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In the shadow of Wilno: How a ‘situation table’ is working to help victims of domestic violence


PEMBROKE, Ont. — Ask what has changed when it comes to dealing with domestic violence in Renfrew County since Sept. 22, 2015 — the day three women died, allegedly at the hands of one man fuelled by hatred and rage — and you’ll likely hear about the “situation table.”

It’s a gathering that seeks to co-ordinate the efforts of police forces and social service agencies across the Upper Ottawa Valley.

They come together monthly to talk strategy and share stories, these Ontario Provincial Police officers and rural social workers.

Their topic is the emergency calls that summon police to the same addresses over and over — and how much risk exists for the people at those addresses, for their neighbours, for the police themselves.

They talk about what they can do to make those situations better.

Or at least, not worse.

“They’re responding to these same calls from the same people repeatedly,” says Tracy Thrasher, a regular at the table and outreach program manager at the Bernadette McCann women’s shelter in Pembroke.

But the police mandate, she notes, is to respond to emergencies, not provide ongoing services.

“What happens is that these people aren’t necessarily connecting with social services that are available in the area.”

Now, with the help of those at the table, they can connect.

Anyone who watches police shows on television knows the procedure for a domestic call. Officer A talks to the wife in the living room while Officer B leads the husband to the driveway for his story.

Still he-said she-said, but delivered free of threatening glares or shouted interjections. Later, the officers compare accounts as they try to determine who could be in danger or what laws were broken.

It didn’t work that way for a woman we will call Diane.

A male and a female officer came to her door in Renfrew County in 2015. The male arrested her and her partner for domestic assault.

“It was actually more just verbal. They put it up as shoving,” says Diane, now 62.

“This particular police officer, (he) didn’t give me the time of day to talk. Nor my partner either, as far as that’s concerned.”

This, of course, is her side. Her partner’s side, or the officer’s, could be different. But crisis workers say Diane’s story is a familiar one.

Ask what should change in the approach to family violence in Renfrew County, and chances are you will hear it’s that initial police response.

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Words are chosen carefully in the upper valley, where memories and personal connections run deep. It’s difficult to find anyone in the small towns or along the sparsely populated farm roads who didn’t know Anastasia Kuzyk, 36, Nathalie Warmerdam, 48, or Carol Culleton, 66, the three women shot to death in their homes two years ago.

They are tired of talking about it, at least to outsiders.

“I always quote it this way: The people in this area handle tough times on their own, in their own way,” says Carl Bromwich, a township councillor in Madawaska Valley.

They say nothing about Basil Borutski, now 59, whose trial for first-degree murder is expected to start in Ottawa this month. Borutski, with a long history of encounters with police, had been released from jail just months before the slayings after serving time for assault, theft and a firearms offence.

“We don’t even mention his name. He’s been X’d out of everybody’s life here, ” Bromwich says.

Still, the councillor is aware of “finger-pointing” in a community still looking for answers. As chair of the district’s policing advisory board, he believes any criticism of the OPP and its actions is misplaced.

“The legal system let these women down,” he says, offering his opinion on courts that are too quick to free offenders.

Among others holding this view is John Yakabuski, MPP for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, who is pressing for a law requiring prisoners to sign their probation orders and allow electronic monitoring of their whereabouts. Borutski had refused to sign an order to stay away from one of the women he is accused of killing.

Yakabuski, whose private member’s bill remains before the Ontario legislature, has said he knows the measures won’t end domestic abuse, but hopes they can address some of the worst cases.

The justice system is represented on Renfrew County’s situation table, launched in 2016 to provide what a police news release described as “a more robust” response to ongoing calls with potentially escalating risks. Other members come from health and social service agencies, school boards and local governments.

Bromwich says planning for the program began well before the three slayings.

Tracy Thrasher says the table works.

Each month, its members discuss three to five cases. No one is named at this point, but the table is briefed on police risk assessments and other details that can help shape a co-ordinated response.

“There could be one or two agencies that step up and say, ‘Yeah, that falls under us,’ and sometimes – the last one I was at, we had five or six agencies that stepped forward and said, ‘Yeah, it kind of falls under us too,’” Thrasher reports.

