Lisa Banfield’s visit to a psychologist opens the debate on how to help victims of abuse
A psychologist was among several who knew the 2020 mass shooter in Nova Scotia had abused his wife, but domestic abuse does not fall under the mandatory reporting laws for this profession in Canada.
Even if this rule was in place and the abuse had been disclosed to the police, experts working with victims of domestic violence in the province say that calling in the police often makes these situations worse.
« There’s not enough support even for things that require mandatory reporting, » said Kristina Fifield, a trauma therapist at the Avalon Sexual Assault Center in Halifax.
« Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. »
Lisa Banfield had a relationship with Gabriel Wortman for 19 years before the night he attacked her in Portapique on April 18, 2020 and began a rampage that would leave 22 people dead and several homes destroyed.
Through Banfield’s interviews with police, the Mass Casualty Commission conducting the public inquiry and her investigative testimony a month ago, she described the extensive physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of the shooter. .
She said Wortman repeatedly placed a gun to her head and threatened to kill her or her family if she ever left him.
According to a letter she wrote to the commission, the only time Banfield said she sought help about the abuse was when she saw a psychologist in Bedford. She did not say when it happened.
The therapist was « supporting me and encouraging me to leave Gabriel, » she said, and told Banfield she was in an abusive relationship. But when the shooter found out Banfield was seeing a professional, she said he had her arrested.
« I knew if I didn’t he would beat me. He threatened to confront the doctor. I was trapped, » Banfield said.
Fifield, who is also Avalon’s representative in a coalition with other women’s groups involved in the survey, said she was happy to see Banfield had a safe space to feel supported, even if for a short period.
In Nova Scotia, psychologists are required to report abuse of children or certain adults, including vulnerable seniors, but not intimate partner violence.
Helping people in abusive relationships is a complex and often time-consuming process, Fifield said, and requires a lot of trust — something that can be lost if a victim knew their case would be reported to the police.
« It’s going to limit the conversation, it’s going to create a situation where a person isn’t going to…discuss what’s important and what their needs are, » Fifield said.
Certain medical professions in NS, including physicians, have mandatory reporting responsibilities when a patient presents with stab wounds or gunshot wounds. Psychologists don’t.
That sometimes means victims of domestic violence are reported to police with such injuries, Fifield said, especially in rural areas of the province where more people keep guns at home.
But Fifield said she has heard many stories from women – the most common victims of domestic abuse – that they « are not taken seriously » when police respond or that they can be blamed for the situation.
Fifield said she has also met people who have been told their behavior indicates they are not « victimized enough » – which is « very, very harmful ».
In cases where police believe there is not enough evidence to keep a defendant in custody, the assailant may return home, putting the victim at greater risk, she said. .
A Portapique neighbor, Brenda Forbes, has repeatedly said she reported the gunman’s abuse of Banfield to the RCMP in 2013. But the constable who took Forbes’ complaint told the inquest she didn’t mention anything about domestic violence, only that the shooter was driving aggressively. around the community.
The best way to help people in these situations is to create a safety plan and help them navigate their options, Fifield said, which could include staying with a family member or waiting for help. places become available in the nearest halfway house or shelter.
« A lot of times the supports aren’t available because they’re so underfunded, » Fifield said.
Better coordination needed between departments: Fifield
Ideally, anyone in an abusive relationship would be surrounded by a team of service providers working together to make sure someone doesn’t fall through the cracks, Fifield said.
This would be similar to a strategy called a « warm referral, » which takes the uncertainty and stress out of finding resources away from victims, according to information from McMaster University’s School of Nursing. In this type of referral, the service provider schedules appointments for the patient, including transportation and follow-up meetings.
« There needs to be fewer silos among all these organizations that provide GBV and domestic violence supports, » Fifield said.
Simon Sherry, a psychologist and professor at Dalhousie University, agreed that properly funded support is the first step.
He said what’s missing is a provincial initiative that would coordinate services like social work, police and mental health to share valuable information.
« There’s no common database. There’s no real communication. I wouldn’t even necessarily know what the police do or don’t know, or what a community leader might know or don’t know, » Sherry said.
« You need a government-led approach that involves real time and real funds. »
Documents released as part of the investigation showed that in addition to Forbes’ complaint in 2013, the shooter was reported to police for making threats and possessing illegal weapons in 2010 and 2011 – information that could have helped paint a full picture of what Banfield faced back home.
Imminent threats to life are exceptions
Fifield noted that there are some exceptions to confidentiality, such as an imminent threat to a person’s life. If someone is in danger or poses a danger to themselves, the police and possibly the mobile crisis team will be informed.
Sherry agreed that this type of threat would require alerting a third party to avoid any damage, but not necessarily involving the police.
The provincial Stand Together initiative, which connects government and community organizations to prevent family violence, received $1.8 million for 80 programs in 2019-20. Additional funding has also been given to halfway houses during the COVID-19 pandemic by the provincial and federal governments.
Nicole Hersey, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said community, government and criminal justice agencies work together on cases to « provide comprehensive services and support to victims, to the authors and their families.
They wrote that the province is constantly improving its systems to ensure « everyone has the information and support they need to respond more quickly and effectively to complex cases. »
- If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call or text 1-855-225-0220 for Nova Scotia’s toll-free line offering support and services.
- Find a transition house or shelter for abused women in your area on thans.ca.
- Call 211 for resources near you or to connect to helplines for men, women or all genders.
- In an emergency, dial 911.