Category:compensation

Addressing the unmet needs of crime victims in Canada

By: Arlène Gaudreault, Heidi Illingworth, Steve Sullivan & Irvin Waller, Ph.D.

In a country as generous and fortunate Canada, help for people harmed by crime and violence is important enough that governments should fund the services victims need, not leave it to judges to order a surcharge or depend on offenders to pay their fines.

For many of us who work in the fields of victim advocacy, service provision and academic research, Susan Herman is an inspiring woman.  She is the author of Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime, and former Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C.  Recently, she gave a speech in California where she began with the assertion that “real justice is a much broader concept than simply securing rights within the criminal justice system; it also includes improving and rebuilding the lives of victims in the aftermath of crime.”

We cannot agree more.  In Canada, we are currently in the midst of historic discussions about the enactment of a federal Victims Bill of Rights.  While this is an important step towards ensuring victims and survivors of crime and violence are provided legal protections, we wonder whether a federal Victims Bill of Rights will result in a national commitment to securing real justice for victims, many of whom do not even report the crime to the police.  A critical shift in social and legal culture is necessary in order to meet the needs of victims as they, not politicians or bureaucrats, define them. Historically, for every reported crime, society has focused on trying to apprehend, prosecute, sanction and eventually reintegrate offenders.  There has been little emphasis on the person who has been traumatized, their needs, their healing or their recovery.

Following Herman’s Parallel Justice framework, there must be a separate set of responses for victims of the crime.  “Parallel Justice responses seek to restore victims’ safety, help them recover from the trauma of the crime, and regain a sense of control over their lives.  These responses would not depend on whether the offender is ever identified or convicted.  In all cases, the harm experienced by victims of crime would be acknowledged and addressed separately and apart from the criminal justice process.  While victims’ legal rights within the criminal justice process should be enforced, society’s obligation to provide justice to victims extends beyond the criminal justice process.  Criminal justice agencies—police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections—are all challenged to respond more effectively to victims, and make victims’ safety and the prevention of repeat victimization a higher priority.  Every social service and healthcare agency can also reorient its core business practices to play a greater role in helping victims rebuild their lives.  In fact, every sector of our civil society—businesses, employers, schools, faith-based institutions, and neighbours—can make important contributions to Parallel Justice.”

Victims and survivors face so many barriers in rebuilding their lives.  They have many needs that are currently unmet by the traditional justice system, social services and health care system.  The financial impact of crime and violence on victims is massive.  Many women who are living with abuse cannot afford to escape the violence.  For economic reasons, they may be forced to remain in homes with violent partners while their children witness their abuse or suffer alongside them.  Women’s shelters often suffer from inadequate funding to meet the demand in their communities and turn women and their children away everyday.  There is a lack of safe, affordable community housing for women and children fleeing violence and not enough free family law services for abused women.

In the case of homicide, grandparents and other family members may be required to raise grandchildren left behind, resulting in a massive financial toll, not to mention legal costs associated with custody and access battles.  The programs offered to help victims with the financial impacts of crime vary immensely from province to province (some do not offer any financial assistance at all), are not accessible to all victims and many programs suffer from a lack of timely administration of claims.  Victims receive a pittance compared to the actual cost of the crime, if they receive an award at all.  Victims of fraud and financial crimes are not eligible to recoup their losses from existing compensation programs for victims, as they are designed to respond to violent crime only, leaving little chance for victims to ever recover what was maliciously stolen from them.  The courts rarely impose restitution orders upon offenders in Canada and when they do, victims are left to try to collect restitution on their own time and at their own expense.

The needs of sexual assault victims are largely unmet by the police and courts, who do not often offer adequate support services to victims in the aftermath of being profoundly violated.  The very justice system they turn to is often a source of severe revictimization. Less than 10% of sexual assaults are reported to the police in Canada and a minute amount of these cases result in convictions.  Shamefully, there are only a handful of programs funded across Canada to help male survivors of sexual abuse cope with their victimization.

Victims who require mental health supports to deal with the trauma they have suffered often have to seek help at their own expense.  They may qualify for a few initial sessions through their provincial or territorial compensation program if they meet artificial deadlines and are approved as worthy victims, but most cannot access free professional counselling over the long-term or as needed when they are triggered by various life events such as anniversaries, holidays and media coverage.

