Just Between You and Me: A Peer Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) Programme for Women in Family Violence Situations

1. Introduction

The "Just Between You and Me" project was designed to provide Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) peer support to victims of family violence and assess its validity as a model for PLEI delivery.

The project began in October 2003, with a research team composed of three individuals with substantial experience in the field of family violence and PLEI. A fourth team member was recruited to evaluate the programme development and delivery. During the first three months of the project, the research team and evaluator, together with an advisory group, developed an evaluation tool for the project; a recruitment tool; the curriculum; and compiled resources. The peer participants were recruited in December 2003, and from January until early March 2004, the programme was delivered at Algoma University College. The project began with twenty participants, with a total of eighteen completing the full eight weeks of training.

The project trained peers in two communities: the Indigenous community in Sault Ste. Marie and area[1] and a Northern Ontario urban centre (Sault Ste. Marie).

The peers were provided with resource materials and an orientation to some of the most common issues arising for victims of family violence. The intent of the project was that the peers would then share this information within their own networks of family, coworkers and communities, using resources already developed and existing in their areas. A support network for the peers has been established with free meeting space provided by a local community agency, Phoenix Rising Non-Profit Homes, Inc.

This report summarizes the activities undertaken throughout the course of the "Just Between You and Me" project, and the findings related to the assessment of its validity as a model for PLEI delivery.

1.1 Family Violence and PLEI

Despite a growing awareness of the problem of family violence, and increasing penalties for perpetrators of such violence, it remains an issue in Canadian society, and both family law courts and criminal courts remain challenged in their efforts to respond to this issue.

The Public Legal Education and Information needs of women who experience family violence are well documented and immense. Women who experience family violence do so in the private environments of their own homes. Thus reaching women with the PLEI, which they so desperately need, is very challenging. Transition houses, leaders in identifying the high risk of physical injury facing victims of family violence, have used a number of ingenious methods to reach women safely, including putting emergency numbers in tampon dispensers.

Some women, such as newcomers to Canada, those with disabilities, or those in rural or northern communities where there are few services, are particularly vulnerable. The nature of family violence, where the perpetrator purposefully isolates the victim, means that there are particular barriers in accessing PLEI, which is compounded when the victim lives in a small community such as a First Nation or due to her youth is less aware of services.

Women want, and often need, to know about a number of legal issues, particularly family law issues such as custody and support, criminal law as it pertains to stalking, harassment and assault, and for new Canadians, immigration law. A recent study also indicated that for some women, knowledge of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (formerly the Young Offenders' Act) is also a high priority (McDonald, 2000).

In response to this need, victims' and legal services have developed a wide array of PLEI materials (see www.owjn.org for example). These have been translated into several languages and a number of strategies have been employed to disseminate them, such as advertising, pamphlets, brochures, the Internet.

Often however, the victim is unable to access and/or use the information. This may be due to the difficulty posed by the "private and unsupported spaces" within which the violence occurs (United Way, 1998), while some women may have difficulty accessing PLEI due to a lack of language proficiency or cultural barriers that some minority communities may face. For some women, it may be due to the trauma of the violence itself. There has been very little research on learning and the law for those who have experienced violence or trauma, but some case studies would indicate that trauma may in fact substantially impair the victims' ability to retain essential information (Hill, 2003; Broad, 2002; McDonald, 2000).

This two-part challenge – delivering accurate PLEI through peers to women who may be experiencing family violence – was undertaken in the "Just Between You and Me" project.

1.2 Why Peer Learning?

The term "peer pressure" is used to describe the sometimes negative influence that close friends can have on one another, particularly in the context of teenagers influencing one another in risk-taking behaviours. A growing number of programmes however, are discovering that peers can be a highly effective way not only of pressuring one another into negative – or positive – behaviours, but also into providing information to one another (McDonald, 2000).

Peer learning works because:

  • Trust is easily established – because of similar situations, because they share characteristics (language, gender, background), because they are not government;
  • There is immediate empathy for the situation (the peer may have experienced family violence herself, or knows someone who has);
  • The peer has learned through experience;
  • The peer is immediately accessible (in the park, at the hairdresser's, picking up the children at school).

If provided with training and appropriate support,

  • Information provided is accurate, complete and up-to-date;
  • Information is provided in the language of choice and more likely to be in plain language;
  • Information provided is timely;
  • Information is delivered in cost-effective way;
  • Information can be supplemented with additional resources and referrals (phone numbers, written materials, etc.)
  • Information provided does not threaten a woman's safety.

