Pandemic slows access to restraining orders, peace bonds in Ottawa
In the wake of alleged Ottawa homicide, advocates call for better police risk assessment
Victims of violence against women struggle to get court-ordered protection in Ottawa as a result of the pandemic and due to what appears to be a hesitancy to issue them, experts say.
Last week, Hanadi Mohammed, 50, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 54-year-old husband, Hamid Ayoub, after trying to obtain a restraining order.
That alleged act of intimate-partner violence has raised questions about the options available to women and the police response.
Mohamed and Ayoub had not been living together for approximately a year and she had been actively trying to conceal where she was living, according to sources. Mohammed had also tried to obtain a restraining order nearly three months ago because she said he was violent and stalking her, a family friend said.
In May, according to police sources, Ottawa police did respond to a 911 call allegedly involving an altercation between Ayoub and Mohammed. No charges were laid at the time and Ayoub was not taken into custody.
Pandemic created a backlog of cases
Melissa Heimerl, executive director of Ottawa Victim Services, told CBC News there was a 2020 stoppage in Ontario courts' abilities to issue both restraining orders and peace bonds — both of which are meant to legally regulate a person's behaviour — during the pandemic.
"This did open back up in the winter but the ability for the hearings to occur was delayed due to backlog during the pandemic," Heimerl said.
"This did impact our clients and their ability to get these protective orders."
Leighann Burns has worked in shelters for abused women for nearly three decades and she has practised family law for 14 years working with survivors of intimate-partner violence.
In 2016, Burns said she looked at a random sampling of family law files in Ottawa and found restraining orders were sought in 27 per cent of the files where a complainant alleged violence. A restraining order was sought in two per cent of the cases where no violence was claimed.
Burns then looked at the ongoing court records and the final decisions of those cases, and found no restraining orders issued.
"There seems to be a hesitancy about issuing restraining orders," said Burns, who couldn't explain why that hesitancy exists.
She suggested changes made to the law around restraining orders, which criminalized breaching them, made the courts reluctant to issue them.
Police need urgent change to response
Burns said police are making "good-faith efforts" to improve their response to these cases, but they aren't moving fast enough.
"We have yet another case where a woman was killed and the daughter was injured," she said.
"So there's an urgency about this. The stakes are very high. And we need to get these cases right every single time. And when we hear reports of families saying somebody felt they were in danger and were seeking assistance and didn't get it, or that the police responded to the scene the month before the woman was killed, and left without laying charges, you really have to ask yourself what happened? Why didn't they see the level of risk that was present there?"
Violence-against-women advocacy groups have long called for risk assessment in every case. That means taking enough of a history of what's happened with both people to determine the level of risk.
Police in Ontario are mandated to charge in domestic-violence cases where grounds for offence exist. But it's taking that history, even in a call for service where grounds for criminal charges don't exist, that's key for maintaining women's safety, Burns said.
"It's clear that Ottawa police is not doing risk assessment and it's clear that they need to."
Several reviews make same recommendations
Reviews at the provincial and national levels have made consistent recommendations, but the system has not changed, according to Burns.
Ottawa police do use the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA) tool, which is meant to determine whether someone who has already assaulted a partner will do so again.
The tool is often used in bail hearings, too, but it can only be used after police have determined they can arrest someone for a crime.
Burns said specific indicators of a high risk level include threats of homicide or suicide, mental health issues and substance abuse issues, which could initiate follow-up and signal someone needs to pay attention to the risk.
First intervention 'critical'
By policy, Ottawa police are supposed to refer a victim reporting domestic violence to the victim crisis unit, where safety planning and peace bonds or restraining orders are typically discussed.
Any domestic violence report to Ottawa police should also be coded as such and automatically sent to the victim crisis unit. If there are questions about whether police can charge in the case, and if no charges were laid, the file is supposed to be redirected to the partner assault unit.
Ayoub had no previous criminal record in Ontario and at the time of his arrest for murder had no outstanding charges before the court.
Burns said that is not atypical, which is why "the first intervention is critical."
Advocacy groups have also pushed for "holistic" investigations where each domestic violence complaint becomes a piece of a larger puzzle, which would help police gain a better understanding of dynamics even though a single incident does not meet the threshold for criminal charges.
"What is the message to the woman who's terrified to reach out to police, reaches out and they blow her off?" said Burns.
"Then what? Is she likely to call them next time? Every interaction is important and she needs to get the message that her safety is important and people are paying attention to it and it matters and they're going to take steps to help her."