‘No domestic homicide just happens’: Toronto police conference takes on intimate partner violence

Original Article:  The Star  |  Wendy Gillis  |  May 26, 2018  |  https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2018/05/26/no-domestic-homicide-just-happens-toronto-police-conference-takes-on-intimate-partner-violence.html

Each time Dawn Novak hears about another woman killed at the hands of a domestic partner, she is disturbed anew by a sentiment far too commonly expressed in the aftermath.

“Always, what angers me a great deal is when I hear the sound bites of neighbours saying, ‘Oh, who would have known? He was such a nice man.’”

Nice men “don’t murder their family,” Novak said. And there are always red flags that were missed.

“No domestic homicide just happens,” she said.

This week, Novak will deliver the opening speech at a Toronto police conference on domestic homicides — part of the federal government’s Victims and Survivors of Crime Week. It’s a topic that event organizer Det. Ann-Marie Tupling says is too often “pushed aside” despite its tragic prevalence.

In giving the talk, Novak feels she is “returning to ground zero.”

Twelve years ago this month, her daughter Natalie, a 20-year-old from Bracebridge, was killed by her abuser and former boyfriend in her Toronto apartment.

Natalie, who was in Ryerson University’s hospitality and tourism management program, was staying in the city to work over the summer.

Just before 3:30 a.m. on May 15, 2006, screams were heard coming from Novak’s bedroom in a Chinatown home she rented with five other students. Summoned by multiple 911 calls, police and paramedics arrived to find she had been repeatedly stabbed and her throat slit in what one homicide cop described as a “vicious attack.”

In 2009, Novak’s ex-boyfriend, Arssei Hindessa, was convicted of second-degree murder. Sentencing him to 18 years in prison before parole eligibility, Justice Anne Molloy called the murder “extreme butchery,” noting it had “elements of planning and deliberation” that edged on first-degree murder.

As research has repeatedly shown, there are typically many signs that put a domestic violence victim at a high risk of being killed. Red flags include a history of violence in the relationship, and whether a breakup has happened or is in the process.

In only one of the recent cases of domestic homicide, Ajax mother Krassimira Pejcinovski told her boss that her boyfriend, Cory Fenn, had been violent toward her and the couple were in the midst of a breakup. Weeks later, in March, she was killed alongside her teenage son and daughter. Fenn has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder.

Natalie’s case, too, had many signs that Novak now says were “glaring.” Without laying blame, she feels it’s important to acknowledge that signs were missed. Novak recalls noting a significant shift in Natalie, the summer before her death, that could have been a warning. Having always been confident, Natalie was suddenly unsure of herself, telling her mom she thought she was a “loser.”

“I didn’t know this person — I didn’t know what had happened to her. And this was fairly early. There was a seven-month period to come that we would know nothing about,” Novak said.

In the months before Natalie’s death, Hindessa had been convicted of assaulting her, and his probation order prohibited him from contacting her. In all, Novak said her daughter contacted police 18 times over a 17-month period before her death.

Among the problems was that when Hindessa was released, he had no fixed address and was unemployed — two things now better recognized as risk factors leading to domestic violence. Novak says that illustrates how supporting the perpetrators of violence, not only the victims, is key to prevention.

“We have to mitigate what is going on with these offenders. Would the outcome have changed if he’d had counselling?” Novak wonders, adding that, while housing was ultimately arranged for Hindessa, it wasn’t until several months into his probation and in the meantime he’d “pushed his way into her house by playing on guilt.”

Natalie had also told one of her roommates that she did not want to be with Hindessa, then 30, describing him as too possessive and saying she wanted to date someone closer to her own age. The roommate would later tell investigators he heard Natalie yell “Get off me” right before her death.

“We all sat with bits and pieces of a puzzle that we refused to take the courage to put together and look at, or we were too busy — or absolutely ignorant of the issues,” Novak said.

Since her daughter’s death, Novak has dedicated herself to erasing that ignorance. Just months after the tragedy, she established the Natalie Novak Fund for the Education and Prevention of Relationship Violence, which has led her to speak to scores of groups ranging from young people to police officers to corrections and probation officials. She also authored a detailed analysis of her daughter’s death, which is now a case study in some Ontario police training facilities. Alongside her husband, Ed Novak, Dawn won the Ontario Attorney General’s Victim Services Award.

“I speak to educate. I speak of the missed opportunities that took place in Natalie’s case,” she said.

Wednesday’s conference, however, will be the first time Novak speaks at a Toronto police event, which carries extra significance given that it was the police service involved in Natalie’s case. Stressing that she does not place blame on a single agency, Novak said she also wonders what might have happened if her daughter had dealt with an officer who was informed about trauma and violence.

Novak says she is convinced police are improving when it comes to supporting victims of domestic abuse — for instance, by showing a willingness to work with social agencies.

“I see more openness. I see more willingness to listen. I see slow but positive changes,” Novak said.

Tupling, the Toronto police domestic violence co-ordinator, said talking about intimate partner violence is as important as ever. Crime statistics across the city and province show these deaths are not decreasing, and she worries other issues have overtaken the public’s attention.

“It’s not the talk right now,” she said. “We need to refresh people’s memories that this is still going on … This problem has not been solved.”

That’s part of the rationale behind Tupling’s one-day conference, held as continuing education for police, victims service organizations and others who work in the field or are affected by domestic violence.

Toronto police are also releasing a video called “Make It Your Business,” encouraging people to intervene if they know someone is being abused. Because it depicts a disturbing scene of violence, the video includes a warning to viewers.

As reported in the video, about 4,000 people are charged with domestic violence offences each year in Toronto, but police estimate that represents only a quarter of actual cases.

Among others slated to speak at Wednesday’s conference is Toronto police Staff Sgt. Tam Bui, who will discuss the case of Bridget Takyi, a 27-year-old mother of two who in 2013 was viciously stabbed then burned by Emmanuel Owusu-Ansah, her ex-boyfriend and father of her children.

In that case, Owusu-Ansah had been charged with assault with a weapon and threatening death in relation to a previous attack on Takyi, but had been released on bail. He proceeded to stalk then kill her.

“The law couldn’t protect her from him before and I’m scared it won’t be able to protect all of us now,” Takyi’s mother, Juliana Mensah, testified at Owusu-Ansah’s 2015 sentencing hearing, when he was sent to prison with no chance of parole for 22 years.

“As you can see from his history, he destroys what he can’t have and my fear is that if he ever comes out and the kids reject him, he will kill them as well.”

The devastating impact of domestic violence on families and friends of those killed is, in fact, the focus of Tupling’s conference, called Ripple Effect. It’s a theme Novak says is vital to discuss and understand.

In Natalie’s case, the cascading effect continues to this day, Novak said, as she continues her work to increase awareness about domestic violence and the threats of unhealthy relationships.

“Natalie’s ripple is large. Natalie’s ripple is a wave,” she said. “Thousands of people now know her name, know the mistakes of her case, and what happened.”