In the majority of domestic violence cases in Ontario, there are telltale signs that a life is in danger. So why are women still dying?
Intimate partner homicide usually fits a well-worn template: the relationship is over, or ending. There is a history of abuse in the relationship. There were threats of violence.
By ALYSHAH HASHAM Staff Reporter
WENDY GILLIS News reporter
Mon., Jan. 9, 2017
Last week, a relative of Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji sat silently in a north Toronto courtroom, watching as Dr. Mohammed Shamji appeared on a charge of first-degree murder. Pinned to her jacket was a purple ribbon to honour victims of domestic violence.
One day later, in a downtown Toronto court, Lascelles Allen chose to go to trial to face a first-degree murder charge in the violent death of his ex-girlfriend, Suraiya Gangaram.
The victims in both killings led different lives: Gangaram, 31, a Trinidadian immigrant, was a single mom living in Toronto community housing on Danzig St. Fric-Shamji, 40, from a Croatian family based in Windsor, was a married mother and family physician living in a million-dollar North York home.
But the women shared tragic commonalities. Both are alleged to have been killed by their intimate partners — men they were leaving, and who faced previous criminal charges for threatening or harming them.
Gangaram’s and Fric-Shamji’s cases highlight what researchers, police and those in the criminal justice system know too well: that while intimate partner homicide crosses socio-economic, religious, age and cultural lines, the deaths usually fit a well-worn template.
The relationship is over, or ending. There is a history of abuse in the relationship. There were threats of violence.
One year before Gangaram’s death, Allen was accused of assaulting and threatening her, charges that were stayed after he was arrested in her murder. In Fric-Shamji’s case, her husband was charged with uttering threats and assaulting her in 2005; two months later, Shamji signed a peace bond and the charges were withdrawn.
Gangaram and Allen had been in an on-again, off-again relationship. According to friends, Fric-Shamji had just filed for divorce from her husband of 12 years.
Mohammed Shamji and Elana Fric-Shamji was married for 12 years and had three children together. Police believe Shamji killed Fric-Shamji on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1.
While important steps have been taken to help women when these telling red flags arise, domestic violence experts say significant work remains to be done.
“I think we are quite good at identifying who is high-risk,” said Pamela Cross, legal director at Luke’s Place, a Durham-based organization that provides family law support for abused women. “I think the challenge is: so then what do we do about that.”
In Ontario, the major risk factors are made clear through 12 years of data collected by the provincial chief coroner’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.
Since its inception in 2003, the committee — comprising police, domestic violence experts, social workers and more — has reviewed 267 cases involving 376 deaths. Sixty-seven per cent of the deaths were homicides, while 33 per cent were homicide-suicides.
The data show that, on average, 28 people die in an intimate partner homicide every year in Ontario. Eighty-one per cent of the victims are female, and 90 per cent of the perpetrators were male.
In three-quarters of the cases, there was a history of domestic violence. In the majority of cases — 68 per cent — the couple were in the midst of actual or pending separation.
The committee has identified a total of 40 common risk factors that suggest someone is in danger in their relationship. Alongside separation and a history of violence, other common factors include prior threats to kill the victim, excessive alcohol or drug use, an escalation in violence and an intuitive sense of fear by the victim.
In the majority of cases examined by committee, seven or more risk factors were present, suggesting there was “likely significant opportunity to predict (and prevent) future lethality in these cases,” according to the committee’s latest report, released in November.
Indeed, despite “comprehensive and innovative” public education initiatives aimed at preventing domestic violence, the committee noted that among the general public — neighbours, friends, and family who may suspect domestic violence — there is still an unwillingness to intervene.
“I think there is a sort of societal reluctance to admit the reality that men kill women who they say they love,” Cross said.
Suraiya Gangaram, 31, was killed in her home May 8. Lascelles Allen, 51, is accused of stabbing her Suraiya Gangaram to death on May 8.
As a result there can be a downplaying of the risk, even by players within the justice system, who Cross said tend to look for the “lowest possible way to intervene.” She said she believes courts should “over-respond” in high-risk cases — namely, when a couple are separating and when there’s a history of violence.
That could mean making it easier to get restraining orders or restrictive bail conditions, given the high stakes. “Let’s over-respond and keep her alive and sort it out properly later,” Cross said.
Peter Jaffe, academic director at Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, said strides have been made to increase awareness about domestic violence, especially on college campuses.
He said it is important that the general public be aware of signs of domestic violence, particularly in cases where the women may not yet be in contact with the criminal or family law system — either because they choose not to be or they don’t think they need to be.
An intervention from a third party, such as a doctor or a teacher who notices something with the children, can be important to remind the person at risk that there are alternatives and help available, he said.
He also said a need for greater awareness and training among certain professions remains, including within the justice system.
“You may have judges who get appointed to the bench who may not have a background in family law but in the business corporate commercial world and suddenly they are dealing with cases of domestic violence and they may not have the training,” he said.
Barb MacQuarrie, also with Western’s violence on women and children research centre, stressed the need to find ways of reaching those who are at risk through means other than the police — “many people for many different reasons are reluctant to involve police in their lives,” she said.
One still untapped area is the workplace, MacQuarrie said. It’s a good place to provide information, resources and support when it comes to domestic violence, particularly because in some abusive relationships, work may be the only place victims are allowed to go alone.
A supportive workplace can make a significant difference to a woman who is trying to leave a relationship or find some means of help, she said.
“We know this. This is not speculation. We have survivors who are really vocal about what it means to have or not have support from workplace. We spend so much time there and it is so critical to our well-being to have jobs and the ability to do good work.”
A significant improvement, MacQuarrie said, would be legislative change to provide paid leave for someone experiencing domestic violence — funds to be used toward counselling, moving, going to court and more.
This is important, she said, because employment status can have a major effect on someone’s ability to leave a relationship.
Jaffe stressed that domestic violence that doesn’t end in homicide can still leave the victims — including children — with long-term mental and physical damage.
“If someone is being stalked by an ex-partner who is threatening them, has threatened them repeatedly in the past, you have think about quality of life for that victim,” he said. “It may be a homicide or it may be a death by a thousand cuts.”
Shamji, who hasn’t yet had a bail hearing, returns to court Jan. 26. A trial date has not yet been set for Allen.