run by women who are survivors of abuse themselves.
It’s a road that founder, Leonie Segall knows all too well. She founded the organization in 2012, years after recovering from her own experience with an emotionally abusive, controlling husband. “It was the kind of situation where he would go through all of my stuff every single night when I came home; my purse, my phone, my computer. The thing is, I had no idea I was in an abusive relationship until someone else pointed it out to me,” says Leonie. After 7 years of near constant verbal insults and emotional torture, Leonie hastily packed one bag and jumped in a cab with her son. She quickly realized the help she thought was out there was not available for a woman like her, who made slightly above the amount of money that the government considered “in need”.
“I couldn’t afford a lawyer but did not qualify for legal aid either. So I was completely alone trying to fight for custody of my son from a man who used him as a pawn,” says Leonie.
HFG meets once a month for a full day of programming at Toronto’s Harbourfront Community Centre. The day starts with a brunch then the moms and kids separate and go off into whatever workshop is planned for that day. There are self defence workshops, financial workshops and other topics that give relevant information to the women. Leonie and the volunteers also meet with the women one on one to talk about what their issues and what they need. “We help them navigate the legal system or obtain public funds and just try to be there for them as they find the support they’re looking for,” says Leonie.
Leonie has recently started a new online panel discussion called “Right On”. It’s a weekly event talking about domestic violence; what it is, why it happens, what you do after you leave, and how to get help.
“We are setting up a panel of family lawyers, counsellors, social workers etc. Women can send in their questions anonymously and we answer them online. The first discussion was focused on the stages of abuse – from the moment you meet this person until the honeymoon period is over and then the change sets in. They isolate you without you realizing it, then the actual abuse starts. Then even after you leave, the abuse doesn’t stop there. It goes through the children, and through stalking. I live under constant harassment and threats from my ex to take my son away or call CAS. It never ends,” says Leonie.
Could you be in an abusive relationship? Click here to read about how to recognize the stages of abuse.
Leonie admits the job is emotionally taxing. “At first, each time I sat with one of the women and listened to their story, I got very emotional. It’s still very hard but I’m at a place where I don’t break down and cry. What I love the most is being able to remove that feeling of helplessness and be that person they can talk to who doesn’t bill them by the hour.”
While every woman’s story is different, they each have one thing in common. “All of the woman always remark that these men were so different when they first met. They were charming and everyone loved them. They show up at your work unannounced under the guise of wooing you. But then they move very quickly and take over every minute of your life.”
The organization is growing. “We got incorporated on February 4 2013 and since then we’ve applied for charitable status. We have a Bay street law firm, Dickinson Wright LLP, helping with the process. They have never charged me a dime and I’m so grateful to them.”
Click here to find out more about HFG Happy Families Support Network.