Chapter 10: Navigating the System: Getting Help

Balbir Gurm

Key Messages

  • RV is grossly underreported to police. In fact, in Canada only approximately 17% of cases are reported.
  • The greatest form of “non-emergency” assistance to RV is disclosures to family or friends.  Frequently, a friend or family member or even the survivor may not identify the situation as a case of relationship violence (intimate partner violence, elder abuse, child abuse and neglect, etc.). Therefore, it is imperative that everyone become a community champion and know how to identify and support someone who is experiencing RV. A range of resources, below, can help you become familiar with key resources and what to do if you’re in a position of receiving a disclosure.
  • For immediate assistance, call 911. If a survivor is in need of medical attention and does not want to involve the police, they can access the Surrey Mobile Assault Response Team (SMART) in the Fraser Health region (Surrey Women’s Centre, 2019) to get assistance getting to the hospital. The SMART program partners with VictimLinkBC, and it can be accessed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
  • RV is a complex issue, and different professions hold different pieces to the same puzzle – emphasizing the critical need that organizations work in harmony to support those impacted by RV, so that progression through “the system” does not further traumatize those involved. Learn more about how these professionals work to address RV below.

Relationship violence is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone that has a bond or relationship with the offender. In the literature, we find words such as intimate partner violence (IPV), neglect, dating violence, family violence, battery, child neglect, child abuse, bullying, seniors or elder abuse, male violence, stalking, cyberbullying, strangulation, technology-facilitated coercive control, honour killing, female genital mutilation gang violence and workplace violence. In couples, violence can be perpetrated by women and men in opposite-sex relationships (Carney et al., 2007), within same-sex relationships (Rollè et al., 2018) and in relationships where the victim is LGBTQ2SIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, intersex and asexual plus  (The Scottish Trans Alliance, 2010; Rollè et al., 2018). Relationship violence is a result of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia and homophobia. It can span the entire age spectrum. It may start in-utero and end with death.

Getting Help

Non-emergency Assistance

It is known that most relationship violence is not reported to the police. Estimates indicate that in Canada, only 17% of RV is reported and most often (these statistics vary depending on the source) if a person tells they tell a friend or family member. Frequently, a friend, family member or even the survivor may not identify the situation as a case of relationship violence (intimate partner violence, elder abuse, child abuse and neglect, etc.). Therefore, it is imperative that everyone become a community champion. We encourage you to download the toolkit and learn how to recognize relationship violence or abuse and respond to the survivor, providing them with resources and safety when needed. You may also visit the Government of Canada website (2019) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2018) website to read publications related to this topic.

To learn about types of abuse, consequences and actions, please click here (CDC, 2018). This video is about domestic violence, but it is applicable to relationship violence in general. Be informed, relationship violence impacts many people and you can help. It is crucial that you are able to support a friend or family member and get them to safety. If you are not aware of the services in your area, you can go to VictimLinkBC (2019) website or email and locate services within British Columbia. You can also call VictimLink at 1-800-563-0808 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These resources offer free information in over 100 languages. They can help you access victim service workers who can advocate and give you support to access a safe house, as well as a number of other resources.

Outside of BC, but within Canada, you can access the Government of Canada (2019) website and locate resources in your province. When survivors are assaulted, they have a choice to make. They need to think if they will stay in a violent situation, call the non-emergency line or call the emergency line. While supporting the survivor, if the survivor chooses to stay and/or decide to call the non-emergency line (1-800-563-0808 in British Columbia), it is important to support their decision unless there is imminent harm or emergency care is required. Many survivors state they feel re-assaulted within the system, so please make sure you allow the survivor to make the decision and ensure that you remind them that relationship violence is not their fault. There are a number of agencies and services that can provide support. Click here for the types of support available (Government of Canada, 2019). While accessing support services, the following workers may be involved in providing help: victim support worker, doctor, nurse or counsellor, depending on the choices the survivor makes. The roles of workers in the system are explained further down.

Adult survivors can flee to shelter and or obtain counselling and other services even if they do not call the police. For a directory of services specific to relationship violence, click here (NEVR, 2019). For shelters/transition homes in BC, click here (BC Housing, n.d.).