Canadian governments at all levels significantly underfund the prevention of crime and violence and tend to concentrate spending on law enforcement and incarceration, yet the needs of victims are rarely met in a courtroom setting.  In fact, involvement in court processes and trials often causes secondary victimization.  The outdated criminal justice paradigm is failing, racially biased, and exorbitantly expensive.  It relies too heavily on incarceration which does not spare victims from the loss and pain of preventable violence.  Evidence shows that smart investments in young men and parenting in “problem places” will produce healthy citizens less prone to violence.  Stopping violence before it happens on the streets and against women is key and it costs much less than our traditional criminal justice system responses.

For the minority of victims whose cases enter the formal criminal justice system, they have no substantial role other than that of a witness.  When their personal interests and safety are affected, victims of sexual assault should have the right to legal representation to protect and defend their personal medical records from third parties, just as the prosecutor pursues the interests of the state and defence counsel pursues the interests of the accused.  Will a right to counsel, which would make a significant positive difference for sexual assault complainants in our courtrooms, be included in the forthcoming Victims Bill of Rights?

Traumatic events can fundamentally change the victim’s way of life and their psychological outlook.  Healing requires a victim-centred approach that allows victims to regain a feeling of control over their lives.  This means our governments should provide access to necessary long-term financial, psychological, social, restorative and practical supports that victims require to rebuild their lives in the wake of the trauma they have endured.

A federal Victims Bill of Rights is not the only answer to the needs of victims even if it is an initiative to improve the lives of victims. A Bill of Rights responds only to a minority of victims: those who report the crime and those, ultimately, for whom there will be proceedings before the courts.  The most important “right” we can provide to victims is the right to services. Victims who don’t report crimes may still need support services.  A Victims Bill of Rights will be of little significance without an implementation and monitoring mechanism so that we can measure its results. 

The reality is that many victim-serving programs across Canada lack sufficient resources and overall funding.  In fact, funding totals for victim services are paltry in comparison to funding directed toward police, courts, and corrections spending, which continues to rise.  Victims who live in remote areas of Canada have difficulty accessing services, but this short-fall could be addressed with adequate funding to implement services and programs in under-served areas.

There has been much debate about judges in Canada are fusing to impose the Victim Surcharge upon convicted offenders, even though it is now mandatory. This means provincial funds for victim services remain at low levels and existing programs cannot grow.  Victims and survivors of crime and violence in Canada deserve better.  Securing real justice means meeting the victim’s complex needs independently from judges ordering surcharges or offenders paying their fines. If governments, at all levels and all stripes, really support victims, show us the money!

Arlène Gaudreault holds a Masters in Criminology from the University of Montreal. From 1993-2013 she taught victimology at the School of Criminology and the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Montreal. Coordinator of the first centre to assist victims of crime in Quebec, she was instrumental in developing several programs to improve the plight of victims of crime. She has been the President of the Victims Advocacy – Quebec Association (AQPV) since 1988.  In 1997, Arlène received the Prix de la Justice Ministry of Justice of Quebec for her contribution to the development of initiatives for victims and promotion of their rights.

Heidi Illingworth is the full-time Executive Director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (CRCVC) and has been employed at the Centre since 1999.  She was involved with curriculum development for the Victimology Graduate Certificate Program at Algonquin College and is currently a Part-Time Professor in the program.  Heidi has developed training materials for victim services staff and volunteers in Ontario and sits on the Ontario Region Victim Advisory Committee (VAC) to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and to the Parole Board of Canada (PBC), Ontario-Nunavut Region.  In 2012, Heidi was privileged to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in honour of her work for victims of crime.

Steve Sullivan is the Executive Director of Ottawa Victim Services and a Part-Time Professor at Algonquin College in the Victimology Graduate Certificate Program. He has been advocating for victims for almost 20 years, having served as the former President of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime and as the first Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. He has testified before numerous Parliamentary Committees on victims’ rights, justice reform and public safety issues and has conducted training for provincial and federal victim services.

Irvin Waller is a full professor at the University of Ottawa and President of the International Organization for Victim Assistance. He is recognized internationally, particularly for his contributions to the US crime victim rights movement and the United Nations Magna Carta for justice for victims approved by the UN General Assembly. His recent books, Rights for Victims of Crime and Smarter Crime Control, use science to provide legislators with an agenda for action to stop violence and assist victims.

Will a federal Victims Bill of Rights address the practical needs of victims?

While the government continues consultations with victims, provinces/territories and various criminal justice system stakeholders across Canada in order to move forward with a federal Victims Bill of Rights, the CRCVC remains cautiously optimistic.  Being involved in the initial consultation process with victims and victim-serving agencies on April 23, we have observed the enormity of this task.  How can we, as a country, truly satisfy the complex needs of victims or persons harmed by crime and violence?  Do they not deserve to have their lives restored to what they once were or as close to this as possible?  It is only Wednesday following a long weekend and we’ve already had two calls at the office from victims at either end of the country expressing concerns that we hear too commonly.

The first caller was a man from the West coast who was violently assaulted with metal pipes by strangers a number of years ago.  He cannot work as a result of this assault and is destitute.  He cannot afford to continue the medical treatments doctors tell him are necessary to heal.   He requires physiotherapy and massage therapy (to be able to get off pain killers), but can afford neither because he is on social assistance.  He is forced to live in shelters where, he tells us, he is often living among people convicted of heinous crimes who are reintegrating into the community.   He has no family or friends in Canada who can help him “get back on his feet”.  He came to Canada thinking our country was the best place in the world to live; yet he received only $1,000.00 in financial assistance from his province following his victimization.  He is now stuck in a cycle of poverty from which he cannot escape.

A mother from the East coast also called the office this week to talk to us about the murder of her beloved son.  He had a bright future ahead of him and was murdered by a man who was on bail for the brutal assault of an elderly man.  Following her son’s murder, the killer fled and an accomplice has been charged.  The mother informed me that she found out horrific details about how her son died at a preliminary hearing recently.  No one, not the police, Crown or victim services took the time to meet with the victim’s mother before the hearing to inform her of the details of the crime, which were much more vicious than she initially believed.  Instead, she was chastised by the Crown for her emotional outburst in the courtroom and told to control herself in the future.  She knows that she is in for many years of court proceedings and that she may not ever find out the truth about what happened to her son.

These two cases highlight the practical challenges many victims still face in Canada on a daily basis.  They cannot count on a kind, sympathetic response from government compensation programs, which were historically designed to provide some financial assistance to help victims recover from the trauma they have endured.  Instead, they face complex application forms and cold bureaucracies that pay a pittance to them (if they are lucky) with respect to the harm and loss they have suffered.  These programs, if standardized across the country, could do so much more to help victims heal and move forward positively with their lives.

When it comes to the criminal investigation and prosecution, victims continue to face challenges accessing the information they want and need.  Police often cannot share information about the progress of an investigation with victims so that evidence is not compromised.  Once a case moves toward trial, many Crowns are overworked and do not have time to spend with family members to update them about how the legal process is proceeding.  Victims are still shut out in many ways and face re-victimization by professionals who don’t understand how information, sensitivity and compassion can make a real difference to victims in their recovery.  Many victims do not even get referred to local victim services agencies, which employ specially trained staff and volunteers to provide support, assistance, community referrals and much needed information.

The question we are left pondering at the CRCVC is how will a federal Victims Bill of Rights address and correct the practical problems faced by victims in the provinces/territories where they live?  We feel the legislation must not be limited to federal jurisdiction, such as simply reiterating existing provisions of the Criminal Code and Corrections and Conditional Release Act for victims, but the complexity of doing so is a real challenge.  We will continue to closely follow the development of this legislation…

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime offers support, research and education to survivors and stakeholders.

What's New

  • :

    Given the five-year anniversary of Bill C-32: Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR), please read the letter we have sent to all MPs across Canada as we try to make sure the mandated Parliamentary review will take place.

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    We have responded to the Honourable Doug Downey, regarding VQRP+ cuts. Read it here. (Our original letter is here and his response can be found here.)

     

  • :

    Read the response we received, regarding our letter to the Hon. Mark Furey, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Nova Scotia concerning support for victims of the mass shooting of April 18-19, 2020 in Portapique, NS.

  • :

    Read the response from PBC Chairperson, Jennifer Oades, to our letter to the Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, in regards to the attendance of victims at parole hearings during COVID-19.

  • :

    Read our letter to the Hon. Mark Furey, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Nova Scotia concerning support for victims of the mass shooting of April 18-19, 2020 in Portapique, NS.

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