The Early Years
It’s been 34 years since the Women & Children’s Shelter of Barrie first opened its doors to women and children in the community who were fleeing abusive relationships. Uncertainty was a feature of those early years. There were tough times financially, the public perception and understanding of wife assault or domestic violence, which was what it was called, was minimal, and the community was unreceptive to the idea that women in our community were in need of shelter and protection from their abusive spouses or partners.
Services for women and children in those early years were minimal. There were no shelters or counselling agencies with staff who were trained in woman abuse. The police were reluctant to respond to domestic calls and, when they did, they were often uncertain about how to help the abused woman and unaware of emergency services in the area. Women were encouraged to keep the family together at all cost and work out any of these “private” issues within the confines of their home. In those days, police required the woman to lay charges herself but, not surprisingly, she often recanted out of fear and intimidation and refused to cooperate by testifying against her abuser in court.
The community, police, and legal system were not alone in their insensitivity to the issues of violence against women. In 1980, male Members of Parliament laughed in the House of Commons at the subject of wife beating, uttering comments like “l don’t beat my wife, do you?” The ill-mannered behaviour of Tory and Liberal MP’s, forced Ottawa to act quickly in preparing an all-party federal report that made violence against women, the funding of women’s shelters, and special police training issues of national importance.
In 1981, a group of concerned Barrie citizens successfully acquired a grant from the Ministry of Employment and Immigration Canada to set up a shelter/safe haven for abused women and their children. They also negotiated a lease with the Sisters of St. Joseph to rent their convent at 83 Berczy Street as a home for the new shelter.
The first legal day of operation for the Crisis Centre was May 12, 1982 and women in the community who were dealing with abuse and violence in their intimate relationships now had a safe place to go. Sylvia Patfield became the Executive Director of the shelter and for the next 27 years worked tirelessly to establish the agency in the community, raise awareness about intimate partner abuse, and build a strong organizational foundation.
After years of assisting women and their children in the old Victorian former convent on Berczy Street, staff and board realized that the Shelter was inadequate in size, costly to maintain, and lacking in security and safety. Unfortunately, the need was greater than ever and the threat from abusive partners was a growing concern.
In February of 1988, as a first step in alleviating some of the pressures on the Shelter, a Satellite Office was opened in downtown Barrie. This community-based outreach program offered counselling, referrals to other community agencies, and information about gender-based violence as well as legal assistance, information, and referrals and court support.
In October of 1989, a request to build a new Shelter was approved and the Ministry of Community and Social Services made a promise of capital funds. Although the Ontario Government would dedicated $1.2 million dollars to the project, the agency itself, with the assistance and support of the Board of Directors, needed to raise over $200,000 as a financial commitment.
The funds were raised and in February of 1991, amid much excitement and chaos, the new shelter was opened. One of our first residents said, “did the Shelter win the lottery?” After all the hard work that went into the planning, organizing, and fundraising, everyone felt like that indeed was the case.
By 1998, it became clear that a name change was necessary because of the on-going confusion that existed between the Crisis Centre and other social services in Barrie that used the word Crisis in their name. Calls came into the shelter which did not fall under the agency’s mandate and callers had to be redirected causing unnecessary distress and delay of service. Also, in 1998 the Executive Director of the Barrie and District Rape Crisis Line was charged with breach of trust, fraud, and theft and the agency closed after the Ontario government pulled its funding. Although both agencies were unconnected financially and administratively, the use of ‘Crisis’ in both agency names led to ongoing misunderstanding within the community. Therefore, the name was changed in 1999 to The Women & Children’s Shelter (barrie).
In 2000, the Provincial Government introduced a new Transitional Support Program to provide practical support to women leaving the shelter and to women in the community who were living with abusive partners. It was identified that one of the most consistent and pernicious barriers for women leaving abusive and violent relationships is acquiring safe and affordable housing. In 2004, the government changed the name of the program to the Transitional and Housing Support Program (THSP) and added a housing element to the program description. THSP staff offer women the assistance they require in finding and securing affordable housing. They also provide women with safety planning, court and legal support and information, referrals to and advocacy with other services in the community, and help with budgeting.
In 2008, Sylvia Patfield retired and Lynda Muir became Executive Director. In the fall of 2008, the Ontario Government returned shelter funding to its pre-1990 level. The government also committed additional funding to some shelters to open extra spaces to women and children. The Women and Children’s Shelter of Barrie is now funded for 6 extra spaces bringing the number of women and children that can be accommodated at one time to 27. Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, more women are turning to our agency for support. The shelter is often overfull and unable to meet the needs of all who call. We do, however, have a system of shelter referrals in Simcoe County so that we are able to refer women to other shelters.
Listening to what the women told us when they were leaving the shelter and to meet the growing need within the community, a group program was added to the Satellite Office. The name of the expanding program was changed to Outreach Services. Both THSP staff have been relocated to this office to provide a more seamless service for women in the community who approach the agency for support.
In 2009, we went through a rebranding and our operating name was changed to The Women & Children’s Shelter of Barrie.
Since its inception, the agency has continued to grow and flourish. Each year emergency shelter and shelter support services are provided to over 700 women and children. In its 29 year history, the shelter has assisted over 9,000 women and children. The Outreach Program and the THSP have assisted approximately 10,000 women and continue to provide valuable and much-needed services. In 2011, with funding from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the agency added a Family Court Support Program. Through this program women are provided with legal and court support, assistance with Legal Aid and forms and information about the Family Court System.
We now employ 23 full and part-time employees and between 10-14 relief staff.
The agency has had an eventful history and continues to work to reduce violence against women. There have been many changes over the years and many changes are yet to come. There is more awareness about woman abuse and gender-based violence. The legal system has responded with protocols to protect women and children, such as the HART protocol, domestic violence courts, and tougher restraining orders. Although gaps in service remain, there are more services for women and children today than there were 30 years ago.
While we have been fortunate to receive support from our provincial funder, we are reminded of other governments in other times who were not so supportive of the experience of women and children who are living with abuse and violence in their lives. When governments change so may our funding formula. Since our provincial funding partner covers only a part of our operating costs, we rely on the support of the community to help us sustain the quality programs and services that we offer to women in the community dealing with gender-based violence and abuse.