Perpetrators, on the other hand, have very few counselling/programming choices unless they are prosecuted and found guilty. One program that male perpetrators can self refer to is the Options Community Services called Caring Dads. Program manager, Harpal Johl states: “This service works well for clients. In my many years of running the relationship violence program, I did not see as much buy-in from male offenders as I do with this program. I think it may be because we focus on the impact on children in program delivery”. There are few BC services for male survivors of relationship abuse and only one specific society for male survivors of sexual abuse, BC Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse (2020). Click here to access their website. There is another website out of California, the USA that has an excellent guide for male survivors, click here (Help Guide, n.d.). Male survivors can access the services originally set up for female survivors of relationship violence such as those at Surrey Women’s Centre (2019).

For those who do not leave the abusive relationship, it is still very important that they create a safety plan. This can be done with a friend/family member or with a  services support worker. Review the elements of a safety plan in the Community Champion toolkit (NEVR, 2019) or read  Creating a Safety Plan booklet (Government of British Columbia, 2015). To listen to a video on safety planning, click here (Learning to End Abuse, 2017a).

Emergency Assistance

For immediate assistance, call 911. If a survivor is in need of medical attention and does not want to involve the police, they can access the Surrey Mobile Assault Response Team (SMART) in the Fraser Health region (Surrey Women’s Centre, 2019) to get assistance getting to the hospital. The SMART program partners with VictimLinkBC, and it can be accessed 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. A service support worker can be reached by calling 604-583-1295. The SMART van comes to the site and provides accompaniment to the hospital after a stated sexual assault. The support worker can help the survivor access services and provide support. If the survivor wishes, the support worker will accompany law enforcement as well. Forensic nurses can collect evidence in the emergency department, in case the survivor wants to report to the police at a later time and date.

Smart Van                                                                                  Emergency Outreach Van | Surrey Women's Centre

“Nine-one-one (911) what is your emergency” can be heard in Canada. It is the number to call for immediate assistance. The first point of contact is the emergency services dispatcher. Below is a description of a 911 call to provide information on the process if you choose to call 911.

911 Case Study

Please be aware that the following case study includes details of a violent act and reader discretion is advised.

The 911 dispatcher asked the caller to describe the situation. It was a child stating:  – My daddy is trying to stab my mommy. There was a history of calls for domestic violence from this number in the past. The operator obtained the address from the child. Having determined it was an assault in progress, the 911 operator dispatched the police to the home. When police responded to this 911 call regarding a serious assault, they were told the dispute was between a male and a female. The male had a knife, and they were on the street. Upon arrival, the police found several neighbours on the street watching the dispute. They located a woman lying on the ground, and she was bleeding profusely from a wound to her abdomen. Standing over top of the injured woman was a male person, and he was in possession of a machete type knife. The knife was covered in blood, and there was a  pool of blood on the ground where the woman was lying. The male was screaming at the woman as she lay partially conscious. Also, standing near the couple was a 12-year-old girl, and she was crying and very distraught. The male and female were married a few months prior to this date. The husband was very irritated, and he was yelling and screaming at his wife as she was lying on the ground. When the male person saw the police officers (males and females) arriving on the scene, he ran at a female police officer, knife in hand and attacked her. The male was subdued, taken to the ground, handcuffed, placed in the rear of a police vehicle and closely guarded. He was eventually removed from the scene. The woman was in serious condition, and she was transported to the hospital via ambulance. The daughter accompanied her mother inside the ambulance. Several of the neighbours remained in the area, and many of them were in shock, traumatized by the gravity of this incident. Police Victim Services staff and volunteers were requested to respond and to assist at the scene. Several witnesses were transported from the scene to the police department for further interviews, and their statements were taken. The paramedics arrived on the scene, assessed the survivors and bandaged the knife wound. Upon arrival at the hospital, the woman was assessed by a registered nurse (RN) and the Emergency Physician (EP) They both suspected there may have been a sexual assault as well as the physical injuries and a forensic nurse was called. While the victim was undergoing assessment and preparation for surgery, the forensic nurse documented physical findings indicating defensive bruises and cuts on the patient’s arms and hands. Since police were involved, the victim’s clothing was collected and with the victim’s permission provided to police. Care was taken to preserve as much forensic evidence as possible. Once the patient had undergone her life saving surgery for her abdominal wound and was fully conscious, the forensic nurse returned. With the patient’s informed consent and her affirmation that she had indeed been forced to have intercourse with the accused prior to the physical assault,  the forensic nurse completed a medical/forensic examination, obtained internal forensic samples and provided resources for follow up for the patient.

