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Vivien Green, Counterpoint’s strategic projects co-ordinator, and other PAR providers have been sounding the alarm for years on gaps in the system.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Less than a year before Brittany Doff was killed, her boyfriend was charged with strangling her and threatening her life.

Kadeem Nedrick was charged, released on bail, then streamed into the Early Intervention program, a specialized domestic violence court process for low-risk or first-time offenders.

In exchange for attending the 12-week Partner Assault Response (PAR) program, the Crown agreed that Mr. Nedrick’s charges could be resolved. And if Ms. Doff consented, they could resume contact.

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Brittany Doff.Handout

Mr. Nedrick enrolled through the Counterpoint Counseling and Educational Cooperative in Toronto and attended the first few sessions. But when he stopped showing up, staff attempted to reach him and discovered the 30-year-old was back in jail – charged on Jan. 3 with the second-degree murder of Ms. Doff.

The killing was a flashpoint for Vivien Green, Counterpoint’s strategic projects co-ordinator. For years, she and other PAR providers have been sounding the alarm on gaps in the system, and the court’s reliance on a one-size-fits-all counselling program. After Mr. Nedrick was charged, she wrote a letter to the Ontario government, pointing out that by being streamed into the early-intervention program, he had no criminal justice oversight or monitoring – despite facing assault charges as serious as strangulation.

“Fundamentally, this system is not looking at what is important for women,” said Ms. Green, who is also the chair of Counterpoint’s board of directors.

The PAR program was introduced in Ontario in 1996 as an intervention strategy for intimate partner violence (IPV) offenders. The counselling sessions focus on topics such as understanding abuse, healthy relationships and respectful communication.

More than 11,000 people are mandated into the program each year by the courts, either as a condition of bail or probation. But as the only government-funded intervention program for IPV offenders in the province – one that has been shortened over the years in an attempt to cull wait lists – experts say it falls short.

“We have one tool that you can use for everything,” said Katreena Scott, a psychologist, professor and academic director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University. “And we’ve known for years that one size doesn’t fit all.”

Under the existing PAR model, clients attend the same 12 sessions regardless of the nature of their charges or their assessed risk – or even if they’ve done the program before.

In order to break the cycles of violence, PAR providers say, they need more flexibility.

“Just doing the same thing over again is not going to change anything,” Dr. Scott said. “We’re advocating for a service,” while the government wants a program.

Similar arguments were made most recently at the inquest into a triple femicide in Ontario’s Renfrew County, where a high-risk abuser hunted down and killed his former partners in a rampage across the Ottawa Valley in 2015.

Better funding for women fleeing violence urged in inquest into triple-femicide

Inquest into triple murders examines mandated counselling program for intimate partner violence

In Toronto, Counterpoint recently led a nine-month pilot project that looked at how more extensive intake assessments and follow-up might help better protect victims at high risk of violence. Between October, 2020, and June, 2021, staff reviewed 178 new PAR clients. Of those, they identified 16 as high-risk.

More than half of the cases identified as high-risk had been referred through the Early Intervention court process, as Mr. Nedrick had been.

Because the process was designed to help expedite the resolution of low-risk cases, clients who join PAR through this stream do not have any criminal justice system oversight, such as a probation officer.

“All they’re doing is they’re seeing our people – there’s nobody else,” Ms. Green said.

By identifying those high-risk cases, Counterpoint says it was able to engage community and criminal justice partners in order to take immediate steps to better protect the victims, with whom PAR providers are also required to keep in contact.

For example, in two of the cases in which the accused had been referred through the EI process, Counterpoint was able to get the assistant crown attorney to act as a point of contact for any concerns. In three of the cases in which the clients were referred as a condition of their probation, their probation officers agreed to have them check in more often.

In one case, a victim who had previously been too afraid to speak with police shared evidence through the assessment and, as a result, the “extremely high-risk offender” was held in custody for more than 30 days, giving her time to move somewhere he could not find her.

“There are things that can happen if you have the flexibility to do things and to have conversations,” Dr. Scott said.

But in the normal course of things, PAR providers are not having those conversations.

“They’re not funded to be monitoring risk. They’re not funded to be thinking about that. They’re just supposed to be delivering the program,” Dr. Scott said.

Just one week after Counterpoint presented the findings of that pilot project to Ontario justice system representatives, Ms. Doff was killed.

“We had given them that high-risk report that said: This is murder waiting to happen. And everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, interesting, interesting – yeah, yeah, we see this as an issue,’” Ms. Green recalled recently, tearing up as she spoke. “And then it was a week later that this case happened.”

(Mr. Nedrick’s case was not featured in the pilot report, as he was referred to the program after it had been completed, and is still before the courts.)

One recommendation out of the Renfrew County inquest is to establish clear policies within the courts to ensure that, “absent exceptional circumstances, those assessed as high-risk or where the allegations involve strangulation should not qualify for early intervention. Crowns should also consider a history of IPV, whether or not convictions resulted, when determining whether early intervention is appropriate.”

In other jurisdictions, PAR-type programs can span 20 to 24 weeks. While Dr. Scott believes the Ontario program should be extended, she stresses that the solution does not lie in one or two more units on empathy or accountability.

“If I were going to make one recommendation, it isn’t to just make this program longer,” she said. “Let’s actually make this into something more flexible and have the option of doing different things,” such as the ability to make referrals and do outreach – to engage people before violence occurs.

Currently, the only avenue to the PAR program is through the criminal justice system. Men cannot sign up voluntarily, and community agencies are not able to make referrals.

This reactive, “crisis-oriented” model “is the most expensive, least effective response possible,” said Tim Smuck, the executive director of Changing Ways, a PAR provider in the London, Ont., area.

For example, Mr. Smuck’s organization also runs a program called Caring Dads, which uses United Way funding to provide PAR-like programming geared to fathers, many of whom are referred through the local Children’s Aid Society. He’d like to see other specialized programs – say, for teens or members of the military – that do not require court referrals.

Opening PAR up to voluntary enrolment was another recommendation out of the Renfrew County inquest. The jury also proposed establishing additional supports for perpetrators, such as a 24/7 hotline for anyone worried they might use violence. They also recommended consistent funding for providers, as well as more flexibility in their response, such as the ability to combine individual counselling with group sessions.

In response to questions from The Globe and Mail about the possibility of implementing those proposals, Brian Gray, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney-General, said the government “will take the time to review and properly consider these important recommendations.”

Mr. Smuck stressed that while PAR is a program for perpetrators, the entire point is to protect victims.

“An investment in that response – in that service, in these men – is a direct investment into the safety of women and children,” he said. “The community is screaming for folks to do this work.”

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