Peace bonds alone aren't enough to protect conjugal violence victims, shelter directors say
Better risk assessment, tighter monitoring of alleged abusers, harsher penalties needed, they say
This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Directors of women's shelters in Quebec say the deaths of Dahia Khellaf and her two young sons last December raise serious questions about how effective peace bonds are when it comes to protecting women and children from conjugal violence.
"I'm not convinced as it is presently, it is the best solution for victims," said Melpa Kamateros, the executive director of Shield of Athena, a Montreal emergency shelter for immigrant women.
Khellaf's former partner, Nabil Yssaad, had been charged with two counts of assault against Khellaf for separate incidents in August 2018.
But last December, the charges were dropped, and Yssaad signed a peace bond under Section 810 of the Criminal Code.
Yssaad was ordered not to contact Khellaf and to stay away from her home and workplace, except for court-approved visits with their sons.
"I'm sure she believed she was safe," said Manon Monastesse, the director of Quebec's federation of women's shelters.
"But it's an illusion of security."
Less than a week after Yssaad signed the peace bond, police discovered the bodies of Khellaf, 42, and her sons, Askil, two, and Adam, four, in their east-end Montreal home.
The night before their bodies were discovered, Yssaad committed suicide in Joliette, 70 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Why are 810s used?
If police suspect conjugal violence, officers have the power to impose conditions on the alleged perpetrator upon arrest. They can include a no-contact order, a requirement to provide a new address and the surrender of any firearms in the alleged abuser's possession.
Sometimes the prosecutor will agree to withdraw criminal charges in exchange for having the accused enter into a peace bond, sometimes just called an "810."
This occurs when there isn't enough evidence to proceed to court, often because a victim won't testify despite her fears the accused might harm her.
Under those circumstances, the alleged perpetrator won't plead guilty to a charge but still has to admit, in court, that the victim has reasonable grounds to be fearful.
The reasons an alleged victim might be reluctant to testify vary, but they are tied to the cycle of violence in these relationships, said Kamateros.
"They might still love the perpetrator; they might still hope that he is fixable; they might hope to get back together; they might not want to give him a criminal record," she said.
"They might feel pressure from their families, from their communities, not to press charges."
Crown prosecutor Christopher Hadjis Chartrand said a peace bond is intended to keep an alleged victim safe.
To assess the level of risk, prosecutors work with specialized social workers who meet with the victim.
Together, they try to find conditions tailored to each situation, he said.
Some conditions are mandatory, such as a prohibition on possessing weapons, but lawyers can get creative.
If there is substance abuse, the alleged abuser's conditions could also include attending Alcoholics Anonymous or continuing therapy.
But Hadjis Chartrand admits no system is perfect.
"We don't have a crystal ball, and we can't predict every scenario," he said.
He encourages victims to report to police right away any breach of conditions, no matter how trivial.
Anyone who violates a peace bond is charged under section 811 of the Criminal Code. The consequences can include jail time.
Jail time might not be a deterrent for every offender, but for the average person with no record, it usually has an impact, said Hadjis Chartrand.
"For the person that's never been to prison before, spending those few days in prison has a psychological impact, and they remember there was a consequence to their action," said Hadjis Chartrand.
Evaluating the level of risk
When police respond to a conjugal violence call, they are supposed to refer to a two-page checklist with questions about the alleged abuser.
The checklist helps officers determine what happened and gauge the level of danger posed by the alleged perpetrator.
"When they use the tool, they can evaluate if this is just a quarrel or a domestic violence situation," said Monastesse.
Although the Quebec Public Security Ministry has ordered all police services to use the checklist, Monastesse said it isn't always done — either due to a lack of training or a lack of leadership.
"Those are the holes we see in the safety net," she said.
Monastesse wonders if police used the checklist in Khellaf's case.
Neighbours said police had visited the family home in Pointe-aux-Trembles several times in the months leading up to the murders.
It doesn't appear that Khellaf was referred to a nearby shelter where she could have sought help, Monastesse said.
Had Khellaf done that, she said, social workers at the shelter would have also assessed the level of risk her ex-partner posed.
Monastesse said there needs to be closer collaboration between shelters, police, prosecutors and social workers.
"We need to be part of those evaluations," said Monastesse.
"It takes time, but it will save lives."
Breaches not taken seriously
Monastesse also believes the police give alleged offenders too much leeway when it comes to what constitutes a breach of their conditions.
Even though by signing it, the alleged offender has agreed not to communicate or contact the alleged victim, many continue to intimidate or harass the alleged victim in text messages, emails or letters.
"When the abuser goes on and on, saying, 'I need you to come back. I love you,' they are crying on the phone, it can be a very dangerous situation," said Monastesse.
Some women are also stalked.
Monastesse said it's up to the discretion of a police officer to decide what constitutes a breach. She recounted the story of a woman who called police after spotting her ex in her backyard. He had been sending her death threats.
"The policeman said, 'Ok, he's just at the end of the backyard. We can't do that much,'" said Monastesse. "Why's that? We're asking what is enough to intervene?"
If police don't intervene when conditions are broken, Monastesse says abusers feel they have leeway to keep harassing the woman. Sometimes, the line is pushed and pushed until it results in attempted murder or death, said Monastesse.
Taking responsibility for conjugal violence
One of the policy guidelines on conjugal violence in Quebec is to make the abusers take responsibility for their actions and to understand the consequences of their abuse.
In Ontario, Monastesse said, these programs are closely monitored by that province's Ministry of Justice. A perpetrator must complete the program, and the program's administrators are accountable to the Justice Ministry.
"If they see red flags, they have to report," said Monastesse.
In Quebec, Monastesse said, it is the Ministry of Health and Social Services that oversees such program, and there is no standard blueprint for following up on abusers.
In Khellaf's case, the peace bond did not include any conditions that required Yssaad to attend regular anger management group therapy sessions or other measures to track whether his violent behaviour was in check.
In her case, authorities should have realized she was in the most dangerous period in any violent relationship, Kamateros said — right after deciding to leave her abuser.
Need for stiffer laws?
Ultimately, both Monastesse and Kamateros believe there must be harsher penalties for conjugal violence.
"There is no clear law at the federal level that says — black and white — conjugal violence is a criminal act," said Kamateros.
Other sections of the criminal code can be applied, but Kamateros said in her experience, it's rare to see convictions.
She finds the courts are too quick to opt for a peace bond.
"Just getting a slap on the wrist may be a deterrent to some violent men, but unfortunately, it's not the case for all violent men."
For his part, prosecutor Hadjis Chartrand said he is encouraged to see citizens reporting alleged acts of conjugal violence more often.
More people are willing to intervene or call 911 when they hear suspicious noises coming from a neighbour's home or when they witness an abusive situation in their circle of friends, he said.
Even if the victim doesn't want to testify, the witness is able to, which can change the life of a person that's trapped in a cycle of abuse, said Hadjis Chartrand.
"I think there's this collective sense of duty that's arising in terms of a problem that for a long time has been perceived as a private matter."