Connie Saulnier and her daughter Jennifer in a photo taken on Mother's Day in 2011, just a few months before Jennifer came home from rehab.
Connie Saulnier has been making presentations to high schools in the region to share her family's story of domestic abuse. Saulnier wants to raise awareness and continue a dialogue about domestic abuse. She says as long as school's keep inviting her, she'll continue to share her message.
By Tina Comeau
When Connie Saulnier looks out onto a sea of teenage faces sitting in a high school gymnasium, she’s reminded of the days her daughter Jennifer was in school.
Carefree. Athletic. A backpack slung over her shoulder. Spending time with friends.
Then she tells the students about the phone call. The students hang on her every word.
Saulnier, the CAO for the Municipality of Clare, hopes that by talking to students she can prevent more of those phone calls from happening in the future, even though in doing so she is reliving a horrible and painful experience in her family’s life – and, more importantly, in her daughter’s life.
“But it’s so important that I’m determined to do it,” she says.
Saulnier wants to create awareness and launch a dialogue over domestic abuse, something she says many people still see as a taboo subject.
You see, that phone call Saulnier received in August 2010 was from a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, telling her that her 38-year-old daughter had been gravely injured. She is now a quadriplegic.
Her daughter’s boyfriend said she had tripped over a cat and fallen down the stairs. At least that was the story he told. At first, to Saulnier’s daughter, it was plausible. She remembered the cat that night.
She didn’t remember anything else.
Next followed months and years of hospital stays, medications, medical procedures, the machines that helped her breathe, the short-term loss of her voice, the complications, the infections, the fevers, the rehab and on and on goes the list.
“It’s amazing that she even did survive,” says her mother. “It looked so grim for a long time. She was so ill and had so many complications and so many things were happening that we really didn’t believe at first that she would survive. But obviously as a mother you convince yourself that she will.”
It took a long time but eventually the memories of that night started to come back for Saulnier’s daughter.
And the memories didn’t involve a cat.
She had been out with friends celebrating her birthday. When they brought her home she mentioned her boyfriend would be mad because she had stayed out late.
By now her friends and co-workers were already suspicious of what was happening in her relationship. There was the makeup covering up black eyes and bruises. The story of her having been in a car accident.
She never confirmed their suspicions.
She never told anyone.
Still, her friends didn’t want her to go inside the apartment that night. She figured it would be worse not to go in. A friend offered to wait in the parking lot for 10 minutes if she decided to come back out.
The friend waited, but Jennifer never walked out of that apartment that night.
In fact, she never walked again.
She was right. He was mad.
An argument ensued upstairs. It got physical.
“The last thing she remembers was him pulling her hair and she remembers her neck, she heard her neck snap,” says Connie Saulnier. “After that she passed out.”
It gets more disturbing from there. When Saulnier’s daughter regained consciousness she was on the couch downstairs. Her head was hanging off the couch and she couldn’t lift it. She thought she had a pinched nerve. She asked her boyfriend to call an ambulance. She asked him repeatedly.
Giving paramedics a false name, he eventually did make the call. But only two days later.
For what he had done to her that night the boyfriend was eventually convicted of felony domestic abuse causing great physical harm. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Connie Saulnier had no idea her daughter was experiencing domestic abuse. Her daughter never told her and, because she lived so far away, Saulnier didn’t see her in person. Had she, she believes – she hopes – she would have sensed something was wrong.
Still, Saulnier says her daughter didn’t fit the persona of someone she thought could become a victim of domestic violence.
“When I pictured victims of abuse I thought it would be people who are timid or lacking self-confidence, who come from perhaps a low-income family. She was none of those things,” says Saulnier. “My daughter was self-confident. She was active in sports. She had several levels of taekwon-do and martial arts, so she knew how to defend herself. All of the things that I would have thought would have been impossible for her to be in that situation.”
It is because this type of abuse can happen to anyone – and impact any family – that Saulnier now finds herself standing before high school students talking about domestic violence. She’s made presentations at St. Mary’s Bay Academy and Clare district high school. Her most recent presentation was at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School. Her next is at Digby Regional High School.
She says she wouldn’t have been ready to do this three years ago, two years ago or one year ago. It was still too fresh and raw to talk about.
“But it’s four years now and I feel ready,” she says. “When I felt ready, I felt it was something that I wanted to do.”
Saulnier says it’s in school that young people start dating and start to build relationships. Her message is directed at multiple audiences. Those who may be abused. Those who may commit the abuse. Those who may suspect the abuse. Those who are witnessing abuse.
“If they’re seeing it at home and think it’s normal behaviour, I want them to know that it’s not normal,” she says, even though statistics show, she adds, that abuse is prevalent.
Saulnier’s daughter is moving forward with her life. She uses a wheelchair and has very limited use of her hands. She is on pain medication and experiences nerve-ending pain. She lives in a long-term care facility in Halifax. Life goes on.
“I was surprised. I expected she would feel sorry for herself and would go into great bouts of depression. She didn’t really, she said ‘I know I should have left earlier. What’s done is done,’” Saulnier says. “I’m not saying there haven’t been tears. But she has adapted. She’s a very strong individual. She’s moved on with her life. She makes the best of it.”
And so her mother does too.
While many see Saulnier as courageous for sharing the story of her family’s ordeal, she doesn’t see herself as brave.
She says she’s just a mom.
“I guess I felt if I don’t speak out, who will? Am I waiting for the next person to do it?” she says. “When I looked out there and I saw all of those students sitting there I just thought to myself, I pray that none of your mothers get a call like I got.”