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Note to Readers: We have not investigated as to what screening steps were taken in this particular case and none of the commentary below is intended to be, nor should be construed as, criticism against the professionals who were involved in this matter.

This month the justice system interacted with the disturbing death of Elana Fric yet again, as Mohammad Shamji was given a life sentence in prison for murdering her.

This case cries out for our attention.

First, we need to consider the nature of the homicide, rooted deeply in family violence. As Family Dispute Resolution Professionals (FDRPs), we are skilled at screening individuals for family violence and power imbalances.

With so many family violence-related deaths being highly visible in the news, these homicides often make their way to the forefront of our cultural discourse. Our distress is an opportunity to remember what we know about screening, family and intimate partner violence, and how we use this information to make our dispute resolution processes as safe as possible.

Elana Fric’s death occurred at what is well known to be most dangerous time in the family law process: actual or pending separation. In 2001, Tina Hotton’s Report on Spousal Violence After Martial Separation confirmed the elevated risk of spousal homicide for women within the first year of separation, and the first two months of separation in particular.

A 2017 study identified risk-factors in domestic homicides and sought to identify particular clusters of risk factors, reminds us of a few important points:

 

1. Most common risk factors for domestic homicides

It outlined the most common risk factors for domestic homicides per the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Reviews between 2002 and 2012, which are:

  • History of domestic violence;
  • Actual / pending separation;
  • Obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator;
  • Perpetrator having depression;
  • Perpetrator’s prior threats /actual attempts to commit suicide;
  • Escalation of violence;
  • Victim’s intuitive sense of fear;
  • Prior threats to kill the victim;
  • Perpetrator was unemployed; and
  • Attempts to isolate the victim.

I refer readers to Figure 1 within this paper, which sets out the most common risk factors represented in an effective visual table.

 

2. Risk factor identification

The paper referred to a parallel study that assessed domestic homicide components and developed two indices to identify risk factors. These indices were:

  • The Violence Index
    • This index includes perpetration which featured the following risk factors: history of domestic violence, actual/pending separation, perpetrator’s obsessive behavior, escalation of violence, victim’s intuitive sense of fear, and prior threats to kill the victim.
  • The Depression Index
    • This index includes perpetrator depression, prior threats/ attempts of suicide, and perpetrator unemployment.

These indices remind us to consider the impact of a perpetrator’s mental health on the violence that a perpetrator commits; and to consider the relationship between risk factors themselves.

 

3. Risk Factor “Clusters”

The study identified 3 main risk factor clusters. These clusters remind us to think in a dynamic way about risk factors in family violence cases.  They are:

  • Non-depressed / Non-violent Cluster
  • Depressed / Violent Cluster
  • Non-depressed / Violence Cluster

The presence of these three main clusters allows us to consider different forms of risk that may be present between parties; and helps us refine our decision-making methods when it comes to customising dispute resolution processes that will keep parties safe.

 

4. Understanding the Victim-Perpetrator relationship

The study reminds us that “the victim–perpetrator relationship is critical to understanding the context and dynamics of homicide, particularly intimate partner homicide”

This case also touches on the impact of family violence on children. The oldest child, Yasmin, witnessed her mother’s murder by hearing the fatal attack. She sought to intervene and was “ordered her back to bed after she had awoken to the sound of her mother screaming”, according to CBC’s article, “I would have had an emotional breakdown: Daughter of Slain family doctor relieved by father’s guilty plea”.  As Hotton points out in the ‘highlights’ section of her paper, we are reminded that: “[c]hildren are frequently the unintended observers of violence between spouses. Among those cases where violence occurred after separation, children were witnesses to at least one violent occurrence in 50% of cases.”

As we know, there are a myriad of negative effects that children may encounter as a result of witnessing family violence, and this is reflected in S.24(4) of the Children’s Law Reform Act which requires us to consider the impact of family violence upon a person’s ability to parent.

While it gives us little solace that Elana Fric was murdered at a time that our screening expertise tells us was the most dangerous for her, we can honour her memory by using our screening tools and updating our knowledge to predict family violence and employ harm reduction strategies that can help protect the families we serve.

 

For more information, visit the FDRIO website, with our industry-leading Standards of Practice for FDR Professionals, including “Do No Harm”, and our Screening Guidelines for family mediators, arbitrators and parenting coordinators.

 

Raheena Dahya is a lawyer and mediator. She is the Chair of the Family Violence Section. You can follow her blog on deconstructing family violence at: www.raheenawrites.com



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