Dawn Walker’s decision last summer to take her child and disappear puts her in the good company of many mothers who find themselves facing criminal and family law systems that do not understand the realities of intimate partner abuse. It was a dramatic move – one that has now placed her in the “bad guy” category as far as the law is concerned – but one she made because she felt she had no other choice.
Dawn, who faces a number of criminal charges in Canada, including abducting a child contrary to the terms of a custody order, had a publication ban lifted in late November, meaning the media can name her, but not her child, in coverage of her case.
Her bail conditions are onerous and include requirements that she remain in her sister’s home, wear an electronic bracelet and present herself at the front door anytime she is asked to do so by a probation or police officer.
The Crown has elected to proceed by way of indictment, which means that the maximum penalty for each charge — if she is found guilty — is five years. Earlier this month, Dawn pleaded not guilty to all charges, waived her right to a preliminary hearing and opted to have her trial heard in front of a judge alone rather than in front of a judge and jury. Her next court appearance is in mid-February.
On the family law side, Dawn’s visits and phone calls with her child, who is living with the father from whom Dawn sought to protect them, are all supervised. The father has been granted sole decision-making responsibility, largely because the terms of Dawn’s bail conditions prohibit her from having any contact with him.
Dawn’s case fits an all-too-common pattern of the responses to women who seek assistance when their partner is abusing them. They are not believed. This is especially true when racialized and Indigenous women report abuse at the hands of their white partners.
Like too many other women to count, Dawn’s reports of intimate partner abuse to the police seem to have been dismissed rather summarily. Despite the fact that criminal evidence of intimate partner violence is not required to support a finding of IPV in the family court, it would seem that is the approach that has been taken.
In my work as a lawyer, I have supported survivors of IPV for almost 30 years as they have engaged with both the criminal and family law systems.
Again and again, I have seen courts make decisions based on myths about IPV: if the woman doesn’t leave or report it right away, it’s not serious; the abuse ends when the relationship ends; children are not negatively affected by the violence perpetrated on their mothers by their fathers so IPV has no bearing on an abuser’s time with his children; women lie about being abused to gain favour in family court or because they are angry with their partner for leaving them; emotional abuse (what we now call coercive control) isn’t as serious as physical abuse; if the partner denies it, that means it didn’t happen. All of these myths have been debunked many times, but they continue to influence decision-makers, leaving women and children at risk of ongoing harm.
Who’s the real criminal?
Again and again, I have seen mothers, like Dawn, criminalized for their actions to try to protect themselves and their children, while fathers are not given so much as a slap on the wrist for abusing their children’s mother and are granted time with their children.
Again and again, I have seen the best interests of the child – which is supposed to be the paramount consideration when courts make decisions related to children – relegated to second place in favour of decisions that are focused on finding fault with the mother because she has raised claims of IPV.
The criminal charges against Dawn should be dismissed. Her family court case should move ahead with a focus on her child’s best interests, which must include meaningful consideration of family violence, including coercive control, as set out in the Divorce Act.
Dawn, her child and all women and children who leave relationships in which they were being abused, deserve legal systems that understand the nuanced and gendered dynamics of intimate partner abuse if they are to have any hope of being able to move on to lives free from abuse.