Just Between You and Me: A Peer Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) Programme for Women in Family Violence Situations
"Just Between You and Me" has been very well received within the community, particularly amongst the peer participants, but also amongst the various people and organizations that were touched in some way by the project. For example, the Communications Officer at Algoma University College, Donna Woldanski, was very enthused with the concept, and worked to ensure that the initial media conference to launch the project was highly successful. The community organizations most directly effected – women's shelters, medical clinic facilities, and counselling services – provided feedback frequently throughout the project to the research team, providing their support and encouragement. This was reflected in the Advisory Group, who willing shared their time and expertise, to ensure the project was successful.
The project proposed to recruit peer participants from two communities, the urban centre of Sault Ste. Marie, and the Indigenous community of the Sault area. The project had intended to recruit participants through posters distributed by fax to a variety of organizations throughout the Sault Ste. Marie area. However, the research team decided to
"get the word out" initially through a press conference, scheduled to coincide with a service fair held at Algoma University College. The fair was scheduled in November to raise awareness of violence against women, and seemed an opportune time to publicize the programme in the community. The press conference was highly successful with representatives of electronic (radio and television, as well as internet-based) and print media attending. It also received regional coverage through CBC Radio.
The media conference became a valuable recruitment tool. Several of the participants mentioned that that was how they became aware of the programme. One woman described how she had been driving when she heard the announcement of the programme on the news, and had to pull over to the side of the road to write down the telephone number of the contact. The media announcement also generated a great deal of interest in the community at large, and the research team fielded many questions about the programme, its funding, and the potential of it being offered again. At one point, there was significant interest from a francophone group in Sudbury to obtain funding for a similar programme, but this group later decided that they needed to develop legal intermediaries first, before developing a peer support programme.
The effects of the media conference were to develop widespread community interest in the project, and throughout the programme delivery, the research team was asked about participant progress. Several inquiries were made about delivery of the programme at a future date; the question,
"Will you be offering this again?" was expressed to the research team by both individuals and organizations. It is quite unlikely that this level of ongoing interest would have continued without the attention directed to the programme by the media conference.
Another recruitment tool that was very effective, particularly amongst Indigenous women, was personal, face-to-face invitations. This was achieved through the research team itself, but also through some of the community groups' employees who were faxed the poster. For example, one of the peers stated that she had been approached first by a worker at the Indian Friendship Centre, and then by Connie Manitowabi, and it was after the second invitation that she felt that
"…my path was being led here". Several of the participants said that it was because they knew one or more of the research team that they decided to participate.
In consultation with the Advisory group, the research team devised a screening tool, consisting of a letter of application or resume and two letters of reference, followed by an interview with a series of questions (see Appendix A attached). At the interview, potential participants were requested to sign a commitment form, intended to ensure that candidates completed the full eight weeks of training.
Initial recruitment of peers was done through personal contacts, the media release, and posters distributed through a network of social agencies, particularly those who deliver services to women. A total of fifty-three women initially responded to the request for volunteers. Subsequently a member of the research team contacted each woman, inviting her to submit a letter of application, together with two references.
This process resulted in approximately sixteen applications, with less than half being Indigenous. To meet the project's goal of fifty per cent participation coming from Indigenous women, additional personal contact was made with a number of agencies who assisted in recruiting additional participants. All of the participants did submit letters of application and references with the exception of one, who worked at Algoma University College – where the course was being held – and who did not realize this was an expectation until she attended the first night's class.
Efforts were also made to encourage women of all ages and ethnicities to apply. As the initial applications were reviewed, the research team noted that only one applicant indicated an Italian heritage, whereas the population of Sault Ste. Marie is approximately one-third of Italian descent. The names of those who had indicated an interest via telephone were reviewed and a number of others were encouraged to apply, resulting in a final number of four women of Italian descent participating in the final group.
