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Kathryn Marshall: The pandemic's epidemic of violence against women

Stopping the abuse before it becomes physical should be a priority of our justice system so that preventable cases are actually prevented

We are paying so much attention to the pandemic that it is easy to ignore the epidemic. News headlines about women killed, missing or assaulted have become so ubiquitous that they barely register anymore. The past few weeks alone give a disturbing snapshot of a widespread problem that has been escalating since the spring. On Oct. 6, a woman in her 50s was killed in a family home in Mississauga, Ont. On Sept. 21, a 20-year-old woman was found murdered in her apartment in Hamilton, Ont. On Sept. 20, a young woman’s body was found in a burned vehicle in North Okanagan, B.C. These stories usually make headlines for a few days, before disappearing altogether.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, violence against women has spiked dramatically. Women’s shelters have reported significant increases in calls and police have reported higher than average domestic violence related occurrences. Isolation and the severing of work and family support networks have no doubt played a major role.

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But let’s be clear — this was a major problem before we all went into lockdown. A study done by the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative for Vulnerable Populations found that between 2010 and 2018, there were 662 domestic homicide victims. Overwhelmingly, these victims were women and children.

This was a major problem before we all went into lockdown

While violent crimes in Canada in general have been on the decline, domestic homicide rates have trended steadily upwards. In some regions, the numbers are simply staggering, In Ontario’s Peel Region, there were 31 homicides in 2019. Thirteen of these were domestic.

There was one case from this summer that really struck me. A 27-year-old woman named Darian Hailey Henderson-Bellman was shot to death. Her boyfriend has been charged in her killing. At the time of her death, he had been under an interim judicial release for a previous domestic violence incident involving her. He had also previously been arrested four times for breaching a non-contact order pertaining to her and had recently been arrested for possession of an illegal gun. Yet somehow, despite all of this and the clear danger he posed, he was released from custody with a GPS bracelet. Every single warning sign and risk factor was present. This case was nothing short of a complete failure of the system.
While there is an abundance of research on domestic violence, the police and judiciary don’t appear to be utilizing it enough. Thanks to organizations like the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, we know that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is trying to leave her abuser. We know that guns are the most prevalent weapon in domestic homicide cases. We know that domestic homicide is usually preceded by behaviour like harassment and stalking. Yet, cases like Henderson-Bellman’s continue to happen.
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This case was nothing short of a complete failure of the system

One of the issues is that the justice system’s approach to dealing with domestic violence is backwards. We should be stopping domestic abuse before it turns violent, not afterwards. A big failure of the system is that it doesn’t properly address the “red flag” conduct that often precedes domestic violence and homicide. By the time the police get involved in a domestic incident, there has often been a long pattern of frightening, obsessive behaviour.

From my own experience as a lawyer who frequently represents women, it is very difficult to get the police to intervene when there have been threats, stalking or harassment but no violence or no explicit threat of violence. The legal test for criminal harassment is very high and the victim needs to have “feared for their safety.”

Further compounding the problem is the fact that criminal harassment is generally not treated as a serious crime. The penalty is usually a no-contact order, which as the Darian Hailey Henderson-Bellman case exhibits, can be repeatedly breached with no consequence.

The Criminal Code’s definition of “harassment” should be expanded to explicitly include all forms of harassing behaviour and not just conduct that causes “fear for safety.” There is some case law that suggests “safety” can extend beyond fear of physical harm and can also include psychological and emotional security. The Code should be changed to reflect this. These days, many abusers use the internet to psychologically torture their victims and keep them in a state of fear. Penalties for criminal harassment should be serious, especially if the perpetrator refuses to stop.

Stopping the abuse before it becomes physical should be a priority of our justice system so that preventable cases are actually prevented.

Kathryn Marshall is a Toronto lawyer.
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