This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Hannah Povey was just getting used to feeling safe again in her home and neighbourhood when she found out her abusive ex-partner could be getting out of prison as early as this summer.
“I’m worried that even with electronic monitoring he may end up going to stores that he knows I frequent and trying to look for me,” she said.
“And I’m scared that will initiate that obsession again of wanting to have control over me.”
Her former boyfriend, William Wesley Gunning, 24, was sentenced in December 2019 to two years in jail for assault, forcible confinement and uttering a death threat.
It was a year ago that Povey left Gunning, and with the help of an outreach worker, set up a personalized safety plan.
Povey, 28, is one of the latest in a series of women to take part in a program unique to P.E.I. called Circles of Safety. It’s run by P.E.I. Family Violence Prevention Services for women who have left an abusive relationship and are considered at high risk of being killed by their former partners.
“I knew I was completely out of control of the situation,” recalled Povey.
The idea for Circles of Safety came about when Gloria Dennis, an outreach worker with Family Violence Prevention Services, was at a loss as to how to help a client — a woman living in fear because her former boyfriend, who had violently assaulted her over a three-hour period, was about to be released from jail.
Dennis decided to get those close to the woman together in one room, and she credits Kirstin Lund, a trained mediator who had worked in conflict resolution, with working out how they would support the woman in coming up with a plan to help her feel safe.
“I’m not saying we’re going to necessarily be able to cover off every single risk,” she said. “But certainly, the more people you have around the table, the more people who are involved in working toward safety, then the more likely we are to be successful.”
Since 2010, Dennis has pulled together three to four support circles a year for women. She’s had circles with as few as four participants and as many as 18.
‘He was going to kill somebody’
One of the first circles was for Kelly MacAulay, 50.
“I don’t think I was ever happy,” she said, remembering her ex-husband’s drinking, swearing, and violent behaviour over their 20-year marriage.
She’d taken her children to an emergency women’s shelter a dozen times over the years but always returned home.
Then in March 2011, her husband, Joel Clow, violently assaulted her and threatened to shoot her.
“I really did think I was going to die,” MacAulay said. She left wearing her pyjamas and slippers, took her kids — and never went back. “I’m lucky. I got a second chance.”
She worked with Dennis, police, victim services, probation services and her nurse supervisor from work, and credits the circle for keeping her alive by helping her find her independence and not return to an abusive situation.
Four years after she left, Clow killed his then girlfriend, Traci Lynch. He’s in prison now and will be eligible for parole in 2031.
“I told them he was going to kill somebody. I really thought it was going to be me,” MacAulay said.
Having control ‘centred me’
People taking part in a support circle can include family, friends, neighbours, co-workers or work supervisors, as well as police, counsellors and victim services, which refers women to the program.
Generally, the group meets several times to brainstorm ideas, come up with a plan and put it into action.
They help women identify what would make them feel safe — everything from installing security alarms and taking self-defence courses, to moving to a less-visible location at work and ensuring former partners released from prison get counselling.
“Having them ask me questions about what I wanted was a huge difference to how I had lived for the last year and a half,” Povey said of her experience with the support circle.
“To have that control really centred me and allowed me to think more rationally about the situation, and really think about what I wanted because it wasn’t typical for me to be asked that question.”
WATCH | Hannah Povey says she’s afraid her abuser will look for her when he is released from jail
For MacAulay, the feeling of being supported made all the difference.
“I remember them all sitting around the table and thinking ‘Oh my God! All these people. Look, they’re all here for me,'” she said. “They wanted to keep me safe, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Strength with support
Dennis said the circle allows victims to share the burden of dealing with the consequences of their abuse.
“There’s an element of not feeling like you’re doing it on your own,” Dennis said.
MacAulay said the circle was essential to her moving forward in her life.
“It got me through hard times, court dates. Just even needing someone to talk to if I couldn’t sleep,” MacAulay said.
But the process is not for everyone.
“It’s pretty intimidating,” Dennis said. “Baring your soul and telling all of the things that have gone on.”
Making a plan
In Povey’s case, police flagged addresses and phone numbers for her workplace and her home as part of her safety plan, so if an emergency call came in, a cruiser would be dispatched right away.
MacAulay remembers police doing the same and reassuring her that if she heard or saw anything that scared her, to call and they would come right away.
Povey’s friends and family knew where she was at all times, and she was dropped off and picked up at work. Her employer offered to let her use a secure underground parking lot and work from home if necessary.
And the emergency women’s shelter was alerted in case she needed a safe place to stay in a hurry.
MacAulay’s workplace posted a photo of Clow, so security could recognize him and call police if he showed up there. She and her supervisor agreed on a word that she would say if she called in sick to signal that she was in danger.
And since she worked shift work, often leaving at 11 p.m., security escorted her to her car in the parking lot.
‘Not your job alone’
For Povey, similar measures may need to be set up in the event that her ex-partner is granted parole this summer.
She’s in the process of reviewing her safety plan and preparing to meet with her support circle.
“It’s not your job alone,” Dennis told Povey recently. “Everybody can take a piece of this.”
Povey worries that if Gunning is granted parole, she’ll have to start looking over her shoulder again and take different routes to work.
Gunning was sentenced to two years in prison last December for assault, forcible confinement and threatening to kill Povey, and she said that sentencing was the first time in two years that she felt truly safe.
Learning of Gunning’s application for parole in January has ripped open painful memories for Povey that haven’t had a chance to heal. She thinks it’s too soon for him to have come to terms with the harm he caused.
Povey is still dealing with the effects of the extreme violence she endured, including several instances when Gunning suffocated her for 15 seconds at a time over several hours.
WATCH |’There is help out there’: Kelly MacAulay talks about her experience with Circles of Safety
The circle grows
P.E.I. Family Violence Prevention Services is financed by grants and donations, but doesn’t have stable funding to promote the program.
Circles of Safety is not well-known, but word of the program is spreading.
This year, Dennis and Lund began training nine workers with women’s shelters in three rural communities to set up their own safety circles: Peace River, Alta., La Ronge, Sask., and Watson Lake, Yukon.
“I think that it’s a really good fit for the North,” said Rosemary Rowlands, executive director of Help and Hope for Families Society, a shelter in Watson Lake that is getting the training.
Crisis situations “create the snowball effect where everybody’s always on guard for when’s the next thing that’s going to happen,” she said.
The circle program allows shelter workers to plan ahead and work to avoid those crises by “really looking at one situation at a time,” she said, “and taking the time to work together to be more thorough, more supportive and responding to what women need rather than what we think they need.”
‘I’m taking every day to move forward’
Povey and MacAulay say they decided to share their stories in the hope that women in abusive relationships would see there is help available.
“It’s hard. I understand that because I went back many’s a time,” MacAulay said. “But every time I went back, it got worse. So, they should understand that it starts off small, but then it ends big.”
Povey, whose case was covered in the media at the time of Gunning’s trial, says she wants to be more than just a “sensationalized headline.”
“I’m a real person,” she said. “These things happened to me, and it was awful, but I’m here and I’m taking every day to move forward.”
If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area click here.
To read all the stories in CBC’s Stopping Domestic Violence series, visit cbc.ca/stoppingdomesticviolence
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