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Patterns that emerge before family violence ends in murder

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

"police called to domestic incident in days prior to mass shooting" - Sault Ste. Marie Police Chief, Hugh Stevenson
"A history of domestic violence prior to murder-suicide of daughter and her father." - Chief Coroner
"Neurosurgeon accused of killing his wife was once charged with assaulting her." - Ottawa Police
"Prior criminal convictions for threatening, assaulting and choking victim prior to murder." - Crown Attorney, Pembroke courthouse
"Police called to handle several domestic incidents prior to victims death."

A common pattern that occurs prior to a domestic murder is previous abuse by the perpetrator. A large cultural myth: that violence comes out of nowhere; that its a case of a good guy having an isolated breakdown; that these deaths are unpredictable and unpresentable. Research and statistics have shown the opposite to be true. The common myths about domestic violence that are held by general public:

A woman should just leave, then she will be safe - It is not always the case that leaving an abusive partner will increase a woman’s safety and research has established that, in many cases, domestic abuse from an intimate partner does not end upon separation. Post-separation can actually see an escalation of abuse with women reporting continued threats and intimidation when leaving their abusive partner as well as an increased risk of homicide. The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has investigated and provided numerous annual reports for intimate partner homicides. Following the death's of Arlene May and Gillian Hadley, two Ontario women murdered by their husbands, a complied list of risk factors was created and is now used by Ontario police during interviews with victims of domestic violence. Each man was out on bail for assault charges against his wife, and had restraining orders forbidding contact with them. In 80% of the cases the ministry has since investigated, seven or more risk factors were identified - including obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator, prior abuse claims, and prior attempts to isolate the victim. In almost three quarters (73%) of the perpetrators had a history of domestic violence, making it the most common risk factor, followed by actual/pending separation (70%)

Domestic homicide happens because the man 'loses control' - We can see from the 8 step pattern discussed below that controlling and coercive behaviour underpins the vast majority of domestic homicides, rather than a loss of control the perpetrator is very much in control.

If there is no physical violence it can't be that bad - the 8 step pattern highlights the importance of considering all types of abuse rather than just physical violence. Whilst a history of physical violence in a relationship is a strong predictor for future assaults, individual acts of violence rarely occur in isolation and are more usually part of a pattern of ongoing abusive and aggressive behaviour. As demonstrated in the 8 stages it is important to take into account the full range of violence and abuse including controlling behaviour and harassment.

With an increase in intimate partner, family and gender based homicides being reported across the globe, a light is being shed on the 8 step timeline that typically precedes domestic homicides how this relates to risk assessment and safety planning. Analyzing these 8 steps can aid police to keep track of certain potential perpetrators - while victims will more easily be able to articulate to professionals what situation they are in. The eight steps that were identified to be present in almost all homicides studied were:

  1. A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator

  2. The romance develops quickly into a serious relationship

  3. The relationship becomes dominated by coercive control

  4. A trigger threatens the perpetrator's control - for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty

  5. Escalation - an increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner's control tactics, such as stalking or threatening suicide

  6. The perpetrator has a change in thinking - choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide

  7. Planning - the perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone

  8. Homicide - the perpetrator kills his or her partner and possibly hurts others such as the victim's children

In addition to the 8 step pattern above, a number of factors may increase or decrease the risk of perpetrating and experiencing intimate partner violence. To prevent IPV, we must understand and address the factors that put people at risk for or protect them from violence. Individual risk factors: low self-esteem, low education or income, young age, aggressive or delinquent behaviour as a youth, heavy alcohol and drug use, depression and suicide attempts, anger and hostility, lack of nonviolent social problem solving skills, antisocial personality traits and conduct problems, poor behavioural control and impulsiveness, history of being physically abusive, having few friends or isolated from others, economic stress, emotional dependence and insecurity, belief in strict gender roles, desire for power and control in relationships, hostility towards women, attitudes accepting or justifying violence and aggression, history of physical or emotional abuse in childhood. Relationship risk factors: relationship conflicts including jealousy, possessiveness, tension, divorce or separations, dominance and control of the relationship, unhealthy family relationships and interactions, association with antisocial and aggressive peers, parents with less than high school education, witnessing violence between parents as a child, history of poor parenting as a child, history of experiencing physical discipline as a child. Community factors: communities with high rates of poverty and limited educational and economic opportunities, communities with high unemployment rates, communities with high rates of violence and crime, communities where neighbours don't know or look out for each other and there is low community involvement amount residents, communities with easy access to drugs and alcohol, weak community sanctions against IPV (example, unwillingness of neighbours to intervene in situations where they witness violence), Societal factors: traditional gender norms and gender inequality, cultural norms that support aggression towards others, societal income inequality, weak health, educational, economic, and social policies or laws.

In order to decrease the risk to potential IPV victims, individuals and communities can work together to implement protective measures. Relationship prevention measures: strong social support networks and stable, positive relationships with others. Community prevention measures: Neighborhood collective efficacy, meaning residents feel connected to each other and are involved in the community, coordination of resources and services among community agencies, communities with access to safe and stable housing, communities with access to medical care and mental health services, communities with access to economic and financial help. Promoting healthy, respectful and nonviolent relationships and communities can help reduce the occurrence of IPV. It also can prevent the harmful and long-lasting effects of IPV on individuals, families, and communities.

A further tool to help prevent these homicides, is a way to access disclosure on a partner such as relationship history, and prior court proceedings. Some Provincial's have now adopted an English Origin Law, referred to as Clare's Law. This gives people who feel at risk of domestic violence a way to get information about their partners so they can make informed choices about their safety. People at risk can find out if their partner has a history of: domestic violence, stalking or harassment, breaches of no contact orders, and other relevant acts. Unfortunately, the Province of Ontario, has yet to adopt any type of similar law, but this may soon change. In 2020, a 25 year old Brampton women was found fatally shot inside the home of her on-again-off-again boyfriend. He was eventually charged with first-degree murder, but the failures of the justice system in the case sparked widespread outrage, after court records showed the perpetrators history of abuse and four violations of no-contact orders. A new motion approved unanimously in June 2023 would enable the Ontario government to bring forward a new way of battling intimate partner violence across the province - Ontario's own version of "Clare's Law." This motion would see the province adopt mechanisms for disclosure to allow access to violent offender information if a person feels a partner might pose a risk. It would give police the ability to disclose information to those who are considered vulnerable.

With this motion moving forward with legislation, there is the further question, what would an individual do with the information that showed a partner may become violent. With the current housing crisis and an already exhausted shelter system, there becomes a need to expand services and a need to accommodate the increased demand. This is where government leadership is required and what municipalities are working towards in banning together to declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.

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