Offenders of domestic violence crimes in Hay River and the surrounding area now have an alternative to the territorial court system, should they choose to claim responsibility for their actions.
The Domestic Violence Treatment Option (DVTO) Court started operating in the community – as well as Enterprise and the K’atl’odeeche First Nation – as of Monday, with two names listed on its first docket. The new alternative court, which will hold sessions every three weeks, is available to those flagged as low-risk offenders and aims to treat the symptoms that lead to cyclical domestic violence, with long-term results.
“I have nearly 20 years doing this and this is one of the best developments I’ve seen as far as dealing with domestic violence,” said Hay River criminal defence lawyer Michael Hansen. “It seeks to enable people and give them the opportunity to avoid the mistakes that they’ve made in the past, because they can’t change their past, but they can change their future.”
Once in DVTO, clients are expected to enroll in the Planning Action Responsibly Toward Non-Violent Empowered Relationships (PARTNER) program.
“The approach is based on having group sessions,” said Chief Judge Christine Gagnon. “The participants learn from their exchange with other participants and it builds strength.”
Over the course of five weeks, the offenders will attend weekly sessions lasting 2.5 hours each, covering eight modules and four main topics.
“The first theme is defining domestic violence and all its forms, looking at how it applies to participants’ lives,” said Dawn Anderson, a director with the Justice department who helped develop PARTNER. Other areas covered include personal choice, the causes of violence and emotional response. “Every step in the program is geared toward the individual leaving the program with the self-control that they need to change.”
Once initiated, Fort Smith probation officer Stella Walterhouse will lead the program. Three individuals from correctional services have also been trained to deliver PARTNER, along with four mental health and addictions counsellors. These facilitators will be paired together to allow multiple, staggered sessions to take place simultaneously.
To be considered for DVTO, the offender must take responsibility for his or her crime and plead guilty. A filtering process helps to determine who ends up in this course of treatment. First, the RCMP – as frontline workers laying domestic violence charges – use their discretion to determine whether the offender should be in DVTO or territorial court. Should the case head to territorial court, the Crown can advise a transfer to the alternative court, as can the defence lawyer and the judge hearing the case.
Once in the treatment stream, the offender must go through a screening process run by probation services, where they complete a questionnaire as well as an assessment conducted using a spousal abuse risk assessment tool.
“There is a full, global assessment that’s done on each of the offenders,” said Cindy Caudron, regional manager of probation services. The screening will take into account factors like previous criminal behaviour and substance abuse issues. “We’re not just focusing on (domestic violence) and not paying attention to all the other factors.”
Since 2011, Yellowknife has piloted seven PARTNER sessions – five in Yellowknife and two in Behchoko. Of 39 clients, 37 have completed the program.
Unlike in Yellowknife, the Hay River program will accept referrals from community counsellors working with clients who have committed not just physical, but emotional, financial and psychological forms of domestic violence. They will go through a similar screening process.
Should the client fail to complete any part of the program or reoffend while attending it, their case will be moved to territorial court. Alternatively, upon successful completion of the program, there is a chance the client’s case could be fast-tracked through the court system and their sentence time reduced.
To those who view DVTO as a literal “get out of jail free” card, Hansen adamantly stated the program requires tremendous dedication.
“This isn’t an easy way out; the easy way is just to go and do your time,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of work the person will have to commit to.”
Hay River was chosen as the first community for the program’s expansion because of its easy access to available program resources and its relatively large population.
Depending on Hay River’s success with DVTO, organizers hope to expand the program further into the territory, though no official plans have been announced as of yet.
“There is a need for this type of program everywhere, not just in the North, not just in Canada,” Hansen said. “Domestic violence is all too common an occurrence throughout the world and we can’t have a cookie-cutter approach; we have to develop programs that adapt and address the unique circumstances of each community.”