2. Research for Social Change

The project is modeled on a similar project, sponsored by Health Canada through the Family Violence Initiative, which provided peer support, but without a significant PLEI component. Peer support is widely used in HIV/AIDS education, particularly among street youth. In Sault Ste. Marie, two projects utilizing peer support to provide support to victims of sexual abuse and assault were highly successful among people with mental health disabilities.

2.1 Action Research as a Methodology

…AR is a form of research that generates knowledge claims for the express purpose of taking action to promote social change and social analysis. But the social change we refer to is not just any kind of change. AR aims to increase the ability of the involved community or organization members to control their own destinies more effectively and keep improving their capacity to do so. (Greenwood and Levin, 1998:6)

Feminists and other equality-seeking groups have been increasingly using Action Research (AR) as a research methodology (Stanley, 1990; Ristock and Pennell, 1996; Greenwood and Levin 1998). For this research, AR was identified as a particularly useful methodology because of a number of its characteristics:

  • The project's intent was to create social change – through the development of a peer network, the researchers hoped to end the isolation of battered women, one of the key elements of keeping them in abusive relationships
  • The project was crossing disciplines – combining both social and legal aspects of the complex issue of violence towards women, a characteristic of feminist practitioners of AR (Reinharz, 1992)
  • The project linked knowledge with action, providing the peer participants with PLEI so that they could share that knowledge more widely within their networks of family, friends and associates (Greenwood and Levin, 1998)
  • AR is a process which involves participants in an empowering process of recognizing their own knowledge, skills and abilities (Maguire, 1987)

The scope of this research did not permit the inclusion of the peer participants in the planning of the research, something that is usually considered a key component of AR. Due to the time constraints, by the time participants were recruited, the content and delivery methods had already been decided upon. The research team did, however, ameliorate this challenge in three ways.

First, by using a research team approach, rather than a single researcher, the project had the benefit of the experience of four individuals who had all worked with battered women. The involvement of the Advisory Group augmented this knowledge and experience with several others.

Second, the research team used research that had been done earlier with battered women to help them identify the learning needs (McDonald, 2000; Hill, 2003). This research was augmented by a series of six interviews conducted by the team with women who had been battered. These informal interviews elicited information regarding what legal information they had found helpful in facilitating their leaving the abusive relationship.

Finally, throughout the programme delivery, the peer participants were encouraged to identify their learning needs through both the formal evaluation at the beginning and closing of the training, as well as informally through the programme facilitators.

Although the peer participants were not able to fully participate in the planning of the research, they certainly participated once the programme delivery began. The eight weeks of training had a remarkably high turnout, with less than one absence per class. It also had a remarkably high completion rate: of the twenty peers commencing the programme, one dropped out after the first class, indicating that she felt this was not suited to her needs at the time, and one other participant was unable to attend sufficient classes to be considered a "graduate". The remaining eighteen members attended faithfully, frequently staying longer than the three-hour class time, following up with their "buddies" during the week, and providing unsolicited feedback on their level of enjoyment in the class[2].

2.1.1 Cyclical Nature of Action Research

AR is known for its iterative nature (Greenwood and Levin, 1998) wherein the research goes through a cycle of planning?acting?observing?reflecting and then returning to planning. "Just Between You and Me" followed this cycle throughout the project, beginning with the planning of the recruitment and evaluation, acting upon those plans, observing and reflecting on the outcomes, and then moving on to the curriculum development and programme delivery.

The evaluation process especially reflects the cyclical nature of AR, using a continuous feedback process throughout. Some AR practitioners call this type of cycle double-loop learning (Hall, 1993) reflecting the incorporation of learning developed in the research, into the research process, so that it can be further built upon in the next research phase.

This double-loop process was invaluable to the "Just Between You and Me" project. The suggestions of the Advisory Group and the Evaluator were frequently incorporated into the project, thereby improving the delivery of PLEI before it began. For example, one of the Advisory Group meetings generated the suggestion that the peers form a "buddy" system to provide support to one another in between meetings. It was felt that such a system would provide an opportunity for peers to share fears, concerns or even reduce re-traumatization that may have occurred during the training sessions. As this suggestion was incorporated into the project, the peers selected their "buddies" on the first night of class and this support was provided throughout the project. Although difficult to validate, this action may have contributed to the high retention and completion rate of the training by the peers. Certainly the facilitators noticed that the "buddies" tended to immediately check in with one another upon arrival at the training location, and resulted in some new friendships during the course of the project.

"Buddies" were also responsible for updating one another should one of them be obligated to miss all or a part of one class. This provided an opportunity for the buddy who missed to get caught up, but it also provided the sharing buddy with an opportunity to practice passing on their knowledge.

