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Board Chair Danelle Mirdoch of Rowan House in a shelter for perpetrators of domestic violence, rather than victims, in Claresholm, Alberta, on April 19, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

From the day it first opened its doors two decades ago, Rowan House has been full.

Each year, more than 200 women and children cycle through the emergency women’s shelter in High River, Alta., seeking refuge from violence and abuse.

Many travel more than an hour to get there, a destabilizing journey that rips them away from their workplaces, schools and social networks. For those very reasons, there are many more women who do not come – and the staff at Rowan House began to wonder in recent years whether there might be another way.

They asked themselves: What if the onus to leave was not on women experiencing violence, but the men who inflict it?

For the past two years, Rowan House has been drafting a blueprint for a service model that has never before been tried in Canada, creating a new shelter not for victims of domestic violence, but perpetrators.

“The overall goal is to help educate men and break the stigma for men around domestic abuse,” said Rowan House Society board chair Danelle Mirdoch. “They need to realize that it is a man’s issue, and the only way to address it is for men to step up and deal with the problem.”

Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and after a year in which there was an increase not just in reported domestic violence cases but also femicides across the country, this new shelter is set to open its doors to its first client.

Called Safe at Home, the program – which was inspired by a similar one in Australia, where the approach has been embraced for some time – officially launched in 2019, after Rowan House received a $730,000 grant from the federal government to test out a four-year pilot.

The first two years were spent on logistics and drafting a blueprint so that the model, if successful, can be replicated easily by other organizations across the country.

“So the next person that comes to set this program up, whether it be rural or even in an urban setting, there’ll be some very good information on trying to move this thing forward,” Ms. Mirdoch said.

To start, the shelter – a rented house in Claresholm, about an hour and a half south of Calgary – will only be able to take in two clients at a time.

The men’s families, too, will be connected with any outreach or community supports they need while remaining at home. “We’re really providing wraparound supports for the family here,” Ms. Mirdoch said.

A common question Ms. Mirdoch gets is how they expect abusers to sign up.

She says she believes their future clients will be men who are “ready to change their patterns of behaviour. And now they realize there’s a resource available that can help them because they didn’t know what to do before.”

More than 160 women and girls were killed across the country last year, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.

At least 128 of those women were killed by men. In cases where the relationship was discernable, at least half of the victims were killed by a current or former partners. Another 26 per cent of perpetrators were family members.

Carrie McManus, director of innovations and programs for Sagesse, an anti-violence organization in Alberta, said she is familiar with programs similar to Safe at Home in Scotland, and is eager to see how it translates into a Canadian context.

“I think that it could be really impactful to look at … what if we shifted things? ... What would happen if we started to destigmatize and create these opportunities to be able to say, ‘It’s okay for you to ask for support. It’s okay for you to say, I’m somebody who has used violence and I’d like to learn how to not use violence.’”

Safe at Home – which is “designed to help participants accept responsibility for their abusive behaviour while developing skills to self-intervene in the abuse cycle and build healthy relationships” – will be strictly voluntary, through self-referrals. Courts or parole officers are not able to mandate people to participate or apply.

Although the program is year-long, the in-residence portion lasts eight weeks. From there, staff will help them either reintegrate back into their family home or find housing elsewhere, depending on the circumstances.

Ms. Mirdoch said it is not a “lockdown” type program, but men must agree to some conditions upon checking in. For example, they must consent to having the staff communicate with police that they are not to be in physical contact with the family for those eight weeks.

Clients struggling with substance abuse must also be in recovery, and consent to drug testing during their stay. Ms. Mirdoch said there is a large addiction treatment facility in the same town, which is partly why they chose that location.

All applicants undergo a risk assessment. The budget is lean, and owing to staffing limitations, she said the program is unable to take on clients that are deemed too high a risk for violence. Of the six applications received in their first month, one man was turned away for that reason. Another applicant was denied because he was out of province.

It is difficult, Ms. Mirdoch said, to have to say no to someone who is reaching out for help.

“We don’t just outright turn them away, we [connect them with] other resources in the community. But it is heart-breaking that they finally have said, ‘Okay, I want some help,’ and we have to say, ‘This may not be the right circumstances for you, but let’s see what else we can find for you.’”

People can also be accepted down the road, she added, if their risk assessment changes.

For Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, one of the most important elements of this pilot project is that it is being offered as an extension of Rowan House’s existing services.

“I think what I find important in this initiative is that we’re not talking about taking away – they’re adding on to their work,” she said, adding that too often, alternative programs in their sector are looked at and funded as an “either/or.”

When it comes to addressing violence against women, she said, “We need to increase the pie, we don’t need to keep on cutting the same pie into smaller slices.”

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