September 23, 2022

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A psychologist was among multiple people who knew the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooter abused his spouse, but intimate-partner violence does not fall under mandatory reporting laws for that profession in Canada.

Even if this rule was in place and the abuse had been disclosed to police, experts working with domestic abuse survivors in the province say bringing in law enforcement often makes these situations worse.

“There’s not enough supports even for those things that require mandatory reporting,” said Kristina Fifield, a trauma therapist with Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax.

“Unfortunately, it’s not working.” 

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 multiple homes destroyed.

Through Banfield’s interviews with police, the Mass Casualty Commission leading the public inquiry, and her inquiry testimony a month ago, she has described the extensive physical and emotional abuse she suffered from the gunman.

She said Wortman had placed a gun to her head on multiple occasions, and threatened to kill her or her family if she ever left him.

The only time Banfield said she went for help about the abuse was when she saw a psychologist in Bedford, according to a letter she wrote to the commission. She did not say when this took place.

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 gunman found out Banfield was seeing a professional, she said he made her stop. 

“I knew if I didn’t, he would beat me up. 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 participating in the inquiry, said she was glad to see Banfield had a safe space to feel supported, even if for a short time.

A woman in a black shirt sits in front of a plant and a Pride flag.
Kristina Fifield is a trauma therapist at the Avalon Sexual Assalt Centre in Halifax. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

In Nova Scotia, psychologists are obliged to report abuse of children or certain adults including vulnerable seniors, but not intimate-partner violence.

 Fifield said helping people in abusive relationships is a complex and often lengthy process and requires a lot of trust — something that may be lost if a victim knew their case would be reported to police.

“That is going to limit the conversation, that is going to create a situation where a person is not going to … discuss what’s important and what their needs are,” Fifield said.

Some medical professions in N.S., including doctors, do have mandatory reporting responsibilities when a patient comes in with injuries from a knife or gunshot. Psychologists do not.

This sometimes does mean victims of domestic violence are reported to police with such injuries, Fifield said, especially in rural areas of the province where more people keep weapons in the home.

But Fifield said she has heard many stories from women — the most common victims of intimate-partner violence — that they’re “not taken seriously” when police do respond or they may be blamed for the situation. 

Fifield said she’s also met people who were told their behaviour indicated they’re not “victim enough”  — which is “very, very harmful.”

In cases where police believe there’s not enough evidence to hold an accused person in custody, the abuser can return home, putting a victim at greater risk, she said.

One Portapique neighbour, Brenda Forbes, has repeatedly said she reported the gunman’s abuse of Banfield to RCMP in 2013. But the Mountie who took Forbes’s complaint has told the inquiry she didn’t mention anything about domestic abuse, only that the gunman was driving aggressively around the community.

The best way to help people in these situations is by creating a safety plan and helping them navigate their options, Fifield said, which could include staying with a family member or waiting until spaces open up in the closest transition home or shelter.

“Often times the supports are not available because they’re so underfunded,” Fifield said.

Better co-ordination needed between services: Fifield

Ideally, anyone in an abusive relationship would be surrounded by a team of service providers working together to ensure someone doesn’t fall through the cracks, Fifield said. 

That would be similar to a strategy called “warm referral,” which takes the uncertainty and stress of finding resources away from victims, according to information from McMaster University’s nursing school. In this type of referral, the service provider sets up appointments for the patient, including transportation, and followup meetings.

“There needs to be less silos that exist among all of these organizations providing gender-based violence and intimate partner violence supports,” Fifield said. 

Simon Sherry, a psychologist and professor at Dalhousie University, agreed that having properly funded support is the first step. 

Simon Sherry is a clinical psychologist and professor at Dalhousie University. (CBC)

He said what’s missing is a provincial initiative that would co-ordinate across 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 do not know, or what a community leader may or may not know,” Sherry said.

“You need a government-led approach that involves real timelines and real funds.”

Documents released through the inquiry have shown that besides Forbes’s 2013 complaint, the gunman had been reported to police for uttering threats and having illegal guns in 2010 and 2011 — information that could have helped form a full picture of what Banfield was facing at home.

Imminent threats to life are exceptions

Fifield noted there are some exceptions to confidentiality such as an imminent threat to a person’s life. If someone is in danger or is a danger to themselves, police and possibly the mobile crisis team would be notified.

Sherry agreed that this type of threat would require alerting a third party to avoid harm, but not necessarily involving police.

The provincial Standing Together initiative, which connects government and community organizations to prevent domestic violence, was granted $1.8 million for 80 programs in 2019-2020. Additional funding was also given to transition houses during the COVID-19 pandemic through the provincial and federal governments.

Nicole Hersey, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said that community, government, and criminal justice agencies do work together on cases to “provide wraparound services and supports to victims, perpetrators and their families.”

They wrote that the province is constantly in the process of improving our systems to ensure that “everyone has the information and supports they need to respond more quickly and effectively to complex cases.”

  • If you or someone you know is experiencing intimate-partner 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 through thans.ca.
  • Call 211 for resources near you, or to connect with the Men’s, Women’s, or All Genders help lines.
  • If in an emergency situation, call 911.

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