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Police Enforcement

Don’ts for Helping an Abused Woman – A Resource for Police Officers

Questions/phrasing to avoid:

“Why didn’t you leave after … (the abusive incident/assault)?”

“Why would you stay if he has done these things to you?”

“Why did you go back to him?”

“Are you going to stay away this time?”

“What did you do to cause him to act that way (assault you, etc)?”

  • These questions are both patronizing and judgmental; they do not take into account the multiple barriers women face in leaving an abusive relationship and making changes in their lives (see NFF handout “Why Women Stay”). The abusive partner, not the victim, is responsible for the violent and abusive behavior and for stopping the behavior. Asking the woman why she didn’t leave or do things to end the abuse is blaming her for her abuser’s actions in a way he has likely done in the past (if you hadn’t made me mad, I wouldn’t have hit you). Women in Canada leave an abusive partner up to 6 times, and often returning is part of a cycle which will end when she has enough support to leave and feels she can navigate complicated legal, child welfare, housing, and income support systems.

Don’t be surprised and show frustration if:

  • She is confused and is not being forthcoming. Many women describe ongoing threats from their abusive partner regarding police involvement such as “if you tell them anything I will make sure you never see the children again” and may be very hesitant to disclose what actually happened. Give her time and connect her with Women’s Services. A worker can help to explain all the details of the shelter (and other services such as counselling/therapy, children’s services, and legal and housing advocacy) and once she has a plan for safety she will be more likely to be forthcoming regarding details about the ongoing abuse or recent assault.
  • She seems detached while talking about the abuse/incident. Some women will disclose abuse in a totally unattached manner with little emotion almost matter-of-factly while others become extremely emotional and distraught. This range of reponses are normal coping mechanisms and do not reflect the severity of the abuse.

Don’t try to convince her he is “no good” or make other negative comments about the abusive partner:

  • This will only create a divide between you and the woman as her feelings for him are complicated. There are likely feelings of loyalty, love, and caring despite the abuse and these must be resolved over time/in counselling. Instead focus on things like:

a) Everyone has the right to live free from abuse and feel safe, including you and your children.

b) No one deserves to experience abuse or violence. I am concerned for your safety.

c) You have choices. I would like to connect you with someone to explore those choices (HNWS).

Don’t forget the RISK is different for female victims versus male victims:

There are 3 types of domestic violence: Situational couple violence: most common / arguments escalate to violence, Coercive control: abusive partner controls and coerces in a pattern of behavior and Violent Resistance: victim of coercive control fights back.

  • The greatest risk for significant harm and/or death is in situations of coercive control, which we know women are at a greater risk of than men. In Ontario From 2002 to 2009, 98 per cent of the people who were killed in Canada in a domestic violence situation were women; 94 per cent of the perpetrators were men. A total of 203 cases resulted in 295 deaths (Domestic Violence Death Review Committee).
  • 83% of all police-reported domestic assaults are against women (Statistics Canada, 2009)
  • Men (49%) and women (51%) in Canada are equally at risk of violent victimization. However, men are much more likely to be assaulted by a stranger or someone from outside their family, while women are much more likely to be assaulted by someone they know (Statistics Canada, 2009).

Don’t use LABELS she is not using:

  • She may not understand the label of “abuse” or “domestic violence” and it can be difficult to incorporate the label of “abused woman” or “survivour of domestic violence” into her identity. She may not understand what she is experiencing is abuse and may not see her partner as a perpetrator or abuser.
  • The word ‘victim’ is particularly disempowering and should be avoided when speaking directly to her.

Recognize the harm goes far beyond the physical:

  • Women who have experienced physical abuse have likely also experienced significant emotional and verbal abuse which leaves them feeling frightened, disempowered, and constantly walking on ‘eggshells’ in their own homes to avoid abusive incidents. They have likely been threatened with harm, death, or never seeing their children again if they disclose abuse to police (or CAS, etc.). Women are more likely to disclose if the interview is done in a safe place where they have not experienced abuse.

Don’t assume she is not abused because of her race, class, background or marital status:

  • Anyone can experience abuse and high risk situations are common in non-marital relationships and with ex partners. However, Aboriginal women are 8 times more likely to be killed than non-aboriginal women and women with disabilities are at a much greater risk with 60% reporting they have experienced some form of violence (Canadian Women’s Foundation.)


a) Foster a relationship of trust and respect. Show you are compassionate and caring.

b) Communicate in a clear manner and repeat information often. People in crisis and post-crisis may have difficulty maintaining focus and retaining information.

c) Talk about services in addition to shelter services. Many women connect with the HNWS 24 hour crisis line (this can be done anonymously) or other counselling or transition support programs with no intention of seeking shelter. If you only focus on shelter she may not understand that there are a range of services.

d) Consider completing a lethality or risk assessment if she is expressing extreme fear. Examples include the B-SAFER or J. Campbell Danger Assessment.

e) Realize it is natural for her to minimize the abuse she has experienced as she has heard the abusive partner minimize, deny, and blame the abuse away so many times it has become ingrained.

Developed by Haldimand and Norfolk Women’s Services and the H&N Justice for Women Review Team. Some information adapted from: The Ontario Works Advanced Case Management and Development Program. (2004). Supporting employment in casework: Woman abuse issues and related community supports and services.