In counting domestic-violence deaths, Canada’s jumble of rules and record-keeping doesn’t add up

To help prevent domestic-violence crimes, researchers and policy makers need a full picture of the problem – but statistical loopholes and varying provincial standards leave many deaths unaccounted for, creating barriers for change

Original Article: The Globe and Mail  |  Molly Hayes & Elizabeth Renzetti  |  19 August 2019

Nadia El-Dib was 22 years old, the middle child of four daughters, lively and outgoing. She was studying to be a legal assistant at the South Alberta Institute of Technology. She dreamt about going to law school.

On March 25, 2018, Ms. El-Dib left a Calgary shisha bar with Adam Bettahar, an ex-boyfriend she had found overly controlling. Her body was found hours later in a suburban backyard. She had been shot twice and stabbed more than 40 times. Four days later, after a warrant for first-degree murder was issued for his arrest, Mr. Bettahar was killed in a shootout with RCMP officers near Edmonton.

Her family didn’t know that Mr. Bettahar had been stalking and harassing her after their break-up: She didn’t want to burden them with her worries, they later learned. Other women in her circle said that Mr. Bettahar had also displayed troubling behaviour toward them, but they didn’t take it seriously enough to report him to police.

“Nadia didn’t fit the stereotypical box of who gets murdered in a domestic abuse situation," said her sister, Racha El-Dib.

"It’s a lesson to learn since it’s happening a lot more out there, especially with the statistics of one in every six days a woman is murdered in Canada,” she said. “Nobody talks about it. Nobody ever thinks, ‘It’s going to be me.’ The reality is it can be anybody.’’

Ms. El-Dib’s family would like her death to serve to raise awareness of, and hopefully prevent, future incidents of domestic violence. But the way that statistics on these crimes are collected in Canada leaves no guarantee that every incident can serve this purpose.

It is possible, but not certain that Ms. El-Dib’s murder will be reviewed by Alberta’s Family Violence Death Review Committee. If it is, then it will be one more piece in a puzzle for researchers to study and analyze so that they can try to prevent similar tragedies.

Such investigations have led to legislation to protect domestic violence survivors in workplaces, better coordination in the criminal justice system and the identification of red flags – warning signs that a romantic partnership might turn violent.

But, even with the existence of these committees, there are any number of holes in the way domestic homicides are recorded and investigated in Canada, researchers say. As many as 20 per cent of domestic-violence deaths may be overlooked because they involve dating relationships or same-sex partnerships. Murder-suicides, which make up nearly one-third of partner homicides, are not examined to the same degree as one where a perpetrator is still alive. Researchers are working to compile a comprehensive national database of domestic homicide statistics, but are stymied by different privacy legislation and recording standards across provinces.

What they would like to see is a system like Australia’s. Australian officials, acknowledging that “a solid national evidence base is required” to effect change, began in 2017 to collect comprehensive data on domestic violence on a national level, rather than relying on a patchwork of inconsistent information from multiple regions. Canadian researchers, by contrast, must sometimes rely on court documents and media reports, neither of which is totally reliable, to compile information.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 960 domestic homicides – in which the victim was a current or former spouse, common-law partner or dating partner of the perpetrator – between 2003 and 2013. Of those, 747 of the victims were women, and the largest demographic group was women in their twenties.

But that data, provided by coroners’ offices or police reports, aren’t enough for domestic-violence researchers and advocates who want to prevent similar crimes in the future. For that in-depth insight, they rely on domestic violence death review committees (DVDRC), a system that is picking up steam across the country, but is still patchy and inconsistent in its evidence-gathering.

A DVDRC is a multidisciplinary group – some combination of law enforcement, Indigenous advisers, community workers, academics and policy planners – convened by a provincial government to examine the killing of intimate partners or family members. So far there are DVDRCs in six provinces: Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Manitoba and British Columbia. A new committee is being launched in Quebec, and there has been movement on establishing a regional committee in Atlantic Canada. The purpose of the committees is to study some or all of the intimate partner murders in their jurisdictions, detect patterns, flaws or missed opportunities, and make recommendations.

“DVDRCs are the one mechanism now in place, in jurisdictions that have them, that put a comprehensive eye on system responses and see how we can do things better in the future,” says Myrna Dawson, director of the Centre for Social and Legal Responses to Violence at the University of Guelph.

Dr. Dawson and Peter Jaffe of Western University are partners in the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative, a multidisciplinary project to gather better data for homicide prevention, especially among groups who face a higher risk of violence, such as children, Indigenous women, immigrant and refugee groups, and women in remote and rural communities.

