To prevent more deaths, N.S. urged to follow changes called for by Desmond inquiry

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On Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond shot his daughter, mother, wife and then himself in a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.  (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)
On Jan. 3, 2017, Lionel Desmond shot his daughter, mother, wife and then himself in a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. (Dave Irish/CBC - image credit)

One of the country's leading experts on domestic violence has called on the Nova Scotia government to create a committee that will be charged with ensuring the recommendations that come out of the Lionel Desmond inquiry become public policy.

Peter Jaffe, director of the Ontario-based Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children, had been asked to review the case involving the former Canadian soldier, and he left the inquiry with eight sections of specific recommendation to prevent future deaths.

In his testimony as the inquiry's final witness, Jaffe repeatedly emphasized that the triple-murder suicide on Jan. 3, 2017, was both "predictable and preventable."

That evening, Lionel Desmond, 33, entered his in-laws' home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., armed with a rifle he'd purchased that afternoon and a knife he'd bought the day before. The Afghanistan veteran fatally shot his wife, Shanna, his daughter, Aaliyah, and his mother, Brenda, before turning the gun on himself.

"Had there been earlier risk assessments, earlier interventions, there may have been a different course," Jaffe testified. "And the thing in which I'm struck in reading the file was how much Lionel Desmond wanted help — how much he was reaching out."

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Better information sharing

Jaffe said given how "comprehensive and thorough" the inquiry has been, with hearings spread over more than 20 months, it is critical that government appoint a deputy minister, a team and a liaison to prevent that information "from getting lost over time."

Judge Warren Zimmer has yet to receive the final briefings from lawyers he'll use as he crafts the recommendations for governmental change, but Jaffe provided the inquiry with several to consider.

One included tackling an issue that has repeatedly arisen in testimony: the lack of information sharing between the military and Veteran's Affairs-affiliated health-care providers and the doctors who saw Desmond in his community of Guysborough County, N.S., after his release from a psychiatric in-patient program.

Doctors were more focused on stabilizing his post-traumatic stress disorder, Jaffe said. But if they'd had access to the yearlong documentation of his illness — and the risk factors it presented to his family — they would hopefully have done a risk assessment with his family, he said.

And when Desmond sought help at an Antigonish, N.S., hospital, they might not have released him from the emergency room on Jan. 2, 2017, the day before the killings, he testified.

Submitted by Cassandra Desmond
Submitted by Cassandra Desmond

Keeping family safe

Jaffe suggests the inquiry recommend the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs ensure high-risk cases are "flagged for immediate followup" and that health-care providers connected to those agencies work closely with "providers in the veteran's home community ... so that local professionals have all the information required to keep the veteran and the family safe after deployment."

It's unclear whether the recommendation is within the scope of the inquiry as it is at the provincial rather the federal level, but Veterans Affairs has participated throughout.

Some of Jaffe's other recommendations include:

  • That the provincial Department of Justice review protocol about officers' intervention with victims if a domestic incident doesn't warrant charges, but there's concerning behaviour, like access to weapons

  • A provincial audit to ensure police officers have the training recognize high-risk circumstances

  • The Nova Scotia deans or chairs in medicine, social work and psychology ensure their students take courses on domestic violence, risk assessment and risk management. Jaffe said reviewing the final report of this inquiry "should be required reading."

  • Increasing public education on domestic violence, particularly around its lethality — and promoting the understanding that suicide threats, especially during separation, are also a red flag for homicide

  • The creation of a Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, something Nova Scotia is introducing following legislative amendments that came into effect last month.

Jaffe is expected to the inquiry's final witness.

On Nov. 29, it's expected that the lawyers involved with the inquiry will begin their submissions for Zimmer to consider in his final report.

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