The 20-some community service providers sitting in the Family and Children’s Service of Niagara conference room were no strangers to dealing with domestic violence victims and survivors.
But for perhaps the first time in their careers, they were about to switch places with those they have helped.
In an exercise called In Her Shoes, the providers were given a chance to experience domestic violence through the eyes of the victims and survivors. They were given a chance to walk in the shoes of those they try to help.
The exercise was, in the words of most of the participants, “eye-opening.”
“We want to raise awareness and discuss why it can be hard (for victims of domestic violence) to leave (their abusers),” Larissa Bachman, the director of Passage House Domestic Violence Services, said. “We do that by having them walk (in a victim’s) shoes.”
The simulation, which Family and Children’s Services has presented since 2015, allows service providers to assume the role of real-life domestic violence victims. Participants are given an overview of the victim’s life and circumstances, created from a composite of the experiences of actual survivors.
Jackie and Martha, two experienced service providers, took on the role of Ines, a 24-year-old nurse and mother of two, married to a police officer. They were also given a profile of Ines’ husband, Joseph.
The two providers spotted immediate red flags.
“(Ines) calls him intense,” Martha says.
“Actually, aggressive,” Jackie replies. “He seems to think she’s a thing to be controlled.”
Both providers take note that domestic violence, at its core, is about exercising power and control over a person. As the pair move through the events in Ines’ relationship with her husband, they are confronted, like a victim with difficult choices of how to handle those circumstances and when and how to finally escape the abuse.
For close to an hour, Martha and Jackie walked among a series of tables, each containing cards that told the story of Ines’ journey through domestic abuse. From her first encounter with police, who worked with her husband, responding to a call of a domestic incident at her home, to her multiple attempts to go to local shelters, only to be pulled back by her abuser.
Then, when Ines makes a decision to flee across the country to escape, she finds new challenges in the system designed to serve and protect her. When she files for government services to helping with food and housing while she looks to return to work as a nurse, she is again confronted by her abuser.
He was tipped off when the government agency that was assisting Ines went looking for him to collect support Ines had begged them not to contact him.
“It’s starting to get really frustrating,” Martha said in assessing Ines’ struggles.
Finally Ines faces a choice of continuing to work in the system designed to help her or to go off the grid in an attempt to start a new life. Marrtha and Jackie decide that if they were in Ines’ shoes, they would go off the grid.
It proves to be the right choice.
“She tried to do things legitimately,” Jackie said. “But it didn’t work. It felt really crappy to be Ines. She lost her humanity. She became this pawn in the system. When people ask why don’t (abuse victims) leave (their abusers), this is why.”
It’s that revelation that Bachman says she hopes providers who participate in the Walk in Her Shoes training will take to heart.
“Systems can be a major barrier (in escaping abuse),” Bachman said. “Survivors come from (an environment) of power and control. And now we want to empower them. If you (as a service provider) are frustrated in a two-hour simulation, how would you like (that simulation) to be your life?”