Potential peers were then interviewed by two of the research team members, and all but three were accepted into the programme. Through the interview process, it was discovered that two had very recently left abusive relationships and were deemed to be still recovering from trauma. Gisele, in her capacity as a social worker, believed that it would be unethical to risk further traumatization through exposure to the course. A third candidate was deemed unsuitable due to very poor listening skills.
The curriculum and recruitment process was finalized in late December, however, to reach the Indigenous participant targets, recruitment continued into the first week of January, 2004 with a final group of twenty women, nine of whom were Indigenous.
In reviewing the recruitment process at an Advisory Group meeting, members queried whether this process was too onerous on the peer participants, as fifty-three people indicated a desire to take the course, but once the applications were requested, only thirteen actually followed up by submitting a resume and letters of reference. Eventually, through personal telephone calls and follow-up, a total of twenty did submit applications, indicating a high drop-off rate at the time of application.
The participants also indicated that the application process was a difficult one for them – that they were uncertain as to what to put in the letter, who to contact for references, and that the interview itself was a bit intimidating. Several of the participants also indicated that they were uncertain as to what the process would be, what the training would be like, what they would be learning, etc., and that they would have liked more information prior to beginning the course.
One of the peers did not participate in the recruitment process; she neither completed an application, nor an interview, but simply showed up on the first night of the sessions. Due to confusion amongst the research team, she was admitted to the group, but the next day approached the research team leader, and inquired whether she should withdraw as she had not completed the recruitment process. Upon discussion by the research team, it was decided to invite her to continue as she met the criteria for participation. This individual did complete the programme successfully, but the research team recommends that a thorough recruitment process is advisable for the reasons stated above.
The recruitment process did result in substantial diversity of participants. Peers were aged from their early twenties to their sixties, active in a wide variety of different groups including recreation, neighbourhood groups and housing complexes, one member of the small francophone (approximately 5% of the population) community. Some peers were career oriented, some did not work outside the home, and several were active in the volunteer sector.
Upon reflection of the recruitment process, the Advisory Group and the Research Team recommends that in future programmes, an "information session" be scheduled shortly after announcing the programme, that anyone may attend. At such a session, more information would be provided about the process, the logistics, and assistance could be provided to those who wished some, in completing their application. It is also recommended that a flyer outlining the key components of the programme, as well as contact information, be provided to all attendees at such an Information Session, so that they can review the information at home.
The research team feels quite strongly that the interview process needs to be retained as a step in the recruitment of peers. At the interviews, potential participants who were still in abusive relationships, or still suffering substantial traumatization were identified as being unsuitable at this time, and one candidate who had very poor listening skills was also eliminated through the interview process.
The Evaluation Framework identified knowledge growth as one of the goals of PLEI, and the curriculum for the training sessions was designed to increase the participants' knowledge in both the social and legal aspects of the issue of woman abuse.
Although the Research Team had intended to hold a focus group to assist in the curriculum development, this was not possible due to scheduling difficulties. As an alternative, interviews were conducted with women to obtain feedback on what legal information they needed during their efforts to leave abusive relationships. Since one researcher's role was to ensure cultural appropriateness, she interviewed three Indigenous women.
These interviews indicated that women who had left abusive relationships had found a number of different pieces of information helpful. As Hill's research (2003) indicates, perceived support is as important as actual support in times of crisis. For one woman, sometimes just knowing that services are available provided her with reassurance. The major points identified in these interviews as information helpful to leaving were as follows:
- Recognition and identification of what abuse is
- Knowing where to find emotional support
- Information regarding income maintenance programmes and entitlements
- Specific legal information regarding family and criminal matters
- Reassurance that abused woman is not "crazy"; is competent and capable of making own decisions
- Finding a safe place
- Advocacy by friends, relatives, legal intermediaries
This information was consolidated with the suggestions of the Advisory Group, which recommended that information regarding the ethical issues such as the duty to report suspected child abuse and confidentiality be added. The research team then identified a series of eight workshop topics (see Appendix B). Consistent with the principles of PLEI delivery, the workshop themes combine both social and legal aspects of woman abuse, including information about the effects of violence against women, advocacy, income maintenance, support services to victims of violence, family and criminal law issues and self-care.
