Susan Smith has been attacked with an umbrella, a rolling pin, a pen, and a steering-wheel lock, among other everyday items. The assaults by her former boyfriend started soon after she began dating him in the fall of 2004. By then, he’d already successfully isolated her from her family and friends. Worn down physically, emotionally, and even financially, she felt stuck.
In the spring of 2005, Smith literally ran away from her ex after he kicked her out of his car. She eventually found the crucial help she needed at Vancouver General Hospital from a social worker trained in domestic violence.
“I was so scared,” says Smith, who requested a pseudonym to protect her safety, in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “I thought, ”˜This guy is nuts. Where can I go? Who can protect me? Who’s going to believe me?’
“Domestic violence is such a disruptive force in your life,” she adds. “It’s so devastating and so harmful. The help I got at VGH played such a critical role in my life that without that help I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today. I felt comfortable enough there to disclose everything that had happened to me.”
Recent restructuring of VGH’s domestic-violence program, however, has Smith feeling “disappointed” and “shocked”. The changes have also left women’s groups and health organizations fuming. One Vancouver city councillor is so concerned that she is going to introduce a motion at the next council meeting urging restored services. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), meanwhile, maintains that domestic-violence services have, in fact, been expanded.
Anna Marie D’Angelo, senior public affairs officer for VCH, explains that the program used to consist of a half-time social worker whose services were available to inpatients and outpatients alike. Now it offers a full-time crisis-intervention worker addressing domestic violence as well as elder abuse and neglect for people who have been admitted to hospital.
“Funding has increased,” D’Angelo says in a phone interview. “There have been no cuts or closures”¦.We are always reviewing our programs and looking for gaps in services. In our emergency-department review, we found we needed to expand the scope [of this position] to reflect our changing population.”
The fact that only inpatients have access to the domestic-violence program, though, is what has struck a nerve with representatives of women’s groups and health organizations.
“Now women have to be battered badly enough to be admitted to get help,” Reid Johnson, president of the Health Sciences Association of British Columbia, says on the line from his office. “The HSA applauds the increase to inpatient care, but that doesn’t warrant the dismantling of a long-term, highly successful outpatient program that helped women who were exposed to or who were at risk of domestic violence”¦and that provided support for family members wanting to know what they could do in this risky situation. Once you’re beaten up and in the hospital is not the time to talk prevention.
“This represents poor judgment in health care,” he adds. “To try to portray this as an expansion of services is an unfair characterization.”
Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, says that the redesign of VGH’s program is a “grave mistake”.
“VGH is backtracking on a commitment,” MacDougall says in a phone interview. “It is ridiculous to think that Vancouver’s major hospital has cut a dedicated counsellor for an issue that’s very complex. And it’s shortchanging elders hugely as well.”
BWSS is already overstretched, MacDougall adds, noting that its crisis centre—which receives no government funding—gets 45 calls a day. In addition, the centre has more than 100 women on its waiting list for help.
“So this falls on us, community organizations that don’t have a budget anywhere close to that of Vancouver Coastal Health. They’ve unloaded this on us, because they know we’ve made this commitment and this is a social issue we care about. They don’t care as long as we’re picking up the slack.”
Vancouver councillor Ellen Woodsworth says she plans to introduce a motion at an upcoming council meeting. The motion will support a social-worker position at VGH that offers specialized help on an outpatient basis to women experiencing or at risk of intimate-partner violence.
“My understanding is that other services, such as WAVAW [Women Against Violence Against Women] and BWSS, are completely full,” Woodsworth says by phone. “At a time when we’re seeing an increase in violence, all agencies have to do everything they can not only to enforce zero tolerance but also to step up and offer whatever services they can. It’s so important to act before women come into the hospital already battered and having gone through a terrible experience.”
Louisa Russell, a battered-women’s advocate from Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, says that when VGH launched its domestic-violence program 18 years ago—one of the first in Canada—it was considered a milestone.
“We saw this as a real step forward,” Russell says in a phone interview. “It involved someone who had the competence and training around violence-against-women issues who was able to give advice. It was critical for women making the decision to leave or devising a safety plan to leave”¦.It was a model that other hospitals and clinics looked to.
“This is a major setback,” Russell adds, noting that the shelter gets more than 1,400 new crisis calls a year and has already seen an increase in demand since the changes to VGH’s system.
A petition to reinstate the program to its previous structure has been created at Petition Site .
Health Minister Kevin Falcon’s office referred questions to VCH.
For women like Smith, who have been threatened with death or wanted to kill themselves because their partners made them feel so worthless, the need for easily accessible domestic-violence services cannot be emphasized enough.
“I felt like there weren’t any options to make me safe,” Smith says. “I went to four or five other hospitals, and not one referred me to a social worker. The fact that this is happening at VGH when there are so few resources to begin with is disappointing, to say the least.”
A source in this story requested anonymity. A Georgia Straight editor verified her identity.