Courage to report — and report on — domestic violence

by Elisabeth Johns

As the cops, courts and everything-in-between reporter for the Standard Freeholder in Cornwall, Ont., I had to check the police blotter every day. Day in and day out, I saw several charges related to domestic violence in Cornwall, a town of 46,000.  Coincidentally, a month before I started working at the newspaper, a woman was murdered as a result of domestic violence.

When I began exploring stories related to domestic violence, I decided that I wanted to tell the stories differently.  To me, it seemed that I read story after story of women and their dramatic tales but not enough of their strength.

Interviewing Violet was the pivotal point. She wanted to be photographed. She let me use her real first name. She wanted to stand up and say, “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did.”  The other woman I interviewed, whom I called Maggie, wanted to educate women about domestic violence.  Still, she was fearful of her ex-husband, who resided in a halfway house.  It was essential that when I wrote her story I protected her and her identity.

One thing that I kept hearing from the local Crown attorney handling the domestic violence cases is that many victims recant their stories out of fear of their abusive ex-partners.  Neither Violet nor Maggie recanted.  Their courage was powerful.

I began interviewing those working to fight domestic violence and discovered their struggles in their daily jobs as well as the struggle to get provincial funding.  Many of these workers said they felt that, because they worked in a small Ontario town, their work was somehow deemed less important than that of bigger cities that need more cash. 

I think my biggest frustrations in reporting this story were twofold.  First, the town police suggested that Cornwall didn’t have a high rate of domestic violence but rather a high reporting rate.  According to the police, this indicated that they were doing their job getting people to report the crime because the victims trusted them.  The police also did not want to suggest that Cornwall had a true domestic violence problem.

This suggestion disturbed me, and nearly every advocate said they didn’t agree with the police assessment of the problem.  The police later admitted they have limited resources to handle the amount of domestic violence calls they answer.

Secondly, I was frustrated because I could only work on the story sporadically.  It took me seven months to complete the story because I had other daily assignments to work on.  I had to work on the story, on my own time, even while doing my wash at the local laundromat.

I hope doing stories like these bring about change. That’s why I got into this business.  On a personal level, it’s funny to me that when the advocates I interviewed for this series called and thanked me for raising awareness of domestic violence in their small town, I felt shy and did not want the attention.  All I did was bring these stories and issues to light.

Following the series, the community held a roast of the Crown attorney to raise funds for a program that counsels and treats abusers.  The town is still waiting for provincial money.

Read “The scourge of domestic violence”
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IVa
Part IVb