Support services staff arrived at the hospital and they attended to the couple’s young daughter. She, too, was severely traumatized and required treatment at the hospital. The young girl was also the subject of an extensive interview. She was aware that her father had been arrested and taken to jail and that her mother was in very serious condition in the operating room. At this point, she was very much on her own. She did not have any family or friends in Canada to care for her.

The husband was arrested and transported by police to jail. He was charged, cautioned and was afforded the opportunity to call a lawyer. He refused the lawyer and he refused to speak with the police. He was very irate and belligerent. He was lodged in a custody cell and remanded in custody.

The police conducted their investigations at the scene. The investigation involved a forensic examination of the street scene and the family residence. The residence was locked down by the police and further examination would be conducted pending the condition of the victim.

Since the daughter did not have any immediate family or caregivers, several neighbours offered to look after the young girl until such time as her mother was released from the hospital. Unfortunately, the victim’s injuries were very serious and she remained in the hospital for several months.  She was paralyzed from the waist down and would never walk again. She received damage to her spine and she required several operations to repair the damage to her abdomen. She received several months of treatment and physiotherapy.

Due to the fact that the victim was to remain in the hospital for several months, it became extremely difficult for the neighbours to continue to care for the daughter. The Ministry of Children and Families took custody of the daughter and she was placed into a foster home until such time as her mother would be able to care for her. See the process involved on the Ministry website (Government of British Columbia, n.d.).

The husband remained in custody pending a trial. The police investigations continued, and the victim was subject to several interviews with the police victim services and the crown prosecutor’s office. Each of these agencies has a specific function to perform regarding the prosecution of the husband.

Here is a training video from the United States on domestic violence. It discusses a little bit about relationship violence, the process for evidence collection and interviewing that police officers follow (The IACP, 2017).

Different workers/professionals are involved in addressing relationship violence. It is really important that all service providers work together. Listen to a video on the importance of collaboration. Each person has a different role in the system, and everyone needs to work together (Learning to End Abuse, 2017b).

The Government of British Columbia website (n.d.) shows the role of the victim support worker is to:

  • Helping victims talk to the police
  • Providing information about the criminal justice system, including help with peace bonds and protection orders
  • Providing court support, including going to court with victims
  • Helping complete a Crime Victim Assistance Program application to apply for benefits
  • Helping to understand and prepare a Victim Impact Statement and an emergency safety plan
  • Talking about the experience and helping people deal with emotions arising from being a victim of crime
  • Notifying victims about the status of offenders in custody at provincial institutions
  • Call victim link at 1-800-563-0808 anytime for support

Service Providers and their Roles

  1. 911 dispatcher’s role is to quickly assess the situation and dispatch emergency services (police/fire/ambulance). They try to keep you on the line if possible and get detailed information such as phone number, address, the situation and environment, such as finding out where the perpetrator is and if they are armed.
  2. Police member’s role is to deal with the emergency and provide safety to all involved. They are trained to assess the situation immediately and call other services as needed. They also are trained to conduct investigations by taking a close look at the environment and interviewing you and anyone that may have seen/heard something. The police write a report to Crown counsel who decides if there is enough evidence to accuse the offender of a criminal offence, lay charges. Here is a good video that shows how police do their work.
  3. Service or Transition Support Worker can be found in community agencies and also with domestic violence units in the police departments. Their role is to help the person emotionally and help them navigate the system from the time they come in contact with the survivor through a trial if needed. They also may be the person who communicates with the survivor and informs them of the movements of the offender, whether they are in custody or released. They are an advocate and a resource navigator for the survivor. For a service (victim) support worker handbook, click here. They help survivors to transition to a violence-free life. They may help access services such as legal aid, counselling, parenting classes,  education, income support, child care, training, housing or employment.
  4. MCFD Child Protection Worker protects the child from harm. Their job is to talk to the family members and assess the home and family to decide if the child is safe. They may provide support to families, supervise the child in the home or remove the child and place he/she with foster parents or others. To find a child protection office in BC click here.
  5. The Forensic Nurse (FN) is a Registered Nurse or Nurse Practitioner who has specialized education and skills to address the medical and forensic needs of survivors of abuse. Their role is to conduct a physical assessment, identify pertinent findings, document these findings, collect and preserve forensic samples according to forensic evidence protocols, maintain a chain of custody and provide nursing interventions. Documentation includes specialized forms and body maps with a medical-legal report generated.  The average time for the interview and examination process varies between 2.5 to 5 hours depending on the circumstances of the incident. Some examinations may be shorter, some may be longer. The FN always ensures the patient is safe and cared for during this time frame. The R.N./N.P also provides medications for prevention/prophylaxis of pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. They can also follow up with survivors on a limited basis as well as referring the survivor to the FHA Embrace Clinic for short term discharge care. The FN consults with the legal system if criminal charges are filed and may be called as a witness in Criminal Court to testify regarding the medical forensic examination conducted. To learn about how a medical forensic exam is conducted, click here. (This is a United States video so may differ in different jurisdictions). If you need to be assessed by a forensic nurse, they ask you not to drink or eat anything, bath/shower or change clothes, wash your genitals, pee or poop, brush or floss your teeth, comb or brush your hair or chew gum to preserve the evidence. There are forensic nurses in several hospitals and clinics in BC. To locate a forensic nurse examiner, click on the health authority: Provincial Health,  Coastal Health, Island Health,  Interior Health and Fraser Health. If you are not sure of which health authority you reside, in click here.
  6.  Crown Counsel is a lawyer. It is their role to decide if there is enough evidence to lay charges. They do not need your consent. They usually base their decision on whether a judge is likely to find the accused (offender) guilty and if it is in the best interest of the public. Crown counsel interviews the survivor to obtain details to go to court and present the case before the judge. They also provide an explanation to the survivor about their decision to not lay charges. To learn more click here. For more details see the crown counsel policy manual.
  7. Judge is an individual with a background in law who is appointed by the government to hear cases and make a decision. This person listens to both the survivor and the accused and determines if the person is guilty or not and if any punishment (called a sentence) should be administered. To know more about going to court, click here.
  8. The survivor is usually traumatized and is assigned to a service support worker who is able to accompany the victim to court. Also, the survivor is eligible for counselling services for herself and her children.

Housing and Other Services

Survivors who have gone to court are eligible for counselling services for themselves and their children. The survivor may also require housing. To access a directory of housing operated by non-profit societies, click here. There are different levels of housing and the service support worker can help with accessing housing.

  • First stage shelter/emergency shelter/healing lodge: this is an emergency shelter for those fleeing relationship violence. Survivors can stay in these shelters for several days, weeks or even months depending on the shelter.
  • Second stage shelter: can be accessed after the first stage and the amount of time you can stay varies from months to years depending on the shelter’s policy.
  • Third stage housing: is from months to years and it is for those who have recovered from the acute trauma of relationship violence and are ready to become more independent. It usually does not have services within the complex, and it is more affordable than general housing.

Shelters also have services but these can vary. Services may include individual and group counselling, children’s programs, parenting classes, mental health and addiction services, nutritional classes and community kitchens, Indigenous programming, legal and housing services, support for immigrant and refugee women, men’s programs (for both those who have abused and those who have experienced abuse), and assistance with applications to educational and apprenticeship programs.

Moving expenses or care for their pet(s) is something that survivors may need assistance with. There is a company called ‘Shelter Movers’ with dedicated volunteers that can help move your possessions with locations in Nova Scotia, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Click here to access their website. On this homepage, you can watch Sophie Gregoire Trudeau (who has partnered with Shelter Movers) complete a move, a testimonial and a panel discussion on how RV has been impacted by COVID-19.

Support workers can help you find shelter for your pet and BC SPCA will also accept a pet for emergency care from those fleeing RV.

The Legal Stuff

The story above is based on true incidents but it does not reflect any one’s particular story or a specific call made for emergency assistance. Relationship violence is under-reported to the police. See chapter 8 on Why do people not report.

Once cases are reported and the police provide the investigative report, a prosecutor reviews the information and decides whether to proceed with charges or not. The role of the survivor is one of providing testimony or victim impact statements. It is up to the Crown Counsel to press charges and prosecute.

Generally, the accused hires a lawyer and tries to minimize the offence. Once the judge has heard from both sides, they make a decision and find the accused guilty or not guilty. If the accused is not guilty, they are free to leave. If the accused is found guilty, the judge can order jail or community time or a combination. Jail time is considered a custodial sentence, details of the different forms of custodial sentences can be found here. Details regarding community sentences can be found in this link. You can read about other conditions such as no contact here.

Surviving the Legal System

Survivors tell us that they are revictimized by our systems. That is why it is important for those talking with the survivor to build trust, acknowledge the impact of the violence in this U.S.A based report: (Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, 2018, p. 21), and allow a service support worker to be present during all interviews. Haskell & Randall (2019) wrote a report for Justice Canada on the Impact of Trauma on Sexual Assault Victims. They document the impacts on survivors including neurological impacts, difficulty with memory and recall and the need for all professionals to switch to trauma-informed best practices in the criminal justice system (Haskell & Randall, 2019). Also, West Coast Leaf launched the toolkit on criminal proceedings for counsel because many survivors felt traumatized and victimized by the courts. This toolkit provides some ways to mitigate the impact on survivors. Click here to access toolkit on section 272 and 278 Criminal Code.


Some survivors feel defeated by the system while others go on with their lives. One example of lifelong courage is a woman who was sexually assaulted in childhood, along with her sisters but did not report it until she was an adult with two young daughters of her own. Her story was heard in a British Columbia court, and she went on to be the subject of a documentary. Her name is Jeeti Pooni, she is one of the brave ones, who has shared her story so that others will come forward and heal. She told Balbir Gurm that the outcome did not matter, what mattered was that she could tell her truth. She did a similar interview with CBC. Listen to Jeeti Pooni talk (chapter 9) about her motivation to come forward many years later and watch the trailer to the documentary in which she is the main subject Because we are girls (2019).

The above information is for adults who suffer RV. If you suspect a child is in danger, you need to call 1-800-663-9122 immediately. If you are a child and need to talk with someone, call 310-1234 any time, day or night. Also for older adults, access SAIL, call 1-866-437-1940 from 8 AM – 8 PM 7 days a week excluding holidays or visit the Seniors First BC website.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

The Justice Council of Canada (n.d.) states that most cases do not go to court. Restorative justice (RJ) is an umbrella term for all processes outside the court system that bring survivors, offenders and perhaps their communities together to talk about the crime (National Resource Center on Domestic Violence). Types of RJ include mediation between the offender and survivor, family conferencing and reconciliation circles that involve the community. The goal is to repair harm, make amends, and create trust by both the survivor and offender by talking about the crime from their perspectives. It allows each person to understand the perspective of the other. In some processes, the community is also included. Some members of the Network to Eliminate Violence in Relationships (NEVR)  state that restorative justice can work to hold the offender accountable and bring closure for the survivor. Other members state that it should not be used because the process reinforces a power dynamic that resulted in relationship violence in the first place. Similar concerns are expressed in the literature (Ptacek & Frederick, 2009). Although a quick search of restorative justice brings up many articles, very few evaluation studies are published. One recent study by Mills et al. (2019)  found that when restorative justice circles are used with traditional relationship violence programs, a significant reduction in new cases occurs, so these researchers recommend that RJ be offered as an option to address RV. The Public Prosecution of Canada handbook that outlines when crown counsel may consider alternative dispute resolution is found here. A study of restorative justice processes in some Indigenous communities done for the Department of Justice Canada indicates that most survivors and offenders were pleased with the process and outcomes (Government of Canada).

To learn more about access to justice for victims of crime, please see the training document for university students Module 2: Access to Justice for Victims from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that NEVR member Yvon Dandurand, Faculty, University of the Fraser Valley, co-authored. Coming soon is Module 14: Independence of the Judiciary and the Role of Prosecutors.


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