Projects eyes domestic homicide risk factors

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsAlison Irons said her daughter, Lindsay Wilson, murdered in 2013 by an ex-boyfriend, was more than a statistic – she was a student, a daughter and a humanitarian.

Alison Irons wishes she were doing anything but this – talking to a room full of strangers about the murder of her daughter Lindsay Wilson, and urging people to take part in a new research project aimed at understanding and preventing domestic homicide across Canada.

Wilson, 26, bubbly and big-hearted, was killed by an ex-boyfriend in rural Bracebridge in 2013. Since then, four more homicides linked to domestic violence have taken place in the same region.

They are among the 662 people who have been victims of domestic homicides in Canada between 2010-18, updated numbers from a study led by Western and the University of Guelph shows.

Each was a person and each had a story, Irons emphasized.

Her daughter was about to graduate from university campus in Muskoka and begin a career working with developmentally disabled people. “She was a humanitarian. She is not simply just a statistic.”

Researchers are now looking to speak with 200 survivors and families and friends of those who were killed, as part of a new study for the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative for Vulnerable Populations to understand risk factors and patterns of domestic violence.

The study is open to adult survivors of severe domestic violence as well as adult family and friends who lost someone to domestic homicide between 2006-16.

Those wanting to participate in the study can contact Project Manager Anna-Lee Straatman at astraat2@uwo.ca or call 519-661-2111, ext. 81133 or toll-free at 1-844-958-0522.

“Our particular interest will be looking at what are the unique risk factors,” said Peter Jaffe, co-lead of the initiative and Director of Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children.

“For example, for the homicide victims and for the family members, what attempts were made in terms of contacting the police, social service agencies, mental-health professionals? The big question for us: Were there missed opportunities and who knew what, when? Is this a lack of support from formal agencies or is this a lack of understanding of friends, family, neighbours and co-workers?

“Also looking at survivors, people who did get help in a timely basis – what was the key, was it informal or formal supports? We’re looking across all sectors – health justice social service, informal community supports,” Jaffe said.

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsPeter Jaffe, Director of Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children, is co-leading a national study on preventing domestic homicide among vulnerable populations in Canada.

The announcement Wednesday was part of a mid-term progress report on the five-year initiative, made possible with a $2.2-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant. Co-leading the initiative with Jaffe is Myrna Dawson, Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence at the University of Guelph.

The newest numbers show domestic homicide “remains a deeply gendered crime,” with females comprising 80 per cent of adults killed and 60 per cent of child victims, Jaffe said. Half of those killed belonged to one or more groups of higher vulnerability: Indigenous women, people living in rural/remote/northern areas, children and newcomers to Canada.

Almost 1-in-3 of these victims lived in rural, remote or northern areas of the country where the availability of firearms, combined with uneven access to services and confidentiality concerns, can be deterrents to seeking help.

If averaged across the past nine years, domestic homicides in Canada amount to an average of one every five days.

But Jaffe echoed Irons in saying it’s about much more than statistics.

“The numbers don’t do justice to the lives that have been lost and the individual family lives who have been shattered. One is too many. It’s important that when we talk about these numbers that we put this in the context of real people and real lives.

“Our work is dedicated to learning from every tragedy. In the same way people investigate an airplane crash and look for a black box, they know they can’t bring back the passengers from the plane that’s gone down, but they’ll be damn sure they understand whatever the issues were.”

Irons, a career police officer who also worked in a women’s shelter 40 years ago, talked with her daughter about risk factors three weeks before she was murdered. “The problem was neither she nor I had any idea of the degree to which his anger against her for having left him completely had actually escalated.”

Irons did not discover until later that the man had legal access to a gun and no one had reported his earlier threats to harm himself.

“I want to make this clear – this is important for family members and friends everywhere. We need to have these conversations,” she said. “I will do whatever I need to do to keep speaking out so that we can make positive change and start to see this problem reduced in our country.”

Irons wears a bracelet to emphasize the point that her daughter’s life has made a difference. The bracelet is emblazoned with Lindsay’s name and the words, “I was here. I lived.”

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By videoconference, Maha El-Birani spoke of her father’s control of the family – years of  abuse, violence, isolation and fear – and the family’s various attempts to get help, before her father killed her mother, Sonia, in 2012.

El-Birani talked about the importance of working with families, stepping in for the vulnerable and being sensitized to the cultural realities and complexities that might make someone reluctant to report abuse.

Violence cannot be ascribed to any culture or religion, said Abir Al Jamal, who works with newcomers. In some communities, hurdles to greater safety may include language and financial barriers, isolation and lack of awareness about local laws and services.

The homicide prevention initiative is large and nationwide, with 12 co-investigators from 11 universities and 46 community collaborations. Its over-arching aim is to reduce these deaths through research, broader public awareness and professional training.

Wednesday’s news conference took place in London at Western, and simultaneously in Yellowknife, Winnipeg, Fredericton and Montreal.

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If you are experiencing domestic violence and need help now:

  • Call 9-1-1 in an emergency, or London Police at 519-661-5670;
  • In London, find emergency shelter or get help planning next steps, around the clock, by calling Anova at 519-642-3000 or the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511; or
  • The London Abused Women’s Centre at lawc.on.ca and 519-432-2204 offers counselling, safety planning and advocacy.