Why advocacy matters

Presented by Pamela Cross, Luke’s Place Legal Director, to the 2013 Annual Gathering of the Family Court Support Workers.

I think sometimes when people hear the word advocacy they assume it means standing up in front of a room full of people or a street filled with demonstrators or in a government committee room to call for some kind of systemic change. Then, they assume that means they cannot do it.

While advocacy can certainly be any of those things, it is much, much more. In fact, on their own, none of the advocacy strategies above would be effective.

Every time you assist and support a woman, you are engaging in an act of advocacy. When you support a woman in preparing to meet with her lawyer, help her organize her evidence of abuse, assist her in applying for legal aid, write a support letter to the CAS, accompany her to court – every one of these activities is an act of advocacy.

Think about it. Let’s say you accompany a woman to a meeting with her lawyer. You have assisted her before the meeting to make notes about what she wants to say. Because of that, she is able to speak assertively with her lawyer about what outcomes she wants in her family law case. She can provide the lawyer with a strong story about her abuse and with suggestions for where the lawyer can find more evidence of that abuse.

She, because of the support you have given her, is educating her own lawyer about violence against women and its connections to family law. This can lead to a better outcome for her, because her lawyer can present good evidence, raise effective legal arguments and, in short, is a stronger advocate.

But it leads to more. Now, this lawyer can bring what she has learned from your client to every other client who has experienced abuse. And, that lawyer can talk to other lawyers about what she has learned, perhaps even encouraging the family law bar to have an educational session on VAW.

And so on.

Apply this story to your work with all the individuals and systems women encounter in their journey through family court and you can start to see what a significant advocacy role you are playing each and every time you walk with a woman.

Then, think about how your advocacy feeds into the systemic advocacy that some of us have the privilege of doing. I will talk about this from my perspective. Every time I am in conversation with one of you, when I read the questions you post on the discussion forum, when I listen to the stories you tell when I meet you at trainings and conferences, I am taking that information and assimilating it into the information I hear from others. I am looking for trends and patterns, and then I can use those in the systemic advocacy I do.

For example, last year I started to hear a common story from several of you. You told me that when women called LAO to apply for a certificate they were being told that if they had been out of the abusive relationship for 6 months or more their cases would not be identified as “domestic violence.” Now, if I had heard this from only one of you, I might have thought it was a fluke. But I didn’t. I heard it from several of you because you took the time to listen to the women you are supporting and then to pass their experience on to me.

I spoke about this story at a conference, and someone who was there from MAG heard me and put me in touch with someone at LAO. When we spoke a few days later she told me this was NOT LAO policy and that she would take steps to ensure that workers were not, intentionally or otherwise, conveying this impression to callers.

The concern had weight because it was not a one-off. This was a story that had popped up in very different parts of the province. It had legitimacy for this reason.

So, as you can see – one little story gets added to another little story and we can make changes at the systemic level that then reflect back on the experiences of individual women.

And there are lots of examples of that kind of flow from individual to systemic back to individual.

This program itself came about because of advocacy. As all of us know, frontline VAW workers have been supporting women in family court for decades – since long before the FCSW program came into being. Often, these were Transitional Housing Support Workers who incorporated family court support work into their already full workloads. Other times, shelters fundraised for private money to support a legal advocate/court worker position. And, frontline counselors learned what they needed to know about family law and family court to assist women.

This was never enough, but when cutbacks to legal aid beginning in the mid- 1990s made it increasingly difficult for women to get lawyers, the needs of unrepresented women who had left abusive partners expanded enormously, as did the numbers of women needing support.

So we began to advocate, OAITH on behalf of shelters and others of us more generally. We told the government, through Domestic Violence Action Plan consultations, through the work of the Domestic Violence Advisory Council, through research, reports and think tanks conducted by Luke’s Place, the Schlifer Clinic and others, that abused women needed specialized court support. And we were not alone – reports of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee echoed similar concerns: women and children were at greatest risk of being killed at the point of separation and as they began family court proceedings.

As a result, because dedicated individuals within government listened and acted, we now have the FCSW program.

Now we just have to keep it! And we are advocating for that. Again, using your stories and your experiences, we have told MAG that this program needs to be made permanent and needs to be better resourced. We have made a number of other recommendations:

  1. That services remain predominantly housed in violence against women agencies;
  2. That the training initiative be continued so new FCSWs can be trained as they come into their positions and ongoing support can be provided to all FCSWs through Annual Gatherings and the online discussion forum;
  3. That funding be provided through the training initiative so the discussion forum can be expanded to include webinars and other training tools;
  4. That MAG increase funding to assist FCSWs in attending the Annual Gathering;
  5. That funding be expanded, particularly in small communities, to increase all .25 positions to at least .50 positions and
  6. That funding be expanded to support other frontline workers providing family court support to women who have experience violence.

Now, we don’t expect to be successful with all of our recommendations, but we certainly expect to be successful with some of them.

Although it can seem discouraging at time, we need to remember our history. Through advocacy:

  • Stalking was criminalized as the offence of criminal harassment
  • Amendments to the Criminal Code were passed and later upheld by the Supreme Court that protect the privacy of women’s records in criminal sexual assault proceedings
  • Family law was changed so that the test to determine custody and access includes consideration of violence within the family
  • Restraining order legislation was reformed to strengthen the enforcement of orders and hold abusers more accountable for their actions
  • The law and rules relating to the arbitration of family law matters were changed to protect some of the most vulnerable women in our communities by requiring that arbitration use only the family law of Ontario or Canada
  • The provincial government introduced a Domestic Violence Action Plan and a Sexual Violence Action Plan, in which it  made serious commitments to moving forward to end violence against women

We did this work together – activists, frontline workers, politicians, government and institutional players, police, lawyers, doctors, and others. We advocated, found common ground, compromised while also holding strong to our bottom-line principles.

As Marge Piercy reminds us in her poem “The Low Road:”

What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember,
they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do
you can’t stop them
from doing. How can you
stop them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fundraising party.
A dozen makes a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter,
ten thousand, power and your own paper,
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no.
It starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.