Why doesn’t she just leave him?
We often ask ourselves the question when faced with someone who is being abused by a partner.
Cathy Richardson, a professor and social worker who has worked with Yukon communities for more than a decade, tells the story of a woman who files a report with police to seek help with an abusive boyfriend.
“They recorded that she came in to make a report, but that then she kept going back to him, so it couldn’t have been that bad,” said Richardson.
But the kernel of truth hidden in her behaviour that they missed was that the woman was paradoxically safer with her abusive partner than away from him.
“It was when she was away from him that he could get erratic and violent and unpredictable, and she didn’t know what he was doing,” said Richardson.
Failed by the institutions meant to protect her, she found a measure of safety by choosing to remain close to her partner, where she could keep an eye on him and help regulate his behaviour and moods.
He had manipulated the conditions of their relationship so that she would be safer near him, because he wants her to stay.
“We should be asking, rather than ‘Why doesn’t she leave him,’ ‘What is he doing to prevent her from leaving?’” said Richardson.
Richardson is in Whitehorse this week along with social worker and researcher Allan Wade to train Yukoners on how to better serve people living with or healing from violence.
They are partners in the Centre for Response-Based Practice, based largely in B.C., which promotes an understanding of how victims act to resist violence and protect themselves and their loved ones.
“We’ve been finding deficits in the minds of women to explain the behaviour of abusive men for about 125 years,” said Wade. “I think that’s enough. It’s time we moved on and began honouring the fact that women always respond to and resist violence.
“They’re trying to preserve their dignity or create safety for themselves or other people, and they’re quite active.”
Another thing Wade and Richardson have learned is that if you tease out stories of resistance from survivors, they begin to feel much less like victims and much more like strong, competent managers of their own lives in the face of immense adversity.
Stories of resistance are just below the surface if you bother to ask any survivor of violence, including men, women and even children.
That’s a lesson Wade and Richardson have learned in particular from survivors of residential schools.
(The researchers call the residential schools prison camps, because they say that language accurately reflects the reality of what happened there. “They weren’t residences and they weren’t schools,” said Wade. “They were prisons. If you ran away they came and got you.”)
They have heard extraordinary stories from Kaska elders who, as children, sang in their language in defiance of the rules, made grass dolls as they were taught by their elders, arranged secret, forbidden meetings with siblings - anything to maintain a connection to home, said Wade.
“When they were in the prison camp in Lower Post, when a new child would come in, often they would go gather around that new child because they smelled like the bush. They smelled like home,” he said.
“We’re hearing stories of extraordinary courage and determination and love.
“When you begin to get in touch with the enormous capacity and dignity of children to respond to horrible adversity, it’s not only inspiring, it also teaches you a little bit about the depths of the human spirit, the care that people have for one another, the capacity that people bring in their everyday lives.”
When you remind a survivor that they are capable, fierce resistors of violence and not helpless and hopeless victims, it can do amazing things for their sense of self worth and their healing, Wade and Richardson said.
But the researchers are not content with only helping victims after the fact.
There are two other significant pieces of the puzzle necessary to create a less violent, more just society: helping abusers to stop abusing, and building institutions that are better at interrupting violence and protecting victims.
Helping abusers, too
Wade and Richardson work extensively with perpetrators of violence, too.
Their approach is oddly parallel to working with survivors.
The first step is to create a special kind of safety for them, so they feel comfortable opening up, said Wade.
“We take the time necessary to say, ‘I get that you are more than the worst thing you’ve done. There’s a context here, and I have time to listen to you.’
“That’s part of what creates enough safety for the man to talk with you in detail about the violence he has committed.
“Then in the context of that conversation, you can begin to see choice points, where he has made a decision to be violent or to be not violent. And it’s those conversations that elicit descriptions of skill and awareness and competency that men have often never talked about.”
They ask the men about the times they have made good choices, to help them learn to make those good choices more often.
In a project conducted in N.W.T., researchers interviewed aboriginal men who had chosen to stop abusing, and asked them how they did it, said Wade.
“And they’ll tell you. They’ll be able to tell you exactly how they became more respectful men.”
The result of that project was a DVD that could be shown to other men struggling to make good choices in their lives.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Wade. “That DVD got shown to other aboriginal men, and it’s aboriginal men speaking to aboriginal men. They’re qualified to speak to each other, much more qualified than I will ever be.”
Working with authorities
The final and crucial step in interrupting violence is to work with the institutions that respond to violence, and Wade and Richardson do much of that work as well.
They were both facilitators for Together for Justice, a two-year community safety project based in Watson Lake and initiated by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society that brought RCMP, government and community organizations together to empower police to serve people better and build trust between residents and authorities.
When working with institutions, just as with survivors and perpetrators, the first step is to listen, said Wade.
Pay attention to what people are already doing that’s useful, meaningful and effective, he said.
The goal is to support the good work that’s already happening. Talk to them about what they know, and ideas about how to make things better will come from that, said Wade.
This week Wade and Richardson have run workshops with staff at the Yukon Women’s Directorate on response-based practice, and with staff at Kaushee’s Place on working with children and their moms who are fleeing violence in a transition home setting.
They have met with representatives from various Yukon departments who are responsible for communications and policy.
And they plan to meet with deputy ministers of some departments today, as well.
Wade and Richardson will present and facilitate discussions at this weekend’s women’s forum, which will focus on responding to violence at work, at home and in the community.
Ripples from Wade and Richardson’s work here in the Yukon are spreading well beyond our borders as well.
In April the researchers will present learnings from the Together for Justice project at a four-day conference in New Zealand.
Radio spots produced by staff at Kaushee’s place that tell stories of women and girls resisting sexualized violence have been translated into Swedish and now appear on the side of buses in Sweden.
“Things are happening from Yukon,” said Wade. “It’s really a privilege to be a small part of that.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at