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Brother testifies about 'beloved big sister' at intimate partner violence inquest

Criminal and family courts need to do a better job of sharing information when it comes to flagging high-risk perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV), a coroner's inquest on gender-based violence is hearing. 

Opera singer Joshua Hopkins recalls the hug he never got backstage from Nathalie Warmerdam

Joshua Hopkins, right, poses with composer Jake Heggie, left, during a recording session for an album of songs honouring Hopkins' sister Nathalie Warmerdam and other women and girls who are victims of intimate partner violence. (Supplied by Verismo Communications)

Opera singer Joshua Hopkins says he was looking forward to getting a backstage hug from his sister Nathalie Warmerdam after a performance in 2015. 

But he never got the chance. 

Warmerdam, along with Anastasia Kuzyk and Carol Culleton, was murdered by a man with a known history of intimate partner violence in Ontario's Renfrew County on the same day in September 2015.

"For years, I had found myself feeling numb about Nathalie's murder because it was just something too shocking to comprehend," Hopkins testified Tuesday during an ongoing coroner's inquest into the women's murders. 

"But the kernel of an idea compelled me to find a way to use my voice to tell my sister's story, as an opera singer and as an ally."

The murders of Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton are being examined during a coroner's inquest in Ontario's Renfrew County over the course of the next three weeks, with a focus on intimate partner violence and preventing future instances of domestic homicide. (CBC News)

Inquest jurors, who are hearing from experts and first-hand witnesses, are being tasked with recommending changes to policies and protocols to better protect and support survivors of intimate partner violence in rural communities in the future. 

But jurors had no questions after Hopkins' brief but powerful testimony about his "beloved big sister" and Hopkins' growing awareness of "the global epidemic of gender based violence."

Hopkins collaborated with author Margaret Atwood and American composer Jake Heggie on an album of music and poetry honouring Warmerdam, Kuzyk, Culleton and "the countless sisters who have been taken."

"It shouldn't have taken my sister's murder for me, a man, to be made aware for the first time how pervasive intimate partner violence is," Hopkins said.  "As a society, we seem to accept that men can't control themselves and we find it understandable when they exhibit unhealthy behaviours.

"It seems clear to me that this acceptance is one of the many negative outcomes of the deep seated misogyny that is ingrained in our society."

Nathalie Warmerdam, centre, poses in a family photo with her daughter Valerie, right, and son Adrian, left. (Submitted by Valerie Warmerdam)

Hopkins said it's been heartbreaking to hear during the inquest about "how much tireless effort Nathalie put into her and her children's safety." 

The inquest has heard that in addition to working on a safety plan with a victim services worker — which involved keeping a panic button — Warmerdam also possessed a gun for self-defence in her home.

The perpetrator had previously been convicted of threatening her son and later convicted of brutally beating Kuzyk. He then flouted his release conditions but was not charged with breaching them. 

Information sharing between courts

Earlier on Tuesday, the inquest heard that criminal and family courts need to do a better job of sharing information when it comes to flagging high-risk perpetrators of intimate partner violence. 

Deepa Mattoo, the executive director of the Toronto-based Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic — which provides support to women in need and advocates for legal reform — said there is no information-sharing database on high-risk offenders allowing the two different court systems to "speak to each other."

Such a system might track endorsements family judges issue specifying what ex-partners can and cannot do, Mattoo said. 

"That remains one of the big pieces of the puzzle."

Deepa Mattoo is the executive director of the Toronto-based Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides support to women in need and advocates for legal reform. (CBC)

A psychologist who analyzed the Renfrew County case testified that there were very serious concerns in the criminal justice system four years before the perpetrator's killing rampage that he had a pattern of significant intimate partner violence and "might escalate based on the outcome of family court hearings."

The man's ex-wife — whose identity is being withheld by inquest officials because she is a survivor of the murderer's abuse — believed the perpetrator burned their home down after she was awarded the home in family court, the psychologist reported. 

A retired OPP inspector testified the man targeted women who were at vulnerable stages of their lives and had homes he could insinuate himself in. 

Acting on risk assessments

High-risk perpetrators of intimate partner violence need to undergo regular risk assessments to gauge their potential to reoffend, and that information needs to be acted on, Mattoo added. 

Mattoo is not the only witness to make the latter point during the inquest.

"Risk information is not shared," Katreena Scott, a clinical psychologist and director at the Centre for Research and Education About Violence Against Women and Children, testified on Friday.

"The information that the shelter has from a danger assessment about what her experience is; the information that the police service has about his current offence, his past offending history and the fact that he's stalking her; and the information potentially the workplace has that he hasn't shown up for the last two or three days and that his substance use is escalating — that information is not shared."

When a perpetrator is on probation, the probation service is the agency in charge of co-ordinating risk assessments, Scott said. 

Katreena Scott is a clinical psychologist and the academic director for the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University. (Submitted by Katreena Scott)

A review conducted by Ontario's probation and parole service after the 2015 Renfrew County murders found that the perpetrator was repeatedly assessed and deemed high risk in February 2015, just a few months before the murders.

That same review found that probation officers missed opportunities to more closely monitor the man, such as by gathering more information from people who knew him. 

A representative of the probation service is expected to begin testimony on Tuesday afternoon. 

The inquest will continue with more witnesses on Wednesday and jurors are expected to begin deliberating on their potential recommendations on Friday. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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