Abused by zero tolerance


By MARGARET WENTE

UPDATED AT 1:44 PM EST Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003

Ten months ago, Nezha Saad got mad at her husband. The mother of four young children has a mood disorder that often makes her anxious and depressed, especially if she forgets her medication. Sometimes she lashed out at him when she was upset. This time, she phoned the police.

It was the worst mistake of her life.

Ms. Saad long ago retracted her allegations that he had threatened the family. It didn't do her any good. Her husband, Mohammed, spent six weeks in jail before he was bailed out. Today, he is under a restraining order and is not allowed to live at home. He has been suspended from his teaching job. He can only visit with his kids in a public place, under supervision. There is a lien on their house to pay for legal bills. Nezha has been forced to go on welfare.

And her husband's trial isn't until September. "I am suffering twice," she says. "Once for what I said, and again for what happened afterward."

Ms. Saad is an articulate, intelligent woman who immigrated with her husband from Morocco in 1989. They settled in Burlington, Ont., to raise their family. They thought they were coming to a just society. But now they've been caught in the gruesome consequences of a well-intentioned policy that was supposed to protect women and children. Instead, it has ripped families apart and brought them to the brink of financial ruin.

Zero tolerance policies grew from widespread complaints that domestic abuse wasn't being treated seriously by the police or the courts. The Ontario Crown Policy Manual, the prosecutors' bible, says that "all such assaults shall be prosecuted with vigour," whether or not the complainant agrees. In order to bring even more resources to bear on the problem, Ontario set up dedicated courts that specialize in domestic abuse cases. But zero tolerance means that many prosecutors hesitate to drop even the flimsiest of cases, even when the couples have put their troubles behind them. The result is a nightmare of backlogs and delays.

When Ms. Saad phoned the police, she told them her husband had taken their youngest daughter somewhere and that she was worried he was going to kill her. "I thought he was going to kill me, kill the kids," she says. In fact, he'd taken the child to buy a toy. There were no signs of any physical abuse; her husband, she says, has never even spanked the children. But he was charged with uttering threats and taken off to jail. The police urged Ms. Saad to take her kids to a women's shelter. "I was so scared, so confused," she says. "I was lost. I didn't know who to listen to or what to do. I just did what they wanted me to do."

Staff at the shelter, she says, pressured her to turn up the legal heat on her husband. "I and the children were inundated with information about how abusive men are. My children were exposed to more abuse in the shelter than they were ever exposed to outside of it." A children's aid society worker urged her to take the kids and move to another province. Her husband was denied bail until the family was settled elsewhere.

So Ms. Saad wound up in housing for abused women. Her kids were miserable. They were attacked by other kids. They just wanted to go home and get their father back. After three months, they moved back to their house in Burlington, and she owned up.

"When I tried to admit my mistake to the Crown Attorney's office, I was basically told that I was a liar and that I had better stick to my original statement, which was made under pressure and while suffering from anxiety." She was told that if she got in touch with her husband, or even took his side, she could lose the kids.

Ms. Saad is outraged at being treated like an infant. She is astonished at the way that abused women are being reabused by a justice system that treats them as if they are too helpless to be believed or make their own decisions. A few weeks ago, she wrote a letter to Ontario's Chief Justice, Roy McMurtry, after he expressed concern about the backlog in the courts. "Just put a stop to the persecuting and criminalizing of fathers," she wrote, "and ensure that the principles of equality and fundamental justice are upheld."

The Chief Justice can't solve this one. It's up to the politicians. Meantime, the Saads are not alone. As The Globe's Kirk Makin reported in a damning piece last month, countless other families are being tormented for minor and even imaginary assaults. And millions of dollars in public money is being spent to prosecute cases without merit.

Meantime, Nezha's kids keep asking when dad is coming home. Her son, who's 7, misses him terribly. Just before Valentine's Day, he wrote a poem to him in French. His mother translates:

Daddy, I miss you

You are my sun

So please dad wake up

You are always in my heart.
mwente@globeandmail.ca


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