Victims, experts say courts often fail to recognize and protect people from non-physical forms of abuse
‘A Life Sentence’: No Escape from Abusive Relationships when Navigating Family Court System, say Victims
By Joelle Seal · CBC News · June 22, 2023
WARNING: This article contains details of intimate partner violence.
Brenda Ottenbreit was at a salon when the plan she’d been making for months to leave her husband went out the window.
The Canada Revenue Agency had just frozen his bank accounts. Then, he called her.
She says the anger in his voice made her rush to her rural home near Lloydminster, Sask. She packed in 20 minutes, and left with her four kids.
“To this day I believe I was in serious danger that day. I knew how angry he was going to be,” says Ottenbreit.
It turns out leaving that day in 2014 was just the beginning of her battle.
I am more vulnerable today than I was when I walked out the door.
– Intimate partner violence survivor
Ottenbreit’s then-husband did not file income taxes from 2001 to 2006, nor from 2013 to 2021. He was charged with failing to file income taxes shortly after they married in December 2007. That’s when Ottenbreit first learned of the significant debt he owed the Canada Revenue Agency.
“I was told I was responsible for half of it. I’m driving a school bus. Where am I coming up with it?” Ottenbreit recalls thinking.
She was only legally granted a divorce in April 2023 — nearly nine years after leaving a six-and-a-half-year marriage. She says despite testifying about abuse in family court and getting a judgment in her favour, the judge did not describe her ex-husband’s behaviour as abusive in her decision.
Changes to the national Divorce Act in 2021 require judges to consider any history of family violence when making determinations about parenting and access to children. Its definition includes “financial abuse.”
In April 2023, Bill C-233 — otherwise known as Keira’s Law — passed, amending the Judges Act to provide for continuing education seminars for judges on matters related to intimate partner violence and coercive control.
Ontario parents advocating for ‘Keira’s Law’ say it could have prevented alleged Sask. abduction case
But survivors, advocates and experts say these changes don’t go far enough. They say abuse is still not being properly considered in family court decisions, and survivors’ and their children’s safety remains at risk post-separation as a result.
“I am more vulnerable today than I was when I walked out the door,” says Sarah, a survivor of domestic violence who has gone through the criminal and family court systems. Sarah is a pseudonym; CBC News has agreed not to name her due to safety concerns.
“I’ve been served a life sentence. My kids and I deserve better. I left domestic violence so that I would be free and safe, and it’s exactly the opposite.”
Both women say they experienced coercive control — a form of psychological abuse — in their marriages, and the abuse has continued after leaving.
Both say the systems that are supposed to protect them have only further enabled that abuse.
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Sarah says her ex-husband’s abusive behaviour slowly escalated after their family court decision in 2022. For instance, she says he began dropping off their kids with her later than the court order stated.
“What I’ve found is now that we no longer are living together as a family, I can’t actually protect them,” she says.
Then, she says, the stalking and harassment began.
When she went to the police, she felt she wasn’t taken seriously. Sarah says she was denied a peace bond because her ex-husband hasn’t physically assaulted her or her kids recently.
She even presented a list of 39 risk factors for domestic homicide to police, which was included in the final report of Saskatchewan’s Domestic Violence Death Review Panel. Sarah says she can check off more than 20.
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