How holidays, domestic violence services may have impacted Edmonton mass murder

Watch above: Edmonton’s police chief says the mass murder is the worse he’s seen in his 39 years on the job. Rod Knecht also calls the targeted shootings an extreme case of domestic violence. Kendra Slugoski has more. 

TORONTO – Just four days after Christmas, four women, two men, and two young children were found murdered — the suspected killer found dead in apparent suicide — in a horrifying eight-hour hunt across Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan. The chief of police called the tragedy an “extreme case of domestic violence,” though the identities of many of the deceased have not yet been officially released. The suspect was known to police, who had visited the north Edmonton home twice before — when the man believed to be responsible for the murders was charged for domestic violence.

READ MORE: Details begin to emerge about victims, suspect in Edmonton mass murder

Many questions remain: Had the suspect been in any treatment to prevent him from re-offending? Did he fall through the system’s cracks after his initial arrest? Was the holiday season related to the rampage — a time when some studies suggest propensity to commit family violence is heightened?

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Flowers, candles and stuffed animals lay in front of the Lakeview home where seven people–including two children–were found dead. Quinn Ohler / Global News

While there hasn’t been much Canadian research on the topic,  Canada Research Chair in Family Violence Prevention and Intervention Katreena Scott pointed to a British study that found two peak time periods for domestic violence-related calls to police. One peak was the two-week period starting at the end of December into the first week of January, and the second peak time period was in the summer months — July and August.

Patricia Garrett, executive director of Edmonton women’s shelter Wings of Providence, said the number of crisis calls from women and families typically spikes right after Christmas, as many women try to get through the holiday season. Edmonton Police had yet to respond; a Vancouver Police spokesperson said “anecdotally we tend to go to more domestic calls this time of year.”

READ MORE: Statistics Canada offers a profile on family violence

Scott suggests one explanation for these peak times could be an increase in certain risk factors for domestic violence that coincide with many typical holiday characteristics.

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“There’s increased contact time in families, there’s a lot of increased family stress around holiday times,” she said.

“There’s possibly more alcohol use, more money concerns, so the general sort of family-related stressors, child behaviour management kind of stressors as well, are high both in the Christmas period and in the summer period.”

But Scott says a better indicator of whether someone will commit family violence is the presence of many risk factors, including a recent charge.

READ MORE: Gun used in Edmonton mass murder was stolen in BC in 2006

“In high-risk cases where there’s homicide, there’s often multiple risk indicators, and most have seven or more,” said Scott. “There is the combination of jealousy, separation, and past severe domestic violence that is one that we kind of  keep our eyes open for, but again, it’s not only that; it’s really thinking about how many risk factors there are added together.”

Scott says such risk indicators can include:

  • A recent separation
  • Isolation from social supports
  • A recent charge
  • A recent escalation in violence
  • A recent change in drug and alcohol use
  • Depression in the perpetrator

While people who are charged with domestic violence-related offences should be referred to a program specific to their problems by police, Scott says there may be a lack of coordination and sharing of information across different systems to identify high-risk offenders. She points out there are lots of people falling through the cracks, whether it be due to red tape or sheer volume of perpetrators.

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“So they’re actually not getting the services that they need or…they might come for one meeting then drop out, and then the court’s not able to respond quickly enough to get them back into the system, for example.”

Scott advocates for a change from the “one size fits all” service currently used across most of Canada to more differentiated service, particularly for high-risk offenders. Through the High Risk Safety Project, Scott ran a pilot in Ontario to try to intervene with such offenders. The project offered services to men immediately after they were charged so they didn’t have to wait to have their case heard before a court, for example. (All of the men involved had been charged with domestic violence-related offences such as assaults or no-contact breaches, but none had committed murder).

READ MORE: A timeline of events leading to the Edmonton mass murder

The treatment included such things as access to mental health or drug and alcohol services, with a focus on depression issues or obsessive thoughts that could lead to dangerous behaviour, or practical support if the person no longer had a place to live because of a no-contact order, she said. It involved an average of about five individual meetings to help meet their needs and prevent dangerous behaviour.

The results were impressive: Rates of subsequent domestic violence-related charges were more than double for men who didn’t get connected with services as opposed to those who did. In the first year, 66 per cent of men who didn’t receive intervention re-offended, versus 29 per cent who did get intervention. In the second year, 41.5 per cent of those who didn’t get help re-offended, versus only 12 per cent of those who did receive treatment.

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“So we do know what to do,” said Scott. “We know how to share the information, we know how to work with ‘him.’ We have some evidence this works. It’s a matter of getting – in our time of increasingly scarce resources – getting the resources allocated to allow that intensive service to these high-risk guys during this really high-risk period.”

Here are some resources for those in need:

Canadian Mental Health Association
Child Welfare League of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada, Family Violence Prevention Team, Centre for Health Promotion & Family Violence Initiative
Neighbours Friends & Families

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