Developing a national collaborative approach to prevent domestic homicides: domestic homicide review committees.

AuthorJaffe, Peter G.

In Canada, the rate of spousal homicide was 3.5 victims per million spouses in 2009, which is a 44% decrease from the rate 30 years ago (Statistics Canada 2011). There are many theories about the reasons for the decrease in domestic homicides, one of which identifies the growth in existing and new resources (e.g., shelters, specialized domestic violence courts) that may prevent or reduce the likelihood of violence between intimate partners--a growth that has paralleled these declines (Dugan, Nagin, and Rosenfeld 2003). Among these resources are the domestic violence death review committees, which originated in the United States but have been implemented in Canada in the past decade. The present article begins by describing the history of the domestic violence death review process in Canada. Drawing from a 2010 national think-tank held in London, Ontario, the authors outline the benefits of a domestic violence death review committee, and then identify the challenges and possible responses as identified and discussed by think-tank participants. Participants included about 40 practitioners, researchers, and government officials from 10 provinces and two territories. (2) The article concludes by summarizing what next steps are required to create a national domestic homicide prevention initiative that will facilitate a future framework for research and practice in this area.

The history of the domestic violence death review process in Canada

Domestic violence death reviews have been conducted in North America since the early 1990s. The first review was conducted in San Francisco, California after the killing of Veena Charan by her husband (Websdale, Town, and Johnson 1999). This review identified several key issues and made recommendations that would help to predict and prevent similar killings. Since the Charan review, approximately 82 domestic violence death review committees have been created across the United States, and the number continues to grow (Wilson and Websdale 2006). The purpose of a domestic violence death review is to identify risk factors that help predict potential lethality and to make recommendations aimed at preventing deaths in similar circumstances. Recommendations that arise from the review of individual cases identify potential areas of improvement across multiple sectors (e.g., police, health care, community services, and justice) that together respond to domestic violence. In the United States, recommendations have tended to fall under the general themes of training and education, professional development, enhanced legislation, coordination of services, and resource development (Jaffe and Dawson 2002; Town 1999; Wilson and Websdale 2006).

In 2002, Ontario established the first death review committee in Canada (Ontario DVDRC 2003). The formation of the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (Ontario DVDRC) was in response to recommendations that arose from two separate, but major inquests into the domestic homicides of Arlene May and Gillian Hadley by their former male partners. These separate inquests generated several key recommendations that identified the need for education, training, and prevention programs; coordination of services and sharing information; risk assessment, risk management, and safety planning; modification and reconstruction of justice programs (e.g., bail hearings) and police procedures; and conducting further research into domestic violence and homicide prevention (Office of the Chief Coroner 2002; Ontario, Office of the Chief Coroner 1998; Ontario Women's Justice Network 2002). It was also recommended that a domestic violence death review committee should be created.

Until recently, Ontario has had the only death review committee in Canada. In March 2010, a British Columbia Death Review Panel (British Columbia DVDRP) conducted a one-time domestic homicide review of 11 domestic homicides from across the province, drawn from over 100 coroner case files dating back to 1995 (Coroners Service 2010: 1). In November 2008, the Manitoba Minister of Family Services and Consumer Affairs, along with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General and the Minister of Labour and Immigration (responsible for the Status of Women) announced the plan to create a domestic violence death review committee (Manitoba DVDRC) to examine and review domestic homicides in that province (Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children 2011). The Manitoba DVDRC was formally established on 16 June 2010. New Brunswick has also formed a death review team to work as an advisory body for the Office of the Chief Coroner (New Brunswick DVDRC). This committee has commissioned a study on all domestic homicides that occurred in the province between 1999 and 2008 (New Brunswick 2010). Finally, the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters issued a position statement on the need for Alberta to create a domestic violence death review committee (Alberta Council of Women's Shelters 2010).

Reducing homicide risk through domestic violence death reviews

Domestic violence death review committees are a resource or mechanism that belongs to the exposure reduction framework (Dugan, Nagin, and Rosenfeld 1999, 2003; Dawson, Pottie, Bunge, and Balde 2009). The exposure reduction framework is premised on the well documented finding that chronic and persistent violence in intimate relationships often precedes intimate partner homicide and, as a result, mechanisms that help abused partners exit from violent relationships or that inhibit the development of such relationships may reduce exposure to such killings. DVDRCs seek to reduce future exposure to domestic violence through detailed interdisciplinary reviews of cases that have already occurred to identify common risk factors and potential points of or missed opportunities for intervention (Wilson and Websdale 2006). These initiatives arguably reflect and integrate both liberal and radical crime prevention models (White 2005). The former model views crime as a social problem that is, in part, the result of group disadvantage and emphasize early intervention and community development as key factors in responding to crime. The goal of the latter model is social justice, which can be achieved through political struggle that aims to address social-structural inequalities and group marginalization. Thus, while all these models focus on violence prevention, there can be several different approaches to developing a domestic violence death review committee, and not every committee is alike because committees may use different practices that best suit their communities. However, drawing from the Ontario DVDRC and British Columbia DVDRP reports, the section below discusses some of the commonalities that exist among many death review committees.

Identifying common risk factors for domestic homicide

The identification of risk factors is an important element for predicting and preventing domestic homicides. A key goal of most domestic violence death review committees is to identify common risk factors across individual cases that may be used by professionals to help predict and prevent a potentially lethal situation in the future. At its inception, the Ontario DVDRC conducted a literature review and compiled a list of 26 potential risk factors for domestic homicide, a list which is continually updated as research identifies potentially new and emerging risk factors (Jaffe and Dawson 2002). From 2003 to 2008, 86% of all cases reviewed by the Ontario DVDRC had seven or more known risk factors with the most common being a prior history of domestic violence and an actual or pending separation (see Figure 1; Ontario DVDRC 2008). These risk factors are consistent with findings from several research studies that have found them to be primary risk factors for domestic homicide (Campbell, Glass, Sharps, Laughon, and Bloom 2007; Campbell, Webster, Koziol-McLain, Block, Campbell, Curry, Gary, Glass, McFarlane, Sachs, Sharps, Ulrich, Wilt, Manganello, Xu, Schollenberger, Frye, and Laughon 2003; Wilson and Daly 1993).

Identifying systemic gaps or missed opportunities

The review process also identifies missed opportunities or gaps in services that may have occurred when attempting to protect victims and/or children as well as strategies for perpetrator intervention that may have been overlooked. Most death review committees examine the circumstances that lead up to and surround the incident of a domestic homicide, including whether or not the victim and/or...

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