Leaving relationship is ‘most dangerous time’ for domestic violence victims, experts say

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The death of Toronto family physician Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji​ — allegedly at the hand of the neurosurgeon husband she was trying to divorce — has sparked conversations about domestic violence and the challenges facing women trying to flee abusive relationships.

And according to experts on intimate-partner violence, leaving an abusive partner puts women in potentially life-threatening danger.

“Research has shown the risk of domestic homicide becomes highest during the period of separation,” said Betty Jo Barrett, an intimate-partner violence researcher and an associate professor in the women’s and gender studies program at the University of Windsor.

“And the intensity of domestic violence escalates when the abused person decides to leave the relationship.”

Many researchers believe it’s about power and control, she added.

When a woman finally says she’s leaving the relationship, Barrett explained, abusers may try to escalate their power and control tactics to force the woman to stay.

Not a ‘normal break-up’

It’s something Lesley Ackrill has seen repeatedly during her three decades at Interval House, a shelter for abused women and children in Toronto.

“If there’s a history of violence in the marriage or union, we in the field know that the most dangerous time of a woman’s life is when she tries to leave — when she makes the break,” she said.

“Prior to this, he believes she’s controllable and controlled, and that he can continue to try and control her through abuse.”

Numbers sourced by the Canadian Women’s Foundation shed light on the dangers facing women fleeing abuse:

Intimate partner homicides

80%

of victims in police-reported intimate partner homicides in 2014 were women

Spousal murders

26%

of all women who are murdered by their spouse had left the relationship

Dating violence

60%

of all dating violence happens after the relationship has ended

Lack of reporting

70%

of spousal violence is not reported to the police

In certain instances, Ackrill said abusers have found her clients through GPS locators on their phones. “(She) might go to a Shoppers Drug Mart or a Loblaws, and if he’s technologically savvy, he can find her.”

Silvia Samsal, executive director of Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, has heard of men calling every shelter in Ontario or filing missing person’s reports to track down their fleeing partner.

Leaving these relationships is “not like a normal break-up,” she added.

How victims find support

By the time women reach out for help and try to flee the relationship, it’s typically because the level of abuse has escalated, experts say.

Thankfully, there are resources available for women fleeing abusive relationships, both to provide them safe shelter and help them navigate what comes next.

Silvia Samsal

Silvia Samsal works with women fleeing abusive relationships in her role as executive director of Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke. (Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke)

Samsa said there are 24-hour crisis lines available where women can call anonymously, like the Ontario-based Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511.

“That’s the first step,” she added. “You’ll be supported, you’ll be validated.”

In addition, Ontario’s shelter system can give women advice on “safety, housing, child care, custody” and more, said Ackrill.

Doctors wearing purple in support

Following the discovery of Fric-Shamji’s remains in a suitcase in Vaughan, Ont., last week, Ontario health professionals have been posting messages of support for their fallen colleague online and wearing purple ribbons and clothing, a gesture of support to victims of domestic violence.

It’s not yet clear what was happening between Fric-Shamji and her husband, Dr. Mohammed Shamji, and the first-degree murder charge against him has not been proven in court.

But details previously reported by CBC Toronto shed light on the state of the couple’s relationship.

In the days before her death, Fric-Shamji told medical colleagues that she’d filed divorce papers, and back in 2005, her husband was charged with one count of assault and two counts of uttering death threats.

“Elana’s death has sparked a lot of discussion around domestic violence or intimate-partner violence,” said Georgetown, Ont. family physician Dr. Nadia Alam.

Doctors across the province are committing to screening for intimate-partner violence regularly and advocating for more resources, she added.

“Elana wanted to change the healthcare system for the better,” Alam said. “This is one way forward.”

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Leaving relationship is ‘most dangerous time’ for domestic violence victims, experts say

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