Smaller groups are formed to work out a plan for each case and are put in touch with the individuals involved. A month later, the table gets an update (again without names). Members might hear that the parties were contacted and declined services. Or, better, that the parties are working with agencies and progress is being made.

“But if there’s ongoing services and we’re still dealing with that situation, then it will continue to be brought forward to the following meeting,” Thrasher says.

Such an intervention might have helped Diane, the woman charged with domestic assault who had regular interactions with police during her 10-year relationship with a man she says drank, used drugs and disappeared for months.

After her arrest, she was barred from her home and belongings. She found a bed at the McCann shelter and began a frustrating legal journey that would culminate in agreements that she and her partner would not contact each other — an outcome she believes could have been reached without charges and court appearances.

Today she lives with a relative and collects a pension. She says for a long time she would lie awake wondering why police wouldn’t listen to her story.

Diane questions why police with the resources to set up specialized boating enforcement teams can’t do the same for domestic calls, and whether someone else in her situation could ever get treatment she considers fair.

“If two people were really fighting in the apartment beside me, I ask myself now, would I go to the door and try to say, ‘Can I to help?’ Would I go to a neighbour and say, ‘What should we do?’

“Would I call the police?”

A booklet published by the McCann House for Women urges abuse victims to ask to speak privately, away from partner and children, if officers don’t conduct separate interviews.

“If the police do not interview you at the scene or immediately after the incident,” the booklet continues in bold type, “follow up with the police station or the officer ASAP in order to make a statement.”

The shelter provides training in domestic violence responses at OPP detachments and for municipal and military police in Deep River and Petawawa. Residential manager Rosalie Wilcox is quick to report that officers taking the courses treat the subject seriously.

She acknowledges too that domestic disputes can be frustrating to unravel, and that police in Ontario are obligated by law to lay charges if they think an offence has taken place. But this shouldn’t be an excuse to simply arrest both parties and let the courts sort it out.

“A lot of women we see, if she’s charged, it’s usually because she’s trying to defend herself,” Wilcox says. “I do feel that the police really need to get back to, ‘Who is the primary aggressor?’ ”

Until the Borutski murder charges are resolved, police say they can’t discuss family violence approaches and what may have changed in Renfrew County.

“What I can tell you is that members of the OPP are trained to investigate (domestic violence) occurrences professionally and respond appropriately to the immediate and longer-term needs of victims of domestic violence,” says Acting Sgt. Angela Atkinson, an east region spokeswoman.

“Every incident the OPP is called to is unique and is investigated on its own merit and circumstances.”

In 40-plus years of studying and combatting family violence, Peter Jaffe has seen policework in Ontario evolve to include risk assessment and risk management as standard practice.

But as in any field, ongoing training and consistency are crucial, says the academic director of the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children.

“In theory, we have pretty good laws and pretty good policies in place, but in practice it’s important that whether you call the police in Town A versus Town B, you should be getting the same quality of response, and policies and protocols should be followed,” Jaffe adds.

Burnout, again as in so many professions, is a problem. For police, the week-after-week exposure to family strife is compounded by the very real risk that they themselves will become targets of violence.

Yet some, says Jaffe, are able to overcome the grinding challenges.

“In my work I see exceptional police officers who go above and beyond the call of duty and do followups and will go back to a home to check on how things are going.”

Jennifer Murphy is the mayor of the Township of Bonnechere Valley and warden, or head of county council, for Renfrew County. She knew Nathalie Warmerdam as a health-care worker and neighbour.

Murphy says society, if it is being honest, will admit it will never have the resources, urban or rural, to eradicate spousal abuse.

“I am a cop’s kid. My father was on the Toronto police force for 43 years — perhaps why I have sort of this bleak view of crimes of this nature.”

Still, the situation table is a start in addressing domestic violence in a region of long distances and limited police resources, Murphy believes.

Any discussion of other measures will probably have to wait for the trial and verdict.

“I don’t believe the shock has worn off,” says the Renfrew warden.

“And possibly part of that is that there hasn’t been a resolution … not that that is necessarily going to bring closure to those of us who loved these three women, but we certainly want to see justice done.”



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