How one Montreal woman took the steps to escape, after more than a decade of physical and psychological abuse

·7 min read
How one Montreal woman took the steps to escape, after more than a decade of physical and psychological abuse

"I just want to kill myself."

When Sabrina heard those words coming from the mouth of her 14-year-old son, she knew she had to act.

"I can't lose my child to this," she told herself.

After more than a decade of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband, Sabrina decided it was time to get out.

Sabrina is a pseudonym. CBC News has agreed to conceal her identity as the case against her husband makes its way through court.

But Sabrina wanted to speak out — conscious that her experience could serve as an inspiration for other women in similar situations, even though she is aware that she is one of the lucky ones.

It has been a tragic start to 2021 in Quebec. In eight weeks, eight women have been killed. Sabrina said she could easily have been one of them.

'He isolated me from everyone and everything'

Dreams of a happy marriage, full of love and acceptance, were squashed, Sabrina says, when she moved from the United States to Canada and married her husband.

She didn't know she would be moving into a home with her husband and his parents and it immediately became apparent why she was there.

"I was there for his parents, to serve them," she said.

"I didn't feel a connection with my husband. He became very cold with me, he would abuse me financially, emotionally, psychologically. He isolated me from everyone and everything."

'I think the hardest part is first taking that step and the fear. I feared him a lot. I still do.' - Sabrina

The abuse became physical and sexual.

"It just felt normal after a while. And obviously, I didn't have energy to fight them off because I had one kid after another and I was just too overwhelmed with everything."

Soon, her husband also turned his wrath on his four children. The two eldest sons bore the brunt of his physical violence.

In 2013, Sabrina had her first inkling that things could be different. She went to police after an incident and was told about the West Island Women's Shelter.

"I didn't even know that shelters existed in 2013. Can you believe that?" she said.

Sabrina stayed there with her four children before her husband convinced her to return home with promises that things would be different.

"He showcased a totally different person, a person who had realized his mistake, who was willing to work it out and who understands that this was not right," she said.

"I fell for that. I gave him another chance. I came back."

Nothing had changed.

"My breaking point was the time he physically abused my oldest son," Sabrina said.

The 14-year-old was quietly reading a book when his father told him to get up. Enraged that he wasn't immediately obeyed, his father grabbed the book, ripping it to pieces, hitting the boy.

"My child ran upstairs. He said 'I just want to kill myself,'" Sabrina said.

"When I heard those words out of my child's mouth, I was like no. I can't lose my child to this."

Finding refuge

The next steps weren't necessarily easy.

Sabrina called the police and her husband was arrested. Unsure what to do next, she contacted the West Island Women's Shelter and was put on a waiting list for help. She could not move to the shelter yet.

She knows now that this was a precarious moment in her life. She had a restraining order against her husband but she feared it would be useless.

"He threatened to kill us many times. I had to get over that, I still am not over it," Sabrina said.

Finally, in the fall of 2019, Sabrina met Andrée-Anne Perreault-Girard.

"My job is to work with women, provide information, and legal counsel through all their legal procedures," said Perreault-Girard.

Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault says the recent string of violence against women is unacceptable.
Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault says the recent string of violence against women is unacceptable.(Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

A free service for the women using the shelter, court accompaniment is still considered an extra resource, what those in the milieu call an external service.

For some, it can be as simple as having someone by their side through the process. For many though, it is an introduction into the legal system, complete with witness testimony preparation.

"The women that are victims are not considered as a party in the file. It's the prosecution and the defence, so they are simple witnesses," explained Perreault-Girard.

"Just to understand that and that the prosecutor is not their lawyer, it's a step."

Sabrina had never even been downtown, let alone to court.

"If [Andrée-Anne] was not by my side, if she didn't give me all that information I needed, even physically being at the court, just her presence being there, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done it," said Sabrina.

It also meant asking her two eldest children to testify against their father.

"I sat them down and I explained to them, asked them if they were willing to take part. And they did. They wanted to tell their story," Sabrina explained. "They wanted their father to realize the consequences of his actions."

In December, Sabrina's husband was convicted of criminal harassment, among other charges. He is awaiting his sentencing.

Resources, systematic changes, needed more than ever

In March, Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced that Quebec would be expanding a program to help children and other vulnerable witnesses feel more confident when testifying during criminal cases.

The government has highlighted that the program was first developed by the crime victims assistance centre (CAVAC) in the Outaouais region.

"The CAVACs will implement this specific program which is not offered by any other organization in Quebec," said Paul-Jean Charest, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry.

Except non-profit organizations across the province have been providing that resource for years through external services. Even then, financing and a shortage of staff mean there are often long waiting lists.

"We cannot provide services to everyone," said Perreault-Girard, explaining the West Island Women's Shelter is usually offering external services to about 80 families at a time.

"We have a waiting list of other women who would like other services and meanwhile, we just can't. We can't."

Women's organizations across the province have been speaking out. They say the system is underfunded and needs to be overhauled. They've also denounced the Quebec government's attempt to move too quickly when it comes to making changes, without proper consultation and an awareness of the most dire needs.

That sentiment was reiterated when the budget was tabled March 25. The budget included $22.5 million in additional money over five years for services to women at existing emergency shelters, in addition to a $180-million plan announced last winter.

"My astonishment — literally, my astonishment — after reading this budget is the fact the government did not measure what is at stake," said Gaëlle Fedida, co-ordinator with l'Alliance MH2, which represents "second-stage" shelters that provide transition housing for women.

This week, Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault was given the mandate to head a task force meant to fight domestic and sexual violence against women.

The move has resulted in cautious optimism.

For Sabrina, the answer is clear. Without the help from the shelter, she believes she'd still be trapped with her abusive husband, or worse, reduced to being another name added to the list of those killed.

"I think the hardest part is first taking that step and the fear. I feared him a lot. I still do."

If you're in immediate danger, call 911. If you need help, SOS violence conjugale is a province-wide toll-free crisis line, available 24/7.

You can reach them at 1-800-363-9010 by phone, or via text at 438-601-1211 You can also look for information on SOS's new website.

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