Learning from the dead to help the living

The mandate of Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC) is to assist the Chief Coroner in the review of domestic violence related deaths after an initial investigation has been completed by a coroner, and to make recommendations to help prevent further deaths. Established in 2002 after two inquests into domestic violence homicides, it has been hard at work ever since.

The DVDRC has been recently populated with new members, as part of the commitment of chair Prabhu Rajan to create a more diverse committee. I’m one of those new committee members, and the past several months have been a steep learning curve on matters both complex and mundane. (Learning how to fill out a provincial government expense form definitely falls on the side of the mundane, but let me assure you that doesn’t mean it was easy!)

Our work so far has been both stimulating and challenging, as we have learned from one another and from founding members of the committee who, even after 20 years, are still keenly invested in the work.

One of our first tasks was to think about what kind of mission and scope we wanted for the DVDRC as it heads into its third decade, keeping in mind the recommendations from the CKW Inquest and the goals of the committee chair for our work to be “novel and aspirational.”

If our work is to have meaning, we have to be transparent and accountable, which includes sharing publicly what we are doing and how.

Framing our work

Our scope is big, because we are defining domestic violence related deaths broadly.  We will review deaths where “violence or abuse by a person’s current or former intimate, dating or sexual partner or violence or abuse by someone who has, had, or expressed a sexual or romantic interest in the person likely contributed to the death of the person or an associated person.”

That’s quite a mouthful, so let me break it down for you.

A current or former intimate partner, dating partner or sexual partner includes a broad range of relationships. Beyond the obvious – people who are or were married, living common-law or dating, whether seriously or casually – our scope extends to someone who had a consensual or non-consensual encounter with the victim at any time and someone the victim dated online, even if they have never met in person.

Also included in our scope are situations where the perpetrator of the homicide has or had or expressed a sexual or romantic interest in the victim. A death is considered a domestic violence homicide if the perpetrator attempted or intended to establish an intimate relationship with the victim; if that person’s advances were rejected; if they perceived there to be a relationship even if that perception was not mutual; if the perpetrator was infatuated with the victim, even if they did not make those feelings known to that person; if they expressed their interest in the person online or if they stalked the victim.

Likely contributed

Because the DVDRC is not a criminal process and our deliberations can’t result in anyone facing criminal charges, we are not bound by the criminal standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” when we are reviewing deaths.

This means we can review situations where it is reasonable to believe that the violence or abuse was a factor that likely led to the death, even if it is not the only or most significant factor leading to the death: suicides, if the violence or abuse may have been a reason for the person taking their own life; accidents causing death if the abuse led to the accident, and deaths as the result of complications from a serious injury caused by abuse.

Our scope includes reviewing deaths of associated people, which can include family members of the victim, a member of their household, a bystander and people who intervene in an incident of violence against the victim.

Looking ahead

This extensive scope means a lot of work for the DVDRC, but it’s consistent with our ever-growing understanding of intimate partner violence, who it affects and how. Coupled with the 41 risk factors already identified by the committee, we have a strong framework to support our review of a broad range of deaths and victims that can be tied back to a history of intimate partner violence. We need this breadth of scope if we are to be successful in developing recommendation to prevent such deaths in the future.

While I was writing this, the body of Latonya Anderson was found in her home in Whitby, shortly after a man came to the police station “to speak with officers.” The police have said this was an isolated incident and there is no threat to public safety; in other words, it is a domestic violence homicide.

Our work is never more needed than now.

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