Abused women: a call for more help

A report released yesterday calls on the Ontario government to make substantial changes to Ontario’s welfare system to better protect abused women. The report, Walking on Eggshells: Abused Women’s Experiences of Ontario’s Welfare System, outlines 34 recommendations.

The report stems from the “Woman and Abuse Welfare Research Project” launched in 2000. It was written by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Janet Mosher (right), the project’s principal investigator, and researchers from Carleton and Queen’s Universities in conjunction with the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses and the Ontario Social Safety Network. Funding was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

“Our findings make it clear that women who flee abusive relationships and turn to welfare seeking refuge and support frequently find neither,” said Mosher. “Women’s experiences of welfare are often profoundly negative. They encounter a system that is less than forthcoming about their entitlements, and about the multiple rules with which they must comply. They are often subjected to demeaning and humiliating treatment from workers within a system in which suspicion and the devaluation of recipients are structured into its very core.”

Interviews were conducted with women who are or have been in an abusive relationship and have accessed social assistance through the Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program. Women in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, London, Muskoka, Peel and the Tyendinaga Reserve, Mohawk Territory were interviewed between November 2001 and March 2003 for the study.

“For many, the experience of welfare is like another abusive relationship,” added Mosher. “Virtually every woman with whom we spoke was caught in one or more double binds as she struggled to be a good mother, good worker and good citizen. Disturbingly, the decision to return to an abusive relationship is often the ‘best’ decision for a woman, in a social context of horrendously constrained options.”

Key recommendations of the report include:

  • raising welfare rates to meet the true costs of living;
  • stopping the claw back of the national child benefit supplement;
  • providing accurate, complete information about the welfare system;
  • providing meaningful training and support for employment, including assistance for education;
  • changing welfare worker attitudes towards recipients through (measures such as) training;
  • redesigning support obligation policies that adequately protect women;
  • revamping fraud policies and practices;
  • changing the definition of ‘spouse’ and ‘same-sex partner’ to mirror family law.

The report emphasizes that genuine respect for women’s right to safety, and to live free of violence in their lives means creating the social conditions – adequate welfare, access to safe housing, access to childcare, access to employment that pays a living wage, etc.– that would truly make it difficult for men to “get away with it”. This was made clear in numerous interviews conducted for the study. As one interviewee stated:

“Many times I thought if I was with an abusive guy at least I could get help for food because the welfare cheque was not enough, so many times we starved because we didn’t have food at home. I understand too why so many women go back to abusive guys… “

“What is needed most urgently and most profoundly is a fundamental shift from viewing poverty as the failing of individuals, and those who are poor as lazy, unmotivated and deceptive,” said Mosher. “To the extent that the welfare system in Ontario continues to operate from such a perspective, there is really little hope that it will offer meaningful support to facilitate women’s safe exit from abusive relationships. If nothing changes, women will continue to return to abusive relationships and will not be safe.”

To read the full report, click here.

More about Janet Mosher

Mosher joined Osgoode Hall Law School’s Faculty in July, 2001, after teaching for 12 years at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, where she was also the director of the Combined LLB/MSW program. Prior to joining the Faculties of Law and Social Work at the University of Toronto, she practiced as an associate in a Toronto firm in the areas of labour law, constitutional law and general civil litigation.

Mosher’s current teaching interest include law & poverty, law’s response to woman abuse, legal ethics, legal process and evidence. Her research has focused upon critical evaluations of various legal interventions that impact upon women abused in their intimate relationships, and she is currently engaged in an empirical research project to explore the multiple intersections between woman abuse and welfare receipt. She has also published on poverty law, community legal clinics, access to justice for disadvantaged groups and legal education. She is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Law & Social Policy and the Canadian Journal of Women & the Law. She has served, and continues to serve, on several community-based boards of directors.