Celebrating Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter’s 34th Anniversary
We first opened our doors in 1983.
With a special letter from our Executive Director, Sharlene Tygesen
She shares a story that she will never forget . . .
When I first started working at Ernestine’s in 1991, I was employed as a Child and Youth Counsellor. At the time, there was a family of 5, consisting of four young children and their mother, residing at Ernestine’s. The family (lets’s call them the Romney family) was new to Canada and had arrived in the dead of winter from a much warmer climate. I remember thinking how overwhelming it must be to arrive in a new country with very cold weather while experiencing family violence. The Romney family’s story resonates with me for many reasons, but most importantly because they were the catalyst for our agency’s paradigm shift – to truly recognize that children have needs that are separate and distinct from their mothers.
The Romney family had been in the country for only 3 months when the violence that had plagued them since arriving escalated to police involvement. The police officers brought the mother and her children to Ernestine’s.
The children started at a new school while at Ernestine’s, and they all actively engaged in the programs that Ernestine’s provided. Back then, the shelter only had an occupancy of 22 women and children residing in 6 bedrooms. Here was this mom residing in a bedroom with all four of her children, which sadly was not uncommon for us at the time.
One of the children was a 9 year old named Steven, who was always fascinated with electronics. He loved figuring out how they worked and how to fix them. Radio Shack was still around at the time, and we were able to get him kits to support this curious fascination with electronics. Staff would get hold of broken VCRs, tape decks, boom boxes, and whatever else we could find for Steven’s use. He would spend hours taking them apart and fixing them. Taking apart and putting together electronics was very cathartic for Steven, and was how counselling session often took place. He expressed his hurt about the family’s situation and explained to us that he had liked his stepfather and had gotten on very well with him until they made plans to head to Canada for a better life. In Canada, something changed in his stepfather; he had become more controlling of their mother, and began to take a more authoritative and disrespectful approach with the children. Steven expressed confusion, sadness, and fear about his family’s future.
Fortunately, Steven and his siblings were thriving at Ernestine’s. They slept peacefully, they were safe, and they adjusted to their new schools well, while the shelter provided normalcy and a structured routine that included going to school daily. This is worth mentioning because children who live in conflict and who are exposed to domestic violence miss more school days compared to children not exposed to or living in crisis.
Sadly, Steven and his family had to be transferred to another shelter very suddenly. This happens for many reasons, the most serious one being that they have been located by their abuser. You can only imagine what relocating means for a family and children, in particular.
The Romney family was relocated on a Sunday afternoon when I was not working. Steven’s mother inquired if Ernestine’s staff could call the Outreach counsellor, as she was quite distressed and the Outreach counsellor would continue to support the family after they had left the shelter. The counsellors made the call and connected the mother to the outreach counsellor. On the other hand, Steven asked to speak with myself or my child and youth advocate partner, and though Steven was assured by the staff that we would be informed of his move on Monday, we were never called.
When I arrived at the Shelter on Monday and heard about the sudden move of the Romney family and about Steven’s futile request to speak with a Child and Youth Counsellor, I was very upset. This incident set in motion the agency’s review of how we support our most vulnerable clients – the children.
The history of the shelter movement really began when women would hide their girlfriend’s and sisters within their own homes. It was not until the 1970s that these same women advocated for funding for “real” spaces for abused women to escape. The shelter system was designed to support women fleeing violence, but it has historically neglected the needs of the children who join their mothers at the shelter.
However, children need more than just being kept safe. They need specialized counselling and advocacy. Most importantly, they need a voice of their own. This incident with the Romney family sparked within us the realization that we needed to reconceptualise how we work with children and recognize that they had distinct rights, separate from those of their mothers’.
34 years after our doors first opened, we reflect on how our Shelter has evolved to suit the needs of each of our clients. Today, we are proud to stand up for women and protect the rights of children.