No more than a day or two goes by without another news story about a woman being killed by her partner or former partner. The stories are so frequent that, I suspect, many people’s eyes just glaze over as they see or hear the headline.
As Marit Stiles, the leader of Ontario’s NDP, said during a recent media conference discussing the province’s (lack of) response to the CKW inquest recommendations, “tomorrow is too late.”
We need to find meaningful solutions to intimate partner violence and stop some of those stories ending with acts of lethal violence.
Ontario has had a domestic violence death review committee (DVDRC) since 2003. Its establishment followed recommendations from inquests held in 1998 and 2002 into the deaths of Arlene May and Gillian Hadley, each of whom was killed by her partner. Its mandate is to “assist the Office of the Chief Coroner in the investigation and review of deaths of persons that occur as a result of domestic violence and to make recommendations to help prevent such deaths in similar circumstances.”
Ontario was the first Canadian jurisdiction to create such a committee; now a total of seven provinces have some form of committee that examines domestic violence related deaths. Since its inception, Ontario’s DVDRC has examined close to 500 deaths, of which approximately two-thirds were homicides and one-third homicides-suicides.
The members of Ontario’s DVDRC have a daunting responsibility: to review every detail of any death that is related to domestic violence and develop recommendations for systemic change. The committee has generated hundreds of good recommendations. Infuriatingly, even though some of them have been made multiple times, many have not been implemented.
This was much on the mind of those who participated in the 2022 inquest into the deaths of Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, including the jury, which directed three of its 86 recommendations to the Office of the Chief Coroner, calling for measures to enhance the work of the DVDRC.
The current chair of the DVDRC, who also led the coroner’s team at the inquest wants to see change, too. In an interview held shortly before the inquest, Prabhu Rajan called domestic violence deaths “an epidemic,” a theme that made its way into the jury’s recommendations.
At that time, Rajan called for a more diverse committee that would seek out “novel and aspirational” recommendations:
“We have to think about these things from a different perspective rather than just repeating them over and over again.”
With that in mind, in late June, the Office of the Chief Coroner called for applications from people interested in being selected to sit on the DVDRC, “to enhance the representation of Ontario’s diverse people and to modernize its processes. . . “
Joining the team
Earlier this week, on March 20th, the coroner’s office announced the membership of the new DVDRC, and I am thrilled to report that I will be joining the committee. It might sound odd to say that I am excited by this opportunity to pore over the details of deaths of (mostly) women who have been killed (mostly) by men who – at least at one time – said they loved them, but I am. (When I told one friend I had been selected, she stumbled to find the right response, finally settling on “Congratulations? I think.”)
I truly believe in the possibility of change for the better or I wouldn’t have been doing the work I have for the past few decades. I hope that my seat on the DVDRC, alongside fellow committee members who share a commitment to making positive systemic change, will allow me to apply what I have learned to this new context.
My background and expertise in the area of family law should be helpful. After all, it is at the point of separation – when many survivors are turning to family law and court – that women are at the highest risk of elevated and lethal violence.
I look forward to learning from my fellow committee members, each of whom will bring different expertise and perspectives, and to being part of a team that formulates those novel and aspirational recommendations.
Excited as I may be about the possibilities this appointment presents, I approach my new responsibilities with some caution. I am no stranger to the trauma that doing this kind of work can create. While I have developed techniques to manage the impact my work can have on me, there are limits to even the best self-care plan. I’ve been felled before by the stories of system failures to protect women and children, and I know I will have to watch carefully to make sure that doesn’t happen. I don’t want to fall prey to despair, too much anger or cynicism.
As I prepare for our first meeting, I am focused on the importance of the committee’s work being visible, accountable and transparent, because that is how our work will have meaning. It is when individuals and communities demand that those with the power to do so implement recommendations that change will happen.
So, stay tuned. Hopefully, you will be hearing a great deal from the DVDRC in upcoming months.