New pilot project in Peel aims to reduce domestic violence by pairing social workers with police

Peel Region has launched Safe Centre Response Teams, a three-year collaboration between the police force and the Safe Centre of Peel, to assist victims of domestic violence and abuse. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)
Peel Region has launched Safe Centre Response Teams, a three-year collaboration between the police force and the Safe Centre of Peel, to assist victims of domestic violence and abuse. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)

Peel Region is rolling out a new pilot program officials hope will help reduce family and intimate partner violence.

Such violence increased in the region by 3.5 per cent from 2016 to 2021, according to Peel Regional Police. In 2021 alone, the service received 17,000 calls for domestic incidents — an average of two every hour.

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome," said Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah. "We know we have to think outside the box."

Duraiappah was on hand Tuesday to announce the launch of Safe Centre Response Teams, a three-year collaboration between the force and the Safe Centre of Peel — a partnership of 15 agencies working to assist victims of domestic violence and abuse.

The pilot, which is being funded by a $21.4 million Ontario government grant, will pair constables with social workers for rotating 12-hour shifts. The teams will respond to 911 calls for non-violent, non-criminal intimate partner violence, such as verbal abuse.

Since family violence tends to operate along a spectrum, Duraiappah said the goal will be to help provide those families at the earlier end of the spectrum "the appropriate off-ramps" in the hopes of avoiding repeat calls that escalate in violence.

The team will accompany uniformed officers to calls and, where appropriate, they'll meet with those in the household to better understand the root causes of a conflict and which appropriate support agencies the families should be referred to.

"We know that many times when people make it to the Safe Centre, families are in crisis," said Shelina Jeshani, director of Catholic Family Services Peel-Dufferin. "As community partners, we have been visioning on how we can reach families early so they can get the support they require."

The pilot is described as the first of its kind in Ontario. "We will be setting a precedent of early intervention right here in Peel Region," Jeshani said. "It's very exciting."

While there's value in the pilot, Mirlo Liendo, an author, survivor and advocate for families experiencing violence, says she worries it might be "a Band-Aid solution."

Talia Ricci/CBC
Talia Ricci/CBC

"Having a social worker there is a start. It's not a complete fix by any stretch," she said. "It's been my personal and professional experience that sometimes social workers aren't as experienced in dealing with incidents of coercive control and what some of the nuance is."

Liendo said how much of an impact the program has will also depend on what happens to the victims and families after their initial interactions with the pilot workers.

"There are so many avenues and so many pieces of this puzzle that need to be addressed with more than just a three-year pilot project," she said. "I really do hope it creates more change and creates more education and that it becomes a bigger part of the police hiring process as well."

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Duraiappah says there will be monthly assessments of the program's impact and he expects the first full review by the six-month mark.

He said officers have been "handpicked" for the pilot and have received specialized training in intimate partner and family violence, de-escalation, and crisis intervention, as well as empathy-based training.

"Domestic violence hurts and diminishes all of us," said Charmaine Williams, Associate Minister of Women's Social and Economic Opportunity and MPP for Brampton Centre.

"The earlier we can intervene and prevent physical violence, the stronger our communities and families will be."