London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
An expert in domestic violence risk assessment and forensic psychiatry told the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of OPP Const. Vu Pham and Fred Preston that there are six common risk factors associated with a person who will potentially commit domestic homicide.
They are: a history of violence, a recent separation from a partner, threatening to kill another person or themselves, depression, obsessive behaviour towards a partner and an increased level of violent behaviour.
Preston, who shot and killed Pham during a traffic stop on March 8, 2010, in Huron Country, fit each of those factors, said Dr. Lisa Ramshaw.
She appeared before the inquest on Wednesday (April 11) as one of two witnesses discussing the strengths and weaknesses of provincial domestic violence risk assessment protocols. Much of the focus of the inquest has been on how this tragedy could have been avoided given that it stemmed from a domestic dispute between Preston and his estranged wife, Barbara.
In the days leading up to the shooting, Preston had learned that Barbara had engaged in an affair for roughly 20 of the 48 years they were married. Barbara had left Preston in 2009 due to his controlling nature and several instances where he had attempted to choke her.
On March 3, 2010, Preston confronted Barbara about the affair at the home of one of the couple’s daughters in Sundridge, near North Bay, where Barbara was staying at the time. After he kicked down a door at the home, Barbara attempted to call 911 but Preston stopped her, saying that if she completed the call, he would kill her, himself or harm Barbara’s sister in order to make Barbara feel the same kind of pain he felt due to her infidelity.
The threats made Barbara flee to a North Bay women’s shelter two days later, but she did not disclose details about the threats or the instances of attempted choking to workers at the facility.
At the inquest on Wednesday, Ramshaw and Kimberley Clark, the executive director of Waterloo’s Victim Services and a member of the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC), talked about several tools currently used in the province to assess the risk of lethal violence relating to domestic altercations.
Two of these assessment tools are the Brief Spousal Assault Form for Evaluation of Risk (B-SAFER) and the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA).
The B-SAFER form is filled out when a person arrives at a shelter or a medical centre and asks the victim about current and historical abuse from a partner with questions on risk factors such as physical or sexual violence, serious threats, escalations of violence, violations of court orders, substance abuse and mental health problems.
People who fill out the form can place checkmarks in columns marked “yes,” “no” or "unsure." How many checks appear in each column will give an indication of the severity of the risk of violence.
Clark said B-SAFER can help identify how imminent and serious a risk is from an abuser towards a victim or others as well as the likelihood of violence in the future. She added once a risk is established, workers at shelters or medical centres can contact police. A tool such as the B-SAFER allows for intake workers at shelters or medical professionals to have conversations and ask questions with victims who are often reluctant to share details about their situation, Clark said.
“Sometimes in dialogue, you can bring out a little bit more information.”
Ramshaw agreed B-SAFER is a good tool to assess how imminent a threat is, especially since it asks questions about the current state of violence in a domestic relationship and whether that violence is escalating. It focuses on “acute” factors such as how angry the alleged abuser is at the time and whether they have access to firearms.
The tool is also a good way to inform a victim why it’s so important to disclose as much information as possible about a domestic violence situation, Ramshaw said.
It’s also important, she added, for the person who administers the evaluation to be experienced and trained to properly employ and understand the assessment.
Preston was found to be displaying a number of these factors including his threats to Barbara and a third party, and his obsessive behaviour before the shooting, Ramshaw said. She added an “inconsistency” in Barbara’s behaviour prior to the shooting where she left Preston but continued to spend time with him periodically, as well as her reluctance to disclose information about domestic violence and threats, heightened the risk of Preston acting violently.
The ODARA tool, on the other hand, works on a scoring system of risk factors between zero and 13 with higher scores meaning violence could be more imminent and more lethal. It is based on historical information to assess the risk of violence over a five-year term. Ramshaw said the drawback of this tool is that it doesn’t tell you if something has changed in the present.
When Ramshaw evaluated Preston using ODARA after his death, he scored between four and five out of 13, even though he demonstrated many risk factors for domestic violence in the days before the shooting.
Clark and Ramshaw also addressed questions about the need to educate victims and the public about the importance of providing as much information to the appropriate people or organizations, including police, regarding situations of domestic violence. Such education is necessary to get victims to open up about their own situations for their protection and the protection of the larger community, they said.
Clark said one of the best and most widespread organizations providing information on domestic violence is the Neighbours, Friends and Family program. According to its website, the program is a “public education campaign to raise awareness of the signs of woman abuse so that those close to an at-risk woman or an abusive man can help.”
Both witnesses agreed that a standardized, universal risk assessment tool to determine the probability of lethal violence stemming from a domestic situation is a good idea. Ramshaw warned, however, that it would take a great deal of time to properly research a “better tool.”
“Because how do you know if yours is better?” she said.
Any tool, she added, is only as good as the information that goes into it and even if an alleged abuser demonstrates a high number of risk factors, it doesn’t mean he or she will kill.
Clark and Ramshaw were the last two witnesses to testify at the inquest. Counsel for the coroner, the OPP and OPP Association are expected to make closing arguments Thursday (April 12).