The research team utilized a wide array of PLEI materials that had already been developed by other groups and organizations. Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), and the Ontario Women's Justice Network (OWJN) contributed the largest volume of materials but local resources were also utilized including a video series called "Know More". A handbook for the peer participants was prepared for their continued use and reference although further materials have been copied and delivered to the group at the various sessions.
There were a number of major benefits to using the materials already produced:
- The materials of CLEO, METRAC and OWJN are well researched and dated, ensuring legal accuracy on a wide variety of topics. It would have been very difficult to have such legal expertise within one research team
- The participants became familiar with a number of PLEI providers through this process, ensuring that they will know where to continue to access accurate, up to date materials and information, and are therefore not dependent on continuous contact with the programme providers
- By using materials already developed, the research team was able to focus its efforts on identifying which materials might be best for this particular purpose, and spend more time on ensuring appropriate pedagogy
In general the peers indicated that this experience met their expectations. They expressed a belief that they have increased their understanding of legal processes and the dynamics of family violence. As well, interpersonal skills such as, learning how to listen and how to be a peer advocate were identified as important skills that were developed.
Through the evaluation process, specific areas of knowledge growth were identified by the peer learners. The women were asked to identify what they had learned and then as a group rated these based on importance. The areas of knowledge growth that the group identified as most critical for them were: court procedures, understanding legal advice, understanding legal terminology, criminal injuries compensation, Ontario Works procedures, what women should take when they leave a family violence situation, and how to deal with lawyers. Also of importance was information and learning about family law, the duty to report child abuse, the Domestic Violence Court, Ontario Disability, safety issues in family violence situations, child visitation guidelines, Victim Witness Assistance Program and the process of being a peer advocate.
The training materials were derived from a wide variety of sources readily accessible through programmes and services already in existence. Some of the most used sources were the Ontario Women's Justice Network, Education Wife Assault, METRAC and CLEO. The research team's expertise in this area was extremely helpful in identifying both sources and materials available. The Advisory Group also provided some excellent feedback, and as indicated earlier, interviews with six individuals who had left abusive relationships provided initial directions for the curriculum development.
The curriculum was designed to address the various concerns raised by the Evaluation Framework. Issues considered during development included:
- ensuring legal accuracy
- addressing common misperceptions
- placing the legal information within the context of the social issue of violence against women
Additionally, a number of curriculum delivery issues were considered:
- delivery of the programme in a safe environment
- delivery in plain language
- use of a variety of teaching methods
- cultural appropriateness
- involvement of the learners' experience in the delivery process
As a result, the curriculum was broken into a series of eight sessions designed to gradually build the peers' confidence in the delivery of PLEI. One session, for example is designed specifically to address their concerns about moving into a legal environment (Session 3: "Preparing to be a Legal Peer").
Early in the discussions, the research team had anticipated that more time would be spent on family and criminal law. In the end, only one evening was devoted to each. However, after reflecting on the research of other PLEI initiatives, it was determined that what the peers needed most, was an opportunity to become confident about accessing legal information and advice. Clearly, for them to continue to keep their information up to date and accurate will require that they continue to access legal information regularly, so access will be key. By assisting them in identifying the community sources of PLEI available to them, and giving them the skills to make referrals and obtain the information, the programme can provide them with continuously expanding knowledge.
Many of the peers identified that the resource binders provided to them have been very helpful. They indicated that the books increased their confidence because they know they can access information quickly when it is needed. At the first session, peers expressed concern that they learn accurate and current information about the law, as they understood that much of the legislation had changed since they themselves had last been informed about it. This concern was addressed by providing peers with a list of websites and resources that are updated regularly, so that they themselves can update their knowledge as needed.
The curriculum was divided into eight sections which cover information on the benefits of peer training/learning, violence against women, advocacy and ethical issues, income maintenance and community support services, legal terminology and general processes, family and criminal law, and self-care issues.
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