On February 9th, four-year-old Keira Kagan and her father, Robin Brown, were found dead at the foot of a cliff near Milton, Ontario. There seems little doubt that this was a murder-suicide: Keira’s father had been abusive to her mother, Jennifer, during their marriage and had continued to be manipulative and controlling after they separated when Keira was a baby. There had been a custody and access trial, followed by repeat court appearances, as Jennifer—like any reasonable and concerned parent—sought to have the family law protect her daughter from Brown.
In fact, only 12 days before Keira’s death, Jennifer attempted to get an ex parte order to limit Brown’s access because of his increasingly erratic behaviour. She was not successful: rather than make an order, the judge scheduled the case to return to court two weeks later. By then, Keira had died.
You may wonder why I am writing about this now, five months later. After all, I wrote about it in February, and nothing has changed since then.
That is precisely why I am writing about it. Nothing has happened, except that more children have died at the hands of their fathers.
An all too familiar tale
On July 11th, three days after an Amber Alert was issued for them, the bodies of 11-year-old Norah and her six-year-old sister, Romy, were found in a wooded area south-west of Quebec City. As I write this, police continue to search for their father, Martin Carpentier, who they believe is alive and on the run.
Police have stated that, based on interviews with witnesses and the sisters’ mother, they “had reason to believe the girls were abducted by their father.”
We don’t yet know the background to the deaths of Norah and Romy, but we do know what often lies at the heart of these killings: intimate partner abuse of the children’s mother. Research on filicide – the killing of a child by a parent – is limited, but there is some. In her 2014 paper, Myrna Dawson, the Director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability at the University of Guelph, noted that, when fathers kill their children, it is often an act of retaliatory anger or jealousy towards the children’s mother and during a pending or actual separation that involves a custody and access dispute.
Five months on
I have had the honour of getting to know Keira’s courageous mother, Jennifer, over the past five months. She is determined to be part of systemic change, especially within the family law system, so that no more children lose their lives at the hands of their father. As she says of her daughter:
And yet, the investigation into her own child’s death appears to be stalled: five months after Keira’s death, the coroner has yet to release a report confirming the cause of death. The anguish this causes for Jennifer, her husband and the rest of their family is more than anyone who is grieving the death of a child should have to bear.
The lack of a coroner’s report also makes further systemic response difficult. Will the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee be able to conduct a review and make recommendations for systemic change? When will the death be reviewed by the Pediatric Death Review Committee; mandatory, because the family was involved with a child protection agency? How can women’s advocates call for systemic change without a cause of death report as a starting point?
We already know what we need to know
It is no secret that the family law system needs changing if it is to ensure the safety of women leaving abusive relationships and their children. An ongoing focus on shared parenting; the tendency of courts to accept fathers’ allegations that their former partners are alienating the children, even though these allegations have become a pro forma response when women present evidence of family violence; the unwillingness of courts to believe women when they talk about the abuse to which they have been subjected; a lack of education for judges, lawyers, mediators, assessors and others, and the continued promotion of mediation are just a few of the many systemic problems with family law and family court.
Combined, these problems lead to family court outcomes that are not safe for women or their children: orders for shared decision-making responsibility that force women into ongoing relationships with their abusive former partners and for frequent and extensive access by abusive men to their children; unreasonable expectations about communication and problem solving between the parents; a lack of orders for supervised access and exchanges of children, and more.
The revised Divorce Act would offer some assistance in these cases, because it includes a detailed and comprehensive definition of family violence that identifies coercive controlling behaviour – the very behaviour that Keira’s father used to try to control her mother – as a critical concern. However, implementation of that legislation has been delayed from July 1, 2020 to March 1, 2021.
Of course, for better law to have real meaning, those who interpret and implement it need to understand the nuanced dynamics of family violence, so systemic change is needed in that area as well.
In commenting on the deaths of Norah and Romy, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said: “Like all Quebecers, I am devastated, without words. Losing two children, what we hold dearest in life, is incomprehensible.”
Would that this were true. In my book, if the killing of a child by her father were truly devastating and incomprehensible, the changes mothers and women’s advocates have been calling for for decades would have already been made.
Used with permission. This article first appeared on our Legal Director’s website, PamelaCross.ca.