A decade-long refusal to share information between family courts and criminal courts is putting domestic violence victims at risk, with deadly consequences.
The two court systems operate as “separate silos,” with different databases, filing cabinets and timelines, which has led to judges imposing contradictory court orders on families, according to experts and the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee.
Lack of communication between the two courts has been flagged to the government as a serious problem since as early as 2004, the Toronto Star has found.
Julie Craven is one victim who was caught between the two judicial systems. She paid the ultimate price: the murder of her only child at the hands of her abusive ex-husband during a court-ordered visit.
In March 2006, Jared Osidacz, 8, was stabbed in the heart and neck with such force the blade bent and the knife broke. His father, Andrew Osidacz, left him for dead and fled to Craven’s house, where he attacked her in the dark with a 12-inch butcher knife while still covered in their son’s blood, Craven said. Police officers fatally shot Osidacz as he tried to slit her throat.
At the time, the criminal court had ordered Osidacz to stay away from Craven, but the family court had granted him unsupervised access to Jared every weekend, according to the coroner’s inquest.
“How is it possible that from Monday to Friday we were considered to be in danger of this man, but on the weekends my son was allowed to be alone and unsupervised with him?” Craven said.
“The hypocrisy of it makes me sick.”
Since Jared’s death, changes in the law, multi-million-dollar funding boosts, enhanced training programs and public education campaigns have been rolled out across the province in a bid to prevent domestic violence. But, the information void between the family and criminal courts still exists, experts told the Star.
Domestic violence victims like Craven are still getting “lost in a maze of unco-ordinated court proceedings,” said Dr. Peter Jaffe, of the University of Western Ontario’s centre for research and education on violence against women.
“The family court and the criminal court have to get their act together,” Jaffe said.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said she “respectfully declined” an interview with the Star to discuss this issue.
In a written statement, the spokesperson confirmed there is no shared database between the courts. He said the ministry has been actively working on ways to improve communication between the two, including launching a pilot project in Toronto in 2011 to bring both judicial systems together into one courtroom with one judge exclusively for domestic violence cases. The project is still being evaluated, the spokesperson said.
Pamela Cross, legal director of Luke’s Place, a support and resources centre for abused women, said receiving contradictory orders from different courts is “a nightmare” for victims.
“Having their lives chopped up and siloed by these two systems is frustrating and they don’t understand why the two courts can’t talk to each other, or which order trumps the other,” she said.
“It’s just nonsensical.”
A conflicting standard of proof in the two courts muddies the waters when it comes to sharing information, said Jaffe, a member of the death review committee.
The family court operates on a balance of probabilities, which means the judge has to believe one person’s story is more likely than the other. This standard of proof is easier to reach than that required at the criminal court, where defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The onus is on victims or their lawyers to alert a family court judge to matters that are before the criminal court, Jaffe said. And if the accused denies the allegations, it is up to the judge to decide who is telling the truth.
Sometimes, they get it wrong.
In 2004, a 2-year-old girl died of blood loss and hypothermia after her father slit her throat and dumped her beneath a tree on a rural Ontario road during a court-ordered visit. At the time of the killing, he was on probation for an assault involving the toddler’s mother and she had a restraining order against him, the death review committee’s 2004 report said.
The committee, which has investigated the province’s domestic homicides for more than a decade, wrote in its first ever report that “there appears to be no formal mechanisms in place to foster communication between the family court and criminal court.”
Last year, the committee’s report said there was an “ongoing urgency” to identify high-risk cases going before the two courts.
While the fight to change the system continues, Julie Craven will quietly mark her son’s birthday alone this April. He would have been 18.
It has been nine years since Jared Osidacz’s death. Craven still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt.
“You go through so much grief, you just don’t think you’re going to survive,” Craven told the Star.
She said she lost faith in the justice system when the family court granted her ex-husband unsupervised access to Jared three weeks after he viciously assaulted her.
“I was sleeping with a knife under my pillow, but they didn’t care. I told them my son was at risk, but they didn’t listen,” she said.
On the night Jared died, as Andrew Osidacz was holding Craven at knife-point, he started taunting her with details about the little boy’s death.
“He told me Jared’s last words were: ‘Please don't kill me daddy,’” Craven said over the phone, through sobs.
The most frustrating part for members of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee is that “three-quarters of the tragedies we see are preventable,” Jaffe said.
“It’s not a mystery as to why it happens; it’s a mystery as to why professionals miss the opportunities to prevent it.”
The ‘one family — one judge’ answer:
One possible solution to the family and criminal courts information crisis is creating a ‘one family — one judge’ system for domestic violence cases.
The government has been actively investigating this option since mid-2011 when it launched a pilot project for an Integrated Domestic Violence Court at 311 Jarvis St. in Toronto.
It is the first integrated court of its kind in Canada and it aims to improve communication between the criminal and family justice systems for families dealing with domestic violence. For a case to be referred to the court, there must be a criminal domestic violence charge and a family court case filed at two of four Toronto courthouses.
In the past four years, the pilot project has heard only 48 cases, according to Rachel Birnbaum, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario who is evaluating the project.
Birnbaum described the lack of communication between the family and criminal courts as a “historical problem” and said many American states had created integrated domestic violence courts to solve the issue.
If this model is to provide the answer in Ontario, it needs to progress beyond a pilot program, she said. “If the catchment area is expanded, this could be one way of addressing this issue.”
The Ministry of the Attorney General spokesperson said the pilot project was still being evaluated. The government would only consider expanding the project once it has identified whether improvements are needed, he said.