Helping to recognize the domestic violence signs

Twin sisters Leah (McDonald) Perrault (at left) and Abbie Speir on their birthday in 2015.

The trauma of domestic violence can have wide-ranging effects on families long after a violent incident.

For this reason, Swift Current resident Leah (McDonald) Perrault is talking about the death of her twin sister to help other families recognize the signs of abuse.

Abbie Speir was killed on April 20, 2017 at her home in Yellow Grass by her partner Kevin Okafor. He was sentenced to life in a Regina court on July 23, 2020 after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

“I'm not willing to give Kevin any more destruction than he's already caused,” Perrault said. “Abbie's death has this ripple effