Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Couple stymied by presumption of guilt in domestic violence cases

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Because a restraining order won't allow them to communicate directly, an Ottawa couple came up with a novel approach. They have asked this column to be something of an emergency message board on which they can leave notes for each other.

More precisely, they asked me to be their telephone go-between.

At the same time, they hope to show how overpowering are the warriors in the war against violence towards women.

They've been threatened and both are frightened. They ask for anonymity but have given me permission to identify them to editors should there be any doubters. They are angry and want others to know what they're going through. They think all couples should be prepared to face the consequences of asking for help through a system operating on zero tolerance.

They say they will not bend to system pressure that would see him branded with a criminal record for assault. I'm betting they'll lose that one. If they don't they could lose their marriage and/or their home. They've been told they can talk to each other and he can go home only after he voluntarily submits to a plea of guilty and a commitment to attend anger management courses.

In the beginning: She called the general Ottawa police number, not the emergency number. "I was frightened and I wanted advice.''

She says she believes his aberrant behaviour was caused by a change in medication. She didn't before think of him as a problem drinker but when he mixed alcohol with the new meds the results were behaviours she hadn't seen before. "I think he thought he was Jean-Claude Van Damme. He had watched one of those action movies, then he started acting like that. I wanted to know what to do and if I was at risk. I was frightened when I called and we soon had half a dozen officers at the house, hands on their guns, going into the room where my husband was."

He says he has no memory of the incident. He regained his senses at the police station and people wouldn't talk to him. For a long time he thought he had murdered his wife or harmed his children. Then he was turned loose with a restraining order. Any attempt to go near his home or communicate with his wife, he was warned, would result in his arrest.

She was told if she allowed communication she could lose her children. Some would consider her refusal to keep him at a safe distance a clear indicator she was willing to put her children at risk. Authorities could take them into protective custody.

He wanted a message passed along to her that after two weeks he had overstayed his welcome at a male friend's bachelor apartment and had moved out. He had an offer of a bed from a woman friend. Ask (wife) if it would be all right with her.

"Tell him if he does that it's over! I don't want my husband spending nights alone with another woman.''

After Sunday night's windstorm she wanted to know where he had spent the night. He said he had been unable to find an opening at a men's shelter so he spent the night huddled in a parking garage. She said she believed him. "If that's what he said, that's what he did. He doesn't lie. This is crazy. This has to stop.''

The guilty plea could end it. He said he was ready to do that. He can't afford to stay in a hotel and hasn't been able to find anybody willing to provide free shelter. He said he was told by a lawyer he could have the restraining order lifted and be back home next week. That would likely mean a guilty plea.

"No way,'' says wife. "We'll fight this. It's crazy.''

My guess? It's the mortgage payments that will make the decision. She's a stay-at-home mom and without his full income, they can't get by. "I want to get in front of a judge and explain,'' she says.

There are others wanting the same thing, and some say they can't get into court until September. The court delay is a pressure tactic that inflates abuse statistics, backing demands for more funding. There's no presumption of innocence in domestic violence courts.

"I believe there are abused women who need help,'' she says. "But how do you prove you're not one? These people (Crown prosecutors) won't listen. Families are involved here. Our lives can be ruined. There has to be a fast track.''

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns at www.ottawacitizen.com .

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen