Dr. Elana Fric filed for divorce two days before her husband killed her on Nov. 30, 2016.
Her husband, Dr. Mohammed Shamji, admitted as much earlier this month when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Toronto just before his first-degree murder trial was set to begin.
Theirs was a “volatile and dysfunctional” marriage “marred by reports of verbal, emotional and at times physical abuse of Elana by Mohammed,” according to an agreed statement of facts, and Fric started divorce proceedings numerous times in the months before her death. Shamji was trying to change her mind.
On the night he killed her, one of their three children woke up to hear banging, their mother’s scream and then silence.
The disturbing reality is that a person’s risk of experiencing escalating violence is at its highest during a separation, says Jacinta Gallant, a family lawyer on Prince Edward Island — as if divorce isn’t already a fraught endeavour overladen with emotions and grudges, communication dynamics, money and, sometimes, children.
And yet, she says:
“There’s no consistent requirement across Canada when it comes to the level of inquiries or screening that lawyers need to do pretty much any time you have a client coming to your office to talk about separation and divorce.”
In British Columbia — where the Family Law Act defines family violence as including physical abuse, sexual abuse, attempts to physically or sexually abuse, psychological or emotional abuse and unreasonable restrictions on financial or personal autonomy — lawyers involved in separation cases are required to assess where such violence exists or may appear and it must be factored into the proceedings.
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This month, the Senate referred a federal bill that would introduce similar family violence definitions to the Divorce Act to committee. That’s a piece of the puzzle.
“At a societal level, we need to put the onus on where the problem lies, which is with perpetrators,” says Nadine Wathen, a professor at Western University and research scholar with the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.
“Our ‘solutions’ are for women to take their children, if they have children, and leave in the middle of the night, trying to grab everything they have and go to a shelter, a family friend or some location where they think they can be safe in the short term,” Wathen says.
It’s a dilemma that a shelter in London, Ont., is toying with: what if we left the women and children in their homes and removed the men? Not only would the woman and child not face such upheaval, Wathen says, but also the men could be in a place where they could learn.
“Part of the problem is we focus so much on individual and relationship factors,” she says. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about those broader social structures and how they impact the ability of women to seek help and the ability of men to recognize their behaviour as inappropriate and take steps to correct it.”
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Leaving is hard and scary, says Karrie Lynn Dymond. She herself fled an abusive relationship and now works as an advocate in Toronto helping people get out of violent relationships.
“The problem is that our resources are there but not really,” she says.
Dymond relates to Fric and her numerous beginnings at filing for divorce. She describes being threatened repeatedly to return to her partner as well as being bribed once because he still had possession of her son’s belongings. Her son died when he was 13 from a naturally occurring brain aneurysm.
“You go back because it’s the only thing you’ve got,” Dymond says. She remembers, too, not being in the right mindset to figure out the safest way to leave.
People need help navigating the system, Wathen says. For those who aren’t ready to talk to other people or access formal supports, there is an online and app-based tool called My Plan. Although it’s currently U.S.-focused, Wathen says a Canadian version is in the works and expected to be available online this fall.
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It would help, Gallant says, if family lawyers weren’t so separate from those currently working to provide domestic violence support services.
“What we’re seeing more and more is the need for integration so the people who are supporting victims are connected in some way with the people who are representing them,” she says.
“We don’t really talk to each other.”
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Diana Isaac, a family lawyer at the Shulman Law Firm in Toronto, says that while not all of her clients are upfront about domestic abuse, she says she is starting to notice a trend towards more openness. Still, she says, there’s no singular way to approach these cases.
“The dynamics can be starkly different: is it verbal? Is it emotional? Is it over time? Is it recent? Is it physical? Is it all of the above?”
If the person is forthcoming, Isaac says it’s easier to do a safety assessment and figure out a plan of action. Isaac tries to factor in not just how and when to move out of the family home but also the best time to deliver the court documents and any legal communication as well as who should be delivering them and what protections — if any — need to be put in place after.
The need for those considerations is a huge part of why Gallant is vehement that the screening tools people in counselling and mediation roles are taught need to be more integrated into family law.
“Lawyers are often among the first people that a victim will work with upon deciding to separate, yet there’s no consistent requirement for us to be aware … to evaluate the risks,” she says.