Jen Renwick, manager with the domestic violence services unit at Family Service Regina, said the Manitoba government’s move to keep the Winnipeg-based intervention project going has the potential to stop lower-risk incidents from becoming dangerous situations.
Jen Renwick, manager, domestic violence services, Family Service Regina
On May 25, the Manitoba government announced that the program, which started in 2021 as a pilot, involves the “co-location” of three workers from Manitoba Justice’s Victim Services (VS) unit at Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) headquarters to “collaboratively determine the most appropriate outreach for families who call police for domestic incidents in non-criminal cases.”
According to a news release, the team receives around 12,000 such calls per year.
It notes that the program “is meant to be preventative in nature in the hopes of reducing risk, or the potential for violence, within the homes of Manitobans.”
During a news conference, Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the goal is “to provide a faster and a more co-ordinated response to these situations.”
“Since the onset of this pilot project, the team has reported that the collaboration continues to see promising success at reducing the delayed responses to callers who are reaching out to WPS and looking for support surrounding domestic violence incidents that do not relate to charges or arrests,” said Goertzen.
“Prior to the implementation of this pilot a couple of years ago, a police unit was often deployed, and callers may not have been referred to [VS] for several days. Those are several days where not only can disturbing things happen, but support is not provided in an immediate way. Under this new pilot that was launched two years ago, callers are now receiving a meaningful response, generally within a few hours of contact.”
During his time at the podium, WPS inspector Eric Luke called the program a “multi-disciplinary response.” He said that callers, which normally consist of those seeking advice and direction, are able to access both police and VS staff at the same time.
“Often, people are at a loss,” said Luke. “They don’t want the relationship to end, they just need the abuse to stop.”
Information from a Manitoba Justice spokesperson confirmed that the [VS] workers stationed with WPS respond only to “low-risk or no-risk calls that are screened through the WPS call centre.”
But despite the program now being permanent, there is currently no plan to place additional VS workers within the WPS for this year, or in 2024.
Types of support the staff provide, they said, include discussing safety planning and protection plans; explaining how to obtain protective relief orders; and providing guidance in navigating the justice system and community supports.
They confirmed that their salaries are paid through the VS department budget. However, they did not answer a question posed as to how much the program is costing the province.
They were asked if there are any plans to expand the program to other parts of the province.
“Although no formal program is in place outside of Winnipeg to respond to non-criminal domestic events, [VS workers] will assist in these types of matters when requested to do so by police, however, staff are not embedded within the police agency to the same capacity,” they said in an email.
Renwick, who is part of a similar, longstanding program in Saskatchewan, said that, in her experience, non-criminal domestic incidents could include worsening arguments, forms of coercive behaviour and instances of one partner attempting to isolate another.
“Or perhaps in that relationship there has been violence in the past and maybe the victim is concerned because an argument has started and they know could potentially happen if they let that argument go without intervention from police,” she said.
According to information provided by WPS, non-criminal cases could include callers seeking guidance on things such as domestic issues, custody matters or obtaining counseling. If there is indication of violence or potential violence, the case is handed to other officers, such as domestic violence investigators.
An intervention program like the one in Winnipeg has the potential to benefit all parties involved, said Renwick.
“You will likely see victims who will have a less adversarial relationship with the police because of [VS] involvement, and you may get victims who are much more likely to call police next time because of that softer approach. We know that [police] officers are responding to everything out there; they’re expected … to know a lot about everything, and that’s impossible. When you bring that specialization with the dynamics of abuse in relationships, you’re going to see a benefit to everybody involved in the relationship — not just the victim, but perhaps the perpetrator of the abuse, as well as any kids who may be living in the home.”
The Victim Services Unit Renwick manages in Saskatchewan’s capital of Regina receives all Regina Police Service (RPS) reports on calls for service involving a current or former intimate partner or family relationship.
The program was started by the province’s justice ministry in the mid-1990s.
Like the program in Manitoba, the Saskatchewan unit responds to no-charge or low-risk incidents with either a phone call or home visit within 24 to 48 hours. It also responds the same way for situations where charges have been laid.
The unit is also partnered with the province’s Domestic Violence Court.
If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for Law360 Canada, please contact Terry Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 905-415-5899.