Canada’s first DVDRC was struck in Ontario in 2003, in response to three domestic killings that had prompted inquiries in the previous five years: two murder-suicides and one instance of a husband murdering his wife and four children.

Some DVDRCs are more rigorous, and therefore more valuable, than others. For example, Ontario’s committee examines every homicide and files a report every year. From 2003 to 2017, Ontario’s DVDRC reviewed 445 deaths; two-thirds were homicides and one-third were murder-suicides. Because the review looks at every death, every year, patterns become apparent: In three-quarters of the cases, there had been a history of domestic violence. In two-thirds , the couple was separated or in the process of separating. The latest report provided a summary of the most common risk factors, including a perpetrator who was depressed or unemployed, who had previously been violent and who had shown signs of controlling behaviour.

“I think in terms of the data aspect, [the DVDRCs] are extraordinarily valuable,” Dr. Dawson said. “For example, we have a risk factor checklist with something like 40 or 41 risk factors. So you can monitor trends in risk factors over time and start to see if there are different risk factors emerging.”

Other provinces’ committees are more cursory, often lumping several years of homicides together and not examining each case individually. Alberta’s Family Violence Death Review Committee began in 2014, and its latest report examined 15 deaths in 2016 (as of the end of 2016, the committee had completed four “in-depth” reviews. Some cases, for example those that are still before the courts, are ineligible).

Saskatchewan, which has one of the highest rates of family-violence homicide in the country (48 homicides and nine related suicides from 2005 to 2014 – 15 of whom were children) has had one DVDRC review, in 2018, which examined nine years’ worth of murders and suicides.

Still, even the limited data in Saskatchewan’s DVDRC was revealing: 30 of the adult victims had been in intimate-partner relationships with the perpetrator, and two-thirds of those victims were women; one third of family violence victims were under 21; and half were Indigenous. The Saskatchewan report also identified a number of risk factors, including a history of violence and drug or alcohol abuse, but also the impact of colonization and residential schools in cases involving Indigenous people.

A DVDRC will often make recommendations based on those risk factors or failures within the system, some of which are adopted and some that never see the light of day. Saskatchewan’s report recommended the implementation of “Clare’s Law,” based on similar legislation in the United Kingdom, which would allow police to warn romantic partners of a person’s violent history. Saskatchewan introduced the Clare’s Law legislation, the first of its kind in Canada, in November, 2018.

The review committees are patchily convened across the country because they are costly and labour-intensive: “You have a dilemma,” said Dr. Jaffe, director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women at Children at Western University. “To actually do a detailed review and talk to friends and family and coworkers and go through all the medical and social service records as Ontario does, that would be very time-consuming. That is a challenge. Every jurisdiction has that struggle.”

And yet, he points out, the committees’ findings are invaluable because they can lead to real changes. For example, Lori Dupont was a nurse who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, a doctor, in 2005. Her case, along with that of Theresa Vince, who was killed by an employer who’d sexually harassed her, led to fundamental changes in 2010 to Ontario’s workplace laws to protect victims of harassment and violence. The review of the 2006 murder of university student Natalie Novak by her boyfriend led to new policies around safety for women on campuses.

As well, the investigations reveal patterns that can be taken together as warning signals. Some of the most prevalent indicators in domestic-homicide cases include a prior history of abuse, the couple’s separation and the perpetrator’s history of depression. As a result, Dr. Jaffe said, mental-health professionals have been sent directives about potential indicators to watch for in their clients.

In addition to the frequency of their reviews, these committees also differ in terms of their scope. For example, in Alberta, all familial homicides are eligible for review – including those committed by children or parents.

In Ontario, the DVDRC only looks at homicides perpetrated by intimate partners. This means that the February murder-suicide of Roopesh Rajkumar and his 11-year-old daughter Riya, for example, will not be reviewed – despite the undeniable lessons to be learned from that case.

Other cases can be missed because they fall into a grey area. For example, the February, 2018, murders of Ulla Theoret, her mother and her son, by a neighbour named Mark Jones who had briefly courted and then violently stalked Ms. Theoret for several years, is still being considered for review. The eligibility of this case is up in the air — even though Ms. Theoret reported to police just months before Mr. Jones murdered her, that he had previously sexually assaulted her. And because Mr. Jones also killed himself, the Theoret family will not get answers through a trial.

These discrepancies in scope also pose challenges for researchers trying to compare these cases province to province.

