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Femicide is epidemic say local experts

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Ground-breaking program launched to change violent behaviour

Cathy Dobson

Shocking new stats about domestic violence in Sarnia-Lambton have prompted a new and innovative program aimed at helping people perpetrating harm.

“Every time there is a crisis in society such as a pandemic, women and children end up being victims of violence,” says Jennifer Vansteenkiste, executive director of Sarnia’s Women’s Interval Home. “To me, that means we don’t have good coping strategies.”

Seven women were murdered by their partners in Sarnia-Lambton between 2020 and 2023, she said.

Jennifer Vanstennkiste

At the same time, the local Women’s Interval Home saw a 63% increase in clients experiencing violence and asking for counselling in the last two years. That’s a jump to 206 from 124 people.

“And we know the vast majority of people don’t come forward,” Vansteenkiste said.

In Ontario, a new report released by the Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses (OAITH) indicates Ontario saw 30 femicides in 30 weeks between Nov. 26 and June 30. Last year, the organization’s statistics showed 52 deaths in 52 weeks.

“So we are seeing no change in that trend and Sarnia-Lambton is no different,” said Vansteenkiste. “That’s why intimate partner violence has to be declared an epidemic.”

It’s also why the interval home is choosing to be proactive rather than reactive. A team of local therapists has developed a program that officially launches Sept. 20 and has a dramatically different strategy to tackle the problem.

“Restore You” is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada and is designed for people who find themselves in a cycle of violence and are ready to change their violent behaviour.

The program is unique in that it combines western psychotherapy and indigenous spirituality, said Vansteenkiste. 

“It’s very strange territory to mix the two,” she said. “We began developing the program a year ago when we looked at bringing restorative justice to our community.”

A pilot ran last spring with three facilitators including registered psychotherapist Laura Pageau, spiritual advisor and knowledge keeper Jordan Williams White Eye and Rene Barnier, a social service worker at the Women’s Interval Home. Restorative justice consultant Leaf Seligman also helped to develop Restore You.

The concept is to help people learn how trauma shapes them and how it impacts their relationship with themselves and others. It then teaches them different tools to help them regulate their emotions and decisions.

Those who are referred to the new program either have been violent and wish to get out of that cycle, or have themselves experienced violence.

“We know that the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for cognitive thinking, shuts down when there are certain triggers,” Vansteenkiste explained. “A chemical reaction occurs that makes some people unable to make good decisions.

“It’s very liberating to find out it’s your body doing it, not innately you as a person reacting.”

The program teaches how to regulate reactions in a supportive group setting, she said.

Several who participated in the pilot program held in the spring said everyone should learn how to regulate their aggressive behaviour, Vansteenkiste added.

“At some point in time, we all make mistakes.”

A group of seven local agencies including the Women’s Interval Home intend to go to Lambton County council in September and ask for gender-based violence to be declared an epidemic in Sarnia-Lambton.

The Ontario government was asked to do the same last year after a coroner’s inquest into the 2015 murder of three women. Ontario declined saying epidemics are reserved for health-related issues, but at least 25 municipalities in Ontario have since agreed. 

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