2.2 Team Approach to Research

The research team was composed of three individuals with significant experience and knowledge of both the social and legal issues, advocacy, counselling, crisis intervention, and adult/popular education. They also brought experience in cross-cultural work and teaching, as well as group facilitation skills. All three of the research team embrace the empowerment model of social change. Individually and collectively, they bring a multi-disciplinary approach to the project.

The lead researcher, Gayle Broad, has been involved with the development of a variety of PLEI materials through fifteen years' experience as a Community Legal Worker with the Algoma Community Legal Clinic in Sault Ste. Marie. The materials have included a booklet for Indigenous women who wished to apply for Criminal Injuries Compensation as a result of sexual and/or physical assault; a video series which grappled with communities' responses to the victims of sexual assault; and a series of booklets for sexual assault survivors who were engaged in the criminal court process. In 2002, Dr. Broad completed a report for Department of Justice entitled "Know More: An assessment of the impact of Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) on individuals and communities". She currently teaches part-time in the Law and Politics Department of Algoma University College, and is the principal in her own research and consulting firm.

Gisele Beausoleil, MSW, is currently employed as an advocacy worker within a shelter in Sault Ste. Marie. Her work involves accompanying women to legal appointments and court appearances, and providing PLEI to abused women on a daily basis. She uses a variety of PLEI materials in her work and was key in identifying a substantial number of the resource materials available used in the peers' handbooks. Gisele is also a part-time faculty member of Algoma University College's Social Welfare Department.

Connie Manitowabi is a member of Wikwemikong First Nation and had been employed at a women's shelter located on Batchewana First Nation for three years. She currently works as an educator and consultant in racism and violence against women. Connie's experience and knowledge of Anishnabek cultural traditions were invaluable in designing a programme relevant to Indigenous women.

Moliner (1987) identifies that using local evaluators who have experience in evaluation is most desirable for a PLEI project. "Just Between You and Me" was able to recruit a local evaluator who had prior experience in the subject matter, being employed as a counselor with the Sexual Assault and Partner Assault Centre of the Sault Area Hospitals. She also had some previous experience in programme evaluation, having been part of a programme evaluation team of a leadership programme for youth.

A number of benefits accrued from the participation of a local evaluator. Anna was able to attend all of the meetings of the Advisory Committee, several meetings of the research team, and was also available by telephone and email for occasional consultation. This proximity provided opportunities for the research team to immediately implement recommendations provided by the evaluator, and provided a continuous cycle of improvement to the programme. Such a cycle fit well with the Action Research methodology of the project.

The final session, number eight of the Peer group training included a process of evaluation with the participants. The areas of knowledge growth, and changes in both perceptions and behaviour were examined. Narrative comments were also solicited from the group regarding their experience. These comments were then incorporated into the final report.

2.3 Evaluation Framework

To assess the validity of the model as a PLEI delivery method, this project adapted an "Evaluation Framework" from previously completed research (Broad, 2002). The "Framework for Assessing the Impact of Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) on Individuals and the Community" (see Appendix A) was developed through a review of PLEI best practices. In this project, the evaluation tool served as a guide both for the development of the model, as well as in assessing its validity as a method of PLEI delivery.

The Evaluation Framework was modified in two ways to address the goals of this particular project:

  • First, the Advisory Group and the Evaluator felt that modeling empowering behaviour would be essential for the peers, so that they too would learn to empower not only through cognitive learning, but also through experiential learning. As a result, a question designed to elicit that response was added to the Framework (Question 10b).
  • Second, while question number 6 of the original Framework addressed the developmental stage of the learner, given the cross-cultural nature of this project, it was felt that an additional query regarding the curriculum's ability to meet the audience's understanding and belief systems was essential. A question was therefore added to address this concern (Question 6b).

The Framework was then used by both the research team and the evaluator as a tool in guiding the project to its completion. During the curriculum design phase, the Framework was used by the Research Team to ensure that the proposed content and pedagogy responded to the "best practices" outlined by the tool. By asking themselves the Framework questions as they designed the programme, the research team was able to address matters that may have been overlooked otherwise.

For example, the initial questions, regarding having clear goals for the PLEI activity, resulted in the drafting of clear learning objectives for each week's session. These learning goals then guided the planning of that session's delivery.

Finally, the Evaluation Framework guided both the Evaluator in her assessment of the programme's effectiveness, and in the organization of this report. By using the questions as a frame, the various components essential to delivering a quality PLEI programme were addressed, and the quality of the components in "Just Between You and Me" were evaluated.


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