There are other shortcomings in the collection of domestic-violence statistics. For one thing, researchers may rely on media reports to identify crimes at a time when the number of local news outlets is shrinking across the country. This deficit was highlighted in a December, 2018, report from the Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative, which relied on court documents and stories from media outlets to examine 418 domestic homicides in Canada between 2010-15. ''We are still working with limited information, extracted from court decisions and media reports,” the report stated. “This raises challenges in terms of consistency, thoroughness and accuracy of data for some of the cases. Many cases have missing information.”

Privacy concerns can also impede the sharing of information, especially across provincial borders. Individual names and other identifying features are kept out of DVDRCs. Yet a wariness about revealing details, out of respect for the victims and survivors or possibly out of fear of lawsuits, is still one of the main roadblocks to comprehensive reporting around domestic homicides.

“We’re living in an environment where people are hyper-vigilant about lawsuits,” Dr. Jaffe said. “But this is not a blaming exercise. It’s like a plane crash. You want to find the black box. You want to know what the problem is, if it’s pilot error or weather conditions. You want to be able to put a memo out to all airline manufacturers. That’s our analogy in the death review committee, we’re not pointing fingers. But the reality is that most institutions and systems are afraid of lawsuits.”

The problem of secrecy extends to some police forces, which may refuse to release even the names of homicide victims in the case of murder-suicides. Controversy erupted in Alberta last year after some police departments refused to release the names of women who’d been killed by their partners in murder-suicides, citing the families’ privacy concerns and saying that sharing the identity of the victims “did not serve an investigative purpose.” In return, anti-violence advocates argued that more information was needed about every violent death in order to educate the community about what was going on in its midst. (Edmonton Police recently reversed their stance on withholding names.)

What researchers would really like to see is a comprehensive national database of statistics – and they know it’s possible because one country has led the way. While the U.S., the U.K. and New Zealand all use DVDRCs to better understand domestic violence and to shape future policy, one country stands out for the comprehensive way it collects data: Australia.

In May, 2018, the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network issued its first report, establishing a national system for collecting, coding and sharing information around domestic homicides – a system that had previously, like Canada’s, been a hodgepodge of provincial classifications. A similar national database in Canada would help identify and reduce violence against women and girls, researchers say.

Meanwhile, there are families that have waited years for a better understanding of the tragedy that robbed them of a loved one.

Adam Arreak Lightstone is a member of the legislative assembly in Nunavut, which, along with Canada’s other territories, does not have a domestic violence death review committee.

Eight years ago, Mr. Lightstone’s sister and her children were killed by her husband. To this day, he still struggles to talk about his sister’s death.

Sula Enuaraq was 29 years old when she was murdered by Sylvain Degrasse in Iqaluit in 2011. Mr. Degrasse also killed their seven- and two-year-old daughters before killing himself. Ms. Enuaraq had told her family members that she was in an abusive relationship and was planning to leave her husband a few days before she and her daughters were killed.

Mr. Lightstone was studying in Ontario at the time of the murders, and for years afterwards coped by telling himself that his sister had moved away to China.

In June, 2018, Mr. Lightstone decided to speak publicly about her murder and share a review that had been done into her death with help from the Ontario coroner’s office.

That review, which was completed in 2015, had come up with recommendations to prevent such deaths in the future. Although it was shared with Ms. Enuaraq’s family, it had never been made public. Mr. Lightstone felt that if it was going to be of any use, this information needed to be available to everyone.

The recommendations related to public education, health care, law-enforcement services, women’s shelters and firearms access. The report called for better training for police and health-care providers, more funding for women’s shelters and increased public education around firearm safety.

Mr. Lightstone would like to see this process done for every case of domestic homicide in the territory.

Nunavut has a high rate of domestic violence, and Mr. Lightstone said it is not uncommon in downtown Iqaluit to spot a woman with a black eye. Last year, two women were killed in murder-suicides there. We should be learning from these tragedies, he argues, not sweeping them under the rug.

“Unfortunately … I think it’s easier for Canada to forget about all the issues facing us here in Nunavut,” he said. “Domestic violence is an issue here in the territory that no one seems to want to talk about.”

For the past year, Racha El-Dib has worked to ensure that her sister’s murder has meaning. Her family launched Nadia’s Hope Foundation to spread awareness of domestic abuse and teamed up with Calgary charity Gems for Gems to create an educational scholarship for women who have fled violence. If other young women can learn about the warning signs of domestic abuse through her sister’s story, perhaps they’ll be able to escape her fate.

There is hope, too, for future improvement in the data-collection system, with better co-ordination across provinces. Dr. Jaffe said a comprehensive national database of domestic-homicide statistics might be possible within the next five years, an invaluable help to researchers and policy-makers. “Most domestic homicides are predictable and preventable with hindsight if the whole village had worked together.”