WINNIPEG, MB - Did you know every week in Canada, two women are killed by their partner or former partner. Fifty-one percent of women and more than a million children are affected each year by domestic violence, no matter their financial status, ethnicity, or education.
Did you know I am one of those children. As a young adult my life changed, more than I ever realized and more than I accepted. I lived with a pain no person should ever have to experience. But as I said, a million children a year do feel that pain and won’t truly understand it until much later in life.
My Mom was murdered by her husband who walks free today as he has for years. Today is my Mom's birthday, another year we've had to live without her, another year wondering what life would have been like if she was with us. I choose this day to talk about Domestic Violence to honour my Mom, to keep her memory alive, to be a voice for those afraid to speak silent, and to hopefully save another child from living though the pain.
My story starts with my mother, Joanne. She was a wonderful lady who worked a full-time job, took care of her three boys for many years on her own and went back to school in her 40’s to realize her dream of becoming a nurse. She was the strongest woman I knew. She was always there when we made a mistake in life and taught us how to get back up. She always made us feel special, important, and a part of a family. To me there were no barriers in this universe that could stop her. She taught us to have strength, to go after our dreams and make them happen. My mother, like all moms, was the rope that kept our family together.
She made sure my brothers and I communicated even when distance kept us apart. I hear her voice often, reminding me that family is your safe place. “Your safe place”, that statement is ironic because it was in her safe place where her life ended one September evening. It was a Sunday night and my brother had just left the house for work. Our youngest brother was out of town and at I was at a hockey game hundreds of miles away. I remember that night like it was yesterday, even though I locked it in my memory and threw away the key for many years.
Years ago I was in a federal prison board room, sitting less than 10 feet from my mother’s husband, Bob, who is also my mother’s murderer. I can’t explain the emotions, the questions running through my head. I do know that was when I awoke to the reality of what this man had caused. It was as if the room I had locked all my memories in just burst open. It was the hidden pain caused by domestic violence. An example of that pain is the wedge it drove into my family. This was the first time since the trial that my brothers and I were together as a family. Ever since then it had been hard for us to meet. We never spoke of why until that day, standing outside during a break so the man who murdered our mom could get a coffee.
The parole board asked him to talk about what happened and what caused it. They revealed his past abuse on partners, which we weren’t aware of. Each time, his abuse became worse — it started with shoving a girlfriend, then pushing his first wife, then punching her. That relationship ended but his pattern continued until finally he took a life … my mom’s life.
I learned that day she had previously called the police about his abuse. She had even gone to a shelter on a few occasions for some peace when my brothers left the house for a weekend or school trip. She never told us … then again, we never asked. We, like most of society, were blind to the signs, or simply ignored them.
My mother was living in a personal hell, just as thousands of women are doing right now. The reasons she went back are very similar for all the women who have done likewise — fear of survival, fear of being unable to provide a home for their children, and sadly, fear of what would happen if they spoke out and told others…even their own families.
Nobody ever wants to think about that subject, domestic abuse. Nobody wants to admit to it - because of fear from their abusive partner and fear of what the community will think of them. I never wanted to tell anyone because of what they may think of me. I had my own family and still I felt this way. Imagine how a young child must feel, one who is afraid to go to bed, a child who sleeps to the sounds of yelling or glasses breaking. Who do they turn to? Who do they call for help? The pattern begins of hiding the pain and learning to live within it. My brother told me of a simple sentence that continues to haunt him to this day. He told me one night my he and my mom were talking before he went to bed. She apologized for the yelling he witnessed earlier and as she walked out the door my brother asked her, “Will you be OK?” To that she replied, “Sleep with one eye open…love you.” This is how she lived every day, as do hundreds and thousands of women now.
I can assure you that all children of domestic violence feel the same, no matter their age, financial status or education. They feel as my brothers and I all felt — it’s our fault. I was the oldest, I should have done something, I should have seen the signs. It was harder for my brother. He left the house that night for work even though my mom asked him to stay for supper. “Just stay and eat with us,” she said. He just can’t stop himself from thinking things would be different if only he had said yes to supper at home.
What message are we sending to the hundreds and thousands of men who are abusive to their partners? They know most men who murder their partners are released after 12 years. My mother’s husband — her murderer — was granted parole that day at the parole board. The reason for his release? He doesn’t really pose a threat to society … just to the women he dates. This they feel is controllable. What message are we as a society sending to the 51% of women and one million children affected by domestic violence? Get over it? You must have done or said something? Oh, your partner has a drinking problem? You made them mad and they simply lost their temper! At least they didn’t beat a stranger. How many abused women suffer because of society’s lack of reaction to domestic violence? My mother didn’t feel she could make it on her own. She couldn’t provide that dream home for her boys, so she moved back. In her late 40’s she had just become a nurse. How could she tell the people she worked with, professionals, that she was being abused when she went home and that she was afraid for her life? She called the police, and was told, “If he does anything again, call us and we will make him leave.”
She lived in that hell as hundreds of women do every day, knowing when the children moved out she could too, without any worry. They find ways to suffer and we can’t find ways to help them. My mother Joanne did leave that house but not the way she wanted to. Her husband — her murderer — explained at the parole hearing what he did, how it all happened and how he was the real victim. The abusers all start the same way — the woman makes the man angry and he loses his temper. There is a little yelling, then some shoving. That night, that pattern was being repeated, but this time it ended in my mother’s death.
After it happened, he told the board, he felt so bad that he went to the couch and had to have a drink to calm down, but then he called the police. In the eyes of the system, he appears to be the victim. After all, our society offers treatment while in prison, but not to the children of the real victim. He was told if he took the programs it would help him gain parole. I remember the day they granted my mother’s murderer bail so he could work until his trial date and go back home. I remember hearing, "He poses no threat to the public". What? My Mom was not considered part of the public? Was the court telling us, it's not that bad if you kill someone close to you? My Mom couldn't go back home. Did they offer to help us, the kids? No. In fact I had to go to the house where my mother’s life ended and gather up all my brothers’ personal items, as well as hers. While doing this, I had to step around the marks of death on her bedroom floor, all under a time constraint as he would be going home and we couldn’t be there.
Imagine, a man who committed murder sits in a hospital because of stress. Now imagine the children of the victim are in a funeral home selecting a casket, and then being told that they had to decide how to deal with the bruises on their mother’s neck, because the make-up couldn’t hide them. As the man who committed murder applied for and was granted bail, my brothers had to pack up and leave all their friends, jobs, school pals, their lives as they knew them. They moved in with me, even though I was really in no condition to help them. I couldn’t even help myself.
End domestic violence
Sadly, my story is not special. Ours may be a little better, if that’s possible, because this happens to too many children much younger than we were. We, as a society, must end domestic violence. We appoint committees to find ways to stop youth crime, but we don’t find ways to support the one million children of domestic violence. We’ll protest that the city has few bike paths, but nobody protests when a murderer is released to the streets of our communities from prison for killing his wife.
It’s time to talk about it. We must stand up and tell the hundreds of thousands of women and children affected by domestic violence that it’s OK to ask for help, that it’s OK to talk about it, that they can tell us and we’ll help them and make sure they’re safe. Domestic violence affected me and my brothers. I used to think that was it, we were alone. Then out of the blue, I learned of the ongoing pain domestic violence causes in families. My youngest son walked up to me, upset, a few days after my return from the parole hearing and I asked him what was wrong. He asked me if his grandmother would have loved him. He looked so sad. He never met his grandmother. He’d only seen a photo of her. Of course, I told him she would have loved him … she would have loved all of her grandchildren. He then said he was scared. “Of what?” I asked. His reply: “He got out of jail right?” When I said yes, he looked at me and asked, “Will grandma’s husband come and kill us now?”
That statement, that fear, that wonder and emptiness is a child affected years after the violence. I can’t imagine the pain and fear in the minds and hearts of the more than one million children affected today by domestic violence. As you read this, know that this week two women may be murdered by their partner or ex-partner and you will never read about it. Why did I choose to come forward? Because I want to let people know domestic violence has no boundaries. It’s not economical. It’s not a lack of education. It’s real. It has an impact on generations, and it’s a problem in our city, province and country.
Another shelter is not the fix for all of domestic violence. Tougher punishment, greater community support and reducing the victims’ fear of public perception are parts of the solution.
We can make a difference together, we need to talk to young people so they feel safe to come forward if there are issues in their home. We need to share stories so people understand the the full impact of domestic violence. We need to end the silence, end the stigma and we will save lives.
I know that women are not always the victims of domestic abuse. There are men who are victims also. If you are in a violent situation, call for help now. Your life is important. Please don't wait until it's too late.
The photo I used is of my Mom shortly before her murder. It's one of only three pictures I have, but I will always have her in my heart.