After a record number of family or intimate partner homicides in Peel region last year, 28-year-old Heeral Patel became the first homicide victim of 2020 in Peel, and investigators named her ex-husband, a suspect. He later was found dead and police say his death is not being investigated.
Her death is part of a troubling trend in the GTA, where some police forces say more women have been killed by their domestic partners last year compared to previous years.
In 2019, the five police forces across the GTA received over 47,000 domestic-related calls.
Toronto police Superintendent Pauline Gray said there was definitely a rise in their numbers and it’s become a concern for them.
She added they don’t believe this is entirely reflective of the problem either, saying some victims don’t report their attackers.
“There are many possibly survivors who don’t look like what we thought, so we’re changing our approach to make sure all communities are getting information when it comes to domestic violence, or intimate partner violence,” said Supt. Gray.
Family and intimate partner violence by the numbers
Of the 31 homicides in Peel Region last year, 13 were domestic fatalities, the highest number to date. There were a total of 18,377 reports, including 10,818 intimate partner calls where 3,107 charges were laid. Of the 7,519 family violence calls, 963 charges were laid.
That’s approximately 50 calls a day spread out over five divisions.
Toronto police were called to 20,355 calls where the initial call type was labeled as domestic or domestic assault. They arrested over 4,483 people and 10,065 charges were laid in 2019.
Eight women were murdered by domestic partners in Toronto, up from three in 2018 and 0 in 2017.
In York region, police responded to 5,700 domestic-related incidents and 1,700 charges were laid. Of those charges, one was for first-degree murder, another for manslaughter and three were attempted murder. More than 1,200 of the charges were for assault.
York’s numbers relate only to intimate partner violence so their homicide numbers do not include the alleged killing of a mother, grandmother and sister by a 23-year-old man in Markham. He is facing four charges of first-degree murder, including the alleged killing of his father.
Durham Region had no domestic fatalities in 2019, but responded to 6,687 calls that were “domestic in nature.” Of those calls, 1,110 were violent in nature, majority of which were assaults while 13 per cent involved criminal harassment.
Halton police responded to 3,613 intimate partner domestic incidents, which resulted in 842 arrests and 1,548 criminal charges.
The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) keeps a database of media reports of woman who have been murdered since 1990. According to their data, 37 women and children were murdered between Nov. 25, 2018 and Nov. 25, 2019.
In half of those murders, a male intimate partner was identified as the suspect and in another 30 per cent, a male family member (primarily a son) was identified as the suspect.
The average age of female victims has also grown, rising from 41 in 2016 to 53 in 2019.
Where can women get help?
The numbers of domestic violence are startling, but even worse are the resources available to those who experience intimate partner violence. Those numbers paint a picture of a problem that is outgrowing a system that experts say is already at capacity.
NISA Homes provides six transitional homes, including two in the GTA, for women and children who are immigrants, newcomers, or Muslim women across the country.
Yasmine Youssef, who oversees the homes, said in the month of December last year, they helped the same amount of women they helped in all of 2016. In 2016, they received 127 calls for help and in 2019, they received 980.
The number of women they have sheltered has also spiked from 43 in 2015 to 230 last year.
Youssef attributes this to growing awareness as more people are finding out about their services, including those from a population that faces barriers when trying to access life-saving resources.
“For immigrants and refugees, the first place they go is their religious center or closely after their community center. If the information isn’t available there, they don’t know how to access it,” said Youssef.
She adds finding counselling for women is also difficult, sometimes the wait times are six months to a year. “A lot of times they reach out for help before they need to leave their homes. And if they’re not given that help property, it escalates.”
NISA homes also has a wait list of women unable to find shelter elsewhere in Canada. “Most of the time they will either go couch-surfing or go back to their abusive partners,” said Youssef.
Shelter Voices, an annual survey that gives a snapshot of the demand for transition houses and shelters in Canada, states that nearly 80 per cent of women and kids who need space are turned away.
There are a range of barriers for women who are looking to leave a violent situation, as told by Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), who have called for a more streamlined system accessible to people looking to leave their abuser.
Executive Director of OAITH Marlene Ham said “we need a system that’s more responsive and aligned with another to provide support that she may need.”
The telephone service, 211, is also a 24-hour helpline and website that can connect people to community and government social services in over 150 languages.
Peel police working on a solution
Peel Regional Police recently launched a pilot project in 21 Division where uniformed police officers who respond to reports of domestic violence calls will then pass the file onto a group three core investigators of domestic violence.
“It’ll pinpoint and streamline how we can better use this particular initiative at our divisions to support these calls in order to support these types of calls,” said Peel police Const. Heather Cannon. “We’re looking to do this region wide.”
They are also distributing pamphlets in five different languages which provides details on what resources are available for victims of family or intimate partner violence.