Mother says the death of her 4-year-old daughter could have been prevented

After a custody dispute and the death of her daughter Keira, Jennifer Kagan-Viater is fighting for change. Cynthia Mulligan with a mother's quest to increase judges' education on domestic violence.

By Cynthia Mulligan

Two years ago Wednesday, as the world was preoccupied in the early days of the COVD-19 pandemic, a four-year-old girl named Keira fell to her death at Rattlesnake Point. She was with her father, Robin Brown, who also died in the fall at the conservation area in Milton.

Her mother believes Keira was murdered by her father.

Jennifer Kagan-Viater argues authorities ignored multiple red flags, and her daughter’s death could have been prevented. Time has not alleviated her grief.

“Keira was a really bright child,” she tells CityNews as she starts to cry. “She was just the best, the best child you could hope for.”

Kagan-Viater claims Keira was murdered by Robin Brown in an act of revenge.

To understand what led up to the deaths, it’s necessary to look back at the couple’s two-and-a-half-year marriage. It would take hours, days, to untangle.

Kagan-Viater, who is a doctor, describes her ex-husband, who was an engineer, as a controlling man, a pathological liar who created a fictional existence, including a false claim he had a master’s degree and doctorate.

She also says he was violent. In what she calls the first incident, she says Brown took a mouse their dog brought into their home and rammed it into her mouth in anger.

When Keira was eight months old, Kagan-Viater left the marriage. She describes the divorce as traumatizing. The judge who presided over their divorce hearing found she left an intolerable situation.

But a different judge oversaw the custody hearing and determined Brown’s history of lies and abuse didn’t matter when it came to Keira.

According to court documents, while the judge had determined at least one incidence of abuse had been validated, he said, “Assuming the validity of all the allegations … I am of the view that there is no risk to Keira.”

The judge also acknowledged in the court documents that Brown had lied multiple times during the proceedings and his “propensity for lying goes considerably beyond what he acknowledged.”

The court awarded Kagan-Viater custody and sole decision-making powers while Brown was given generous access to Keira: three out of four weekends per month and two afternoons a week.

The situation deteriorated further.

When Keira was three, Kagan-Viater remarried and had a baby boy with her husband, Philip Viater, a lawyer specializing in family law.

Kagan-Viater said Keira showed signs she was being emotionally abused by her father. In the meantime, the courts were losing patience with Robin Brown.

“Three different judges were warning Mr. Brown his access would be curtailed given his escalation and failure to obey court orders,” Philip Viater told CityNews.

Jewish Family and Child Services was called in to investigate and just two days before Keira’s death the caseworker called to meet with Brown.

This was the moment Philip Viater believes Keira could have been saved. He said the caseworker met with Mr. Brown and told them she had concerns he was displaying behaviour consistent with someone who would harm or kill their own child.

According to Viater, the case worker said her supervisor wanted to wait and talk about it on the Monday. The conversation took place on a Friday, before Robin Brown picked up Keira from school for their court-scheduled weekend together. They died that Sunday.

“She was not protected,” said her mother. “They failed her.”

Kagan-Viater has filed a civil lawsuit against Jewish Family and Child Services, alleging they knew or ought to have known Keira was in imminent danger, and failed to intervene.

A representative of Jewish Family and Child Service told CityNews that due to confidentiality, the organization is “not able to comment regarding any contact that Jewish Family and Child Service may or may not have had with a family.”

But Kagan-Viater believes the entire system failed Keira and she doesn’t want her death to be in vain. “It’s truly broken me as a person,” she said. “No mother should ever go through this.”

Courts overlook link between abusive partners and abusive parenting

Family law experts say courts often look at custody cases with the belief that an abusive partner can still be a good parent, yet there is evidence that finds children are at greater risk.

In the U.S., the Centre for Judicial Excellence, a group that tracks child murders, has found there have been 822 children killed by a divorced or separated parent since 2008.

report on family violence prepared by the federal government points out that research has in indicated there is an overlap in the risk factors for domestic violence and child abuse.

“It would make logical sense that the risk increases post-separation because of one parent’s inability to monitor or intervene with the abusive parent,” the report states.

Despite this, judges, who make life-altering decisions in custody cases, are not required to have domestic violence training.

Kagan-Viater is trying to change that. She is advocating for Keira’s Law, which would mandate domestic violence and coercive control education and training for federally appointed judges.  She has just had her first victory.

This week, in honour of Keira, Liberal Anju Dhillon tabled a private members’ bill that would, in part, amend the Judges Act to provide continuing education seminars for judges on intimate partner violence and coercive control.

Lawyer Kathryn Marshall, a partner at Levitt-Sheikh, believes this training is essential to preventing more children’s deaths. She also told CityNews that women who have faced domestic abuse are often in a no-win situation when it comes to custody disputes.

“I have heard many women are being discouraged by family law mediators from even mentioning domestic violence in their proceedings,” Marshall said. “They are told if you bring it up, you will be seen as someone who is making it up, so hide it. That’s a huge, huge problem.”

Even after two years, the cause of Keira’s death is officially undetermined, although the coroner’s report notes “multiple risk factors for domestic violence in Keira’s father,” and the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee is examining the case.

“It’s horrifying, it just compounds all of that feeling like brokenness,” Kagan-Viater said. “Keira was treated as a case file. This was my child; she was a living, breathing child.”

Keira should be turning seven in May, instead she will forever be four, failed by a system that ignored warning signs and didn’t protect her.

“We see all of her friends growing up,” Kagan-Viater said. “Ours isn’t.”

Keira Kagan and her mother Jennifer Kagan-Viater.

Keira Kagan and her mother Jennifer Kagan-Viater. Photo provided by Jennifer Kagan-Viater


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