, Bryce is back in her niche.

“It’s nice to be back where I feel like people realize I have some knowledge,” she said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at