Dawn Walker.
Dawn Walker. Credit: Dawn Walker Credit: Dawn Walker

Its long been recognized that the same tactics used to torture prisoners of war are used by men who abuse their intimate partners. Psychologists have likened female domestic violence survivors in Family Court to prisoners of war, forced to negotiate their own safety without weapons or power.

Children exposed to domestic violence show the same brain pattern as soldiers in combat.

For domestic violence survivors the war is real. Every six days a girl or woman in Canada is murdered by an intimate partner. And thousands of children are witness to damaging and unnecessary violence.

Forty-four per cent of women reported experiencing some form of psychological, physical, or sexual violence by an intimate partner, in  2018. for Indigenous women that rate rises to over 60 per cent.

Dawn Walker, an Indigenous mother was recently found in the U.S. after fleeing Canada with her son. Dawn and her son are victims of domestic violence and a court system that revictimizes and traumatizes survivors and their children.

Former domestic violence trainer and consultant, Lundy Bancroft notes  “Protective mothers frequently encounter a system that is insensitive, ignorant about the dynamics of abuse, and biased against women…mothers sometimes find themselves being forbidden by the court from protecting their children from a violent, cruel, or sexually abusive father.”

Dawn’s many accomplishments– law-school graduate; author of four novels, her most recent short-listed for a national humour award; newspaper columnist; and Executive Operating Officer for First Nations in Saskatchewan—could not keep her and her son safe.

Her experiences with police and family courts made her feel that the only option to keep her son safe was to leave all her supports behind and run.

We need to ask what made this mother feel she had no way out but one? 

No way out but one is a 1994 documentary about Holly Ann Collins, a U.S. mother who, like Dawn, fled her home country to escape abuse after the Family Court refused to help. Holly was granted asylum in the Netherlands due to the abuse she and her children endured. Abuse dismissed by U.S. Family Court judges, police and child welfare agencies.

Domestic violence has been so ignored in Canada, that it took until 2021, for Canada to amend its Divorce Act, and for the first time acknowledge domestic violence as a possible issue at separation.

Dr. Linda Nielsen, a former lawyer, professor and domestic violence training expert for the legal community notes, Countless reports recommend that courts encourage lawyers, court staff, child protection professionals, mediators and evaluators to conduct routine assessments for domestic violence, using screening tools or interview protocols designed by domestic violence experts.”

Were these assessments used in Dawn’s case?

Dr. Neilson tells us, “Violence against women is now viewed internationally as a leading breach of women’s fundamental human rights. Canada is currently facing criticism by the United Nations for its failure to fulfill its legal human rights obligations to women and children, and particularly aboriginal women, to offer adequate protection from domestic and family violence.”

Dawn and her son’s case is about human rights. Instead of protecting children, Family Courts are forcing children into highly unsafe conditions.

Before judging Dawn’s actions, imagine, watching your child be terrorized. What would you do if the systems in place to help, failed to stop it?

Myth: leaving stops the violence

The most dangerous time for a survivor is after they leave or attempt to leave.
Seventy-seven per cent of domestic homicides happen around leaving and 75 per cent of the time women leave, the violence increases and continues for at least two years.

So a woman leaves, abuse escalates, then what? 

Myth: family courts are biased towards mothers

Family Courts are presented as a process for justice, yet they dismiss domestic violence as irrelevant to child custody, exacerbating the risk to women and children. Imposing “co-parenting” plans on survivors, legally shackles them to abusive men and forces them to negotiate with someone who wants them to suffer.

Retired Judge Heino Lilles, echos what many survivors have been saying,“A retrospective review of the impact of the justice system on the levels of domestic violence generally and in [A]boriginal communities specifically clearly indicates that business as usual is no longer acceptable.” 

Yet business as usual is the only option provided to domestic violence survivors. 

What happens when a bully realizes their behaviour will never be called to account? The violence escalates. Family Courts are a bully’s dream. 

Myth: women lie about domestic violence

The majority of Canadian men and women believe that women who disclose domestic violence are either lying, exaggerating or deserving of the violence they endure.Lawyers and judges are not immune to these biases. 

According to Dr. Neilson,“One of the most common and dangerous fallacies in the legal system is…the erroneous assumption that claims of domestic violence are often false or exaggerated in order to obtain the upper hand in family law cases. Instead the…reality is that women and children frequently fail to disclose abuse and family violence.” 

In fact, fathers are far more likely than mothers to make intentionally false accusations (21 per cent compared to 1.3 per cent). 

Myth: if the police don’t press charges it means there was no abuse

There are many reasons police may not press charges in domestic violence situations.

Throughout Canada, Indigenous women and girls are substantially more vulnerable to violence than non-Indigenous women/girls and more likely to have police fail to respond to that violence.

Dr. Linda C. Neilson warns,”[i]f family lawyers, mediators, service providers and courts ignore or discount patterns and incidents of domestic violence that do not result in a criminal charge, the vast majority of the criminal acts of domestic violence will not be considered in family and child protection litigation.”

Myth: violence against the mother is irrelevant to children

Most people believe children are immune to domestic violence yet the science is clear, even if the child is not the target, exposure to abusive and controlling behaviours, changes children’s brains and nervous systems. Over time this can cause a range of chronic diseases and psychological damage.

Lawyers and judges carry erroneous assumptions about the safety and well-being of children in domestic violence situations.

Dawn’s case highlights the atrocious failings in the Family Court system.

“Every time service providers, lawyers and courts fail…fundamental human rights principles by failing to offer protection, or fail to offer services to support family health, or fail to prioritize child best interests, including children’s needs for safety and stability, an opportunity is lost to reduce or even reverse…personal, social, legal, institutional and economic harm in Canada,” Dr. Neilson concludes.
We need to do better. Canada needs to create an alternative process that is trauma and domestic violence informed to help families who separate. A process that truly centers children, recognizing developmental and attachment science.

Family separation is recognized as one of life’s most stressful experiences, yet the only option available to parents is inherently adversarial, drawn out and grossly expensive.

Indigenous cultures have long recognized the importance of child centered families, even after parents separate.

An Indigenous inspired, survivor led family separation process would go a long way to easing the harm being done by the Family Court system and would be a great step in the journey of truth and reconciliation.