Running for their lives

Dawn Dumont Walker was released on bail last week after being charged with parental abduction and public mischief. Why? Because she created false identities for herself and her son, then took him across the border from Saskatchewan, where they lived, into the United States, contrary to the terms of a parenting order with her son’s father. She was found and taken into custody in Oregon in early August and held without bail on U.S.-based criminal charges until she agreed to be extradited to Canada. Her son was returned to his father in Saskatchewan. While Dawn is on bail, she has to wear an electronic monitoring device and is essentially under house arrest in her sister’s home.

Dawn is an award-winning author, one of the three finalists for this year’s Stephen Leacock Medal, Canada’s award for literary humour, and a law school graduate. She is also the executive operations officer of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, and was a candidate for the Liberal Party in last year’s federal election.

None of those impressive credentials was of any help to her when she sought protection for herself and her son from her abusive partner. As Dawn said in a statement she issued while she was in jail in Oregon:

“I was failed by the Saskatchewan justice system, the family law system and child protection. I am fighting systems that continuously fail to protect me as an Indigenous women and protect non-Indigenous men. This does not surprise me. Saskatchewan and the systems within have failed Indigenous people since colonization . . . . So many women and children before me have had to run for their lives to protect their children.”

She’s not alone

Jennifer Kagan, a Toronto physician, also had her concerns about her daughter’s safety ignored by the family court. In February 2020, even though a judge found Jennifer’s concerns about her ex-partner to be “persuasive and compelling,” he adjourned the case so that child protection authorities could complete an investigation. As a result, a scheduled visit for Keira with her father went ahead; a visit from which Keira did not return. She and her father died in what most people believe to have been a murder/suicide.

More than two years later, Jennifer is still waiting for Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee to answer some of the many questions related to Keira’s death; answers that could point to much-needed changes to systems that are intended to keep victims of intimate partner abuse and their children safe.

When Sandra (not her real name) fled her abusive husband in the Middle East, returning to her family in Canada with her young daughter, her husband pursued her, claiming that Sandra had abducted their child. Despite Sandra’s evidence of abuse directed at both her and her child, she was arrested and charged with parental abduction and, ultimately, the family court ordered that the child be returned to the father and that Sandra have no contact with her.

Sandra has not even known where her daughter is in the 10 years since.

Would that these were unusual stories about men who use and harm their children in their ongoing pursuit of maintaining power and control over their former partner, but they are not.

Between 30 and 40 children are killed by their parents – most often their father — every year in Canada. Others are abducted by the abusive partner in his attempt to maintain power and control over the child’s mother. Still more are neglected or abused themselves by the parent with a history of abusing the child’s other parent.

Women who have been abused and their children continue to face barriers when they turn to systems – especially family and criminal laws and courts – for help. Many of the professionals working in those systems fail to understand that abuse almost always continues after the people have separated, with the focus of the abuser often shifting to threats to harm or take the children. The accusation  of so-called parental alienation is levelled far too often at women who simply wish to keep their children safe. Legal systems continue to view IPV as a gender-neutral problem, which denies the reality that the majority of those subjected to the most serious forms of abuse, including coercive control, physical violence causing injury, and homicide, are women. Family courts don’t adequately recognize that when mothers aren’t safe, their children are not safe, preferring to see IPV as an adult problem, unconnected to what parenting arrangements are in the best interests of children.

Self help

It’s no wonder that women like Dawn and Sandra decide to take matters into their own hands to keep their children are safe.

Many years ago, I received a phone call from a woman who had gone underground with her young son because the court did not believe her when she raised concerns about the abuse to which the father had subjected him. Until the end of our telephone relationship, I didn’t know either her name or where she was. She called me frequently over a two-year period, claiming she wanted legal advice but really, I think, because she wanted someone with whom she could talk about her situation.

I came to look forward to our calls. She was a pragmatic woman, with a quirky sense of humour, focused on her son’s safety, who knew exactly what she was risking and was prepared to face the consequences.

Ten years after she went “on the lam,” as she described it, her son’s photo was featured on a milk carton, and the two of them were found by a private detective. They were brought back to Ontario, where she was charged with parental abduction. She called me, now able to share both her name and where she was (in jail). I helped her find a lawyer and, although she was charged with parental abduction, the criminal court judge declined to proceed with the case, taking the position that this was a family court matter. The son was placed in foster care until those proceedings were complete, and was then returned to the care of his mother. She told me she had accomplished her goal of keeping her son safe until he was old enough to have his own voice.

Spending 10 years on the run is too high a price for a mother and child to pay. We need changes to our legal systems so they keep survivors of IPV and their children safe rather than abandoning women to forge their own self-help strategies.

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