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June 27, 2000Spinning the spousal abuse story
After a 35-year-old Pickering, Ont., woman was tragically slain last week by her estranged husband (who then took his own life), politicians and journalists responded with front-page hysteria.
The justice system has failed yet another battered woman. Restraining orders don't work. The murderer left "a well-marked trail of abuse" and was a ticking "bomb set to explode," we were told.
Much of this was utter nonsense. As Christie Blatchford has observed in this newspaper, Ralph Hadley, the murderer, had never been in trouble with the law prior to being accused last December of bruising the buttocks of his stepson. That charge was withdrawn by the Crown.
In February, apparently after his former spouse became involved with another man, Mr. Hadley was accused of assault and stalking. One of his bail conditions required him to stay away from her. The police have no record of any complaints regarding his behaviour after this point.
By treating comments by the dead woman's distraught friends and neighbours as gospel, media reports left the impression Mr. Hadley had violated his bail numerous times, had an extensive criminal record for spousal abuse, and should have been locked up long ago. In truth, he had never been convicted of anything.
The problem with demanding that laws be changed as a result of such tragedies is that so much of what we're told about them -- and about domestic violence and restraining orders in general -- is wildly distorted.
A 1995 government of Massachusetts study found that fewer than half of the state's restraining orders involve even an allegation of physical abuse. In the words of Elaine Epstein, past president of Massachusetts' bar association, "Everyone knows restraining orders ... are granted to virtually all who apply, lest anyone be blamed for an unfortunate result."
Nor do criminal charges necessarily reflect what has transpired. In acquitting a man of spousal assault in late 1998, a British Columbia judge observed that while the wife admitted assaulting her husband three times on the day in question, she herself hadn't been charged.
"This prosecution sends a very clear message," declared the appalled judge. "A woman in a relationship with a man can provoke him, degrade him, strike him and throw objects at him with impunity, but if he offers the least physical response he will be charged with assault."
Following Mr. Hadley's terrible deeds last week, one media report quoted B.C. criminologist Neil Boyd, who thinks only men commit murders like Mr. Hadley's. "A similar kind of violence by women is virtually unimaginable," Mr. Boyd says.
Really. Tell that to Frank Kam, a Chicago man who met his ex-wife outside a grocery store in February. Worried she might accuse him of mistreating her, Mr. Kam hired private detectives to videotape the encounter.
In the presence of their 15-year-old son and while the camera rolled, the ex-wife allegedly pulled a gun and shot Mr. Kam in the stomach before firing at a female private detective sitting in his car. In that case, both spouses had obtained restraining orders against the other.
Which raises the question of whether such orders work. Let's do the math. While tens of thousands are apparently issued every year in Canada, government statistics say 70 spouses killed their wives or husbands in 1998. Either the vast majority of people with restraining orders issued against them were never much of a threat -- or these measures work exceedingly well. Take your pick.
Walter Fox, a Toronto criminal lawyer, admits many restraining orders are violated -- but the reasons may surprise you. "Here's the dirty little secret everybody knows," he told the National Post. "Those orders are violated an overwhelming proportion of the time by her.
"What happens is this," he says. "Let's say there's a problem in the house Thursday night. She calls the police, he gets arrested. Friday morning he's released on bail and can't go near his wife and kids. Well the in-laws are coming for the weekend, there's a mortgage payment due, one of the cars ought to be signed over to her, she needs money for this or that. So she calls him."
While women used to be prosecuted for such behaviour, Mr. Fox says they aren't any longer. "Everybody knows when they put him on that order that this is what's going to happen," says Mr. Fox. "The Crown knows, the judge knows, the cops know, the guy who sweeps up in the court knows."
We all want to live in a society in which people are safe from domestic violence -- and in which a restraining order actually means something. But a system that prosecutes abuse perpetrated by only one half of the population, issues restraining orders virtually on demand and allows some people to thumb their noses at rules others are expected to follow is a system rotten to the core.
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