Safe at home

Rowan House Society

Rowan House Society decided to embrace a challenge. 

With over 20 years of experience providing domestic violence and abuse services in southern Alberta, Rowan House had noticed that responses to gender-based abuse tended to be one-sided. Most of the focus seemed to end up on the individuals who were experiencing abuse – not so much on the people using abuse. Too often, the responsibility solely falls on those experiencing abuse to report incidents, seek support, and advocate for change.

In Canada, people who experience gender-based violence are often women and members of 2SLGBTQI+ communitiesFootnote 1 . This violence and abuse can range from name-calling to assault, and its impacts can be profound. People experiencing abuse and seeking support are often asked to uproot their lives and take charge of “fixing” a situation that wasn’t their fault. But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

Rowan House decided that they needed to come up with an outside-the-box solution for domestic violence and abuse support services that people using abuse could access – so they did.

A one-of-a-kind solution

As part of the planning process, Rowan House talked to women who had stayed at the Emergency Shelter. They also sought advice from an advisory group made up of local leaders and experts in gender-based abuse, mental health, and law. These consultations helped to determine how Safe at Home could better support individuals experiencing domestic abuse without uprooting them from their home.

“For the first time, we are changing the way we think,” says Leah DeMarsh, Safe at Home Team Lead. “Safe at Home is asking the individual using abuse to take responsibility for their actions and ensure the safety of their partners and children.”

With support from Women and Gender Equality Canada, Rowan House launched the Safe at Home program in 2021. The four-year pilot project they developed focuses on men stopping the cycle of domestic abuse. Its three phases are carried out over 52 weeks.

“The premise is to provide wraparound support to families,” adds Linette Soldan, Rowan House Executive Director. “Women and children remain in their homes and the individuals using abuse receive support at an off-site facility.”

The first phase runs for as many as eight weeks. Men come to live at the Safe at Home off-site facility.  During the program, they receive support through life-skills training, case planning/goal attainment (working together to determine what they want to achieve), and educational groups. 

The educational group helps participants examine their behaviour and provide information, support, and knowledge on how to change their behaviour. “It’s important to explore the violence and abuse being used,” says Leah. “The participants become more aware of how their behaviour and actions impact others and, most importantly, that it is not acceptable.”

Phase two is ten weeks. The participants may or may not return to their previous homes with their partners and children. “It is important for us to ensure the safety of the families while working with individuals who have used violence and abuse,” says Linette.

It is up to the families to decide if the individual can return home and whether they are ready to reconcile. If they’re not, Rowan House supports the participants with finding other housing options.

During this phase, the program participants continue to receive support and educational information, such as the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. They also continue to receive support in addressing their specific needs. The rest of the 52-week program consists of monthly accountability check-ins and supports, if participants wish to continue.

The Safe at Home program will complete partner checks to ensure further accountability from the individuals who are using violence and abuse. Another focus of the partner checks is to provide support and any required community resources to the partner and children experiencing abuse.

“It is important for men to feel they can reach out and accept help to change abusive behaviours,” says Leah. “Men can join when they are ready and come back again later if they need further support. A person’s stay may be ten weeks or the full 52. Ours is a voluntary program. We walk alongside each individual and their family, providing support.”

Accepting responsibility

Safe at Home’s effectiveness points to an important truth in the work to end gender-based abuse: everyone has an active part to play.

“Men’s leadership is imperative in the promotion of gender equity and the prevention of gender-based violence and abuse,” says Linette. “It is important to provide several options to individuals using abuse to ensure we are meeting individuals where they are at and supporting in the change process.”

So far, one participant has completed the entire 52 weeks of Safe at Home. He joined the program after the breakdown of his relationship – a relationship in which he admits to using violence and abuse towards his partner. He joined Safe at Home in the hope of reconciling with his family.

Through the program, he gained insight into accepting responsibility for his actions and how critical it was to change his behaviour. He was able to explore his personal experiences and the tactics he used in the past to gain power and control over his partner.

The participant and his partner did not reconcile, but he was grateful for how the program challenged his thinking, beliefs, and actions. Safe at Home helped him understand the effects of his abusive behaviour. He continues to stay in contact with program officials and will update them on his progress.

“Focusing on self and understanding that they are only in control of their own behaviour is vital,” says Leah. “The men come to realize that keeping their partners and children safe means looking at their own behaviour and accepting responsibility for their actions and changing them.”

Community working as one

Providing information, knowledge and understanding of violence and abuse to the community is critical. People throughout the region are beginning to understand the value of the Safe at Home approach. Linette, Leah and others have been busy sharing details about the program with local leaders, relevant experts, and officials in law enforcement and the criminal justice system in Alberta. Safe at Home leaders hold meetings with the program’s stakeholder group approximately every two months.

“We work together to share information, explore ways to enhance our referral process and further support participants,” says Linette. “All of us are devoted to collaborating to ensure women and children are supported, their safety is addressed, and individuals using abuse are being held accountable for their actions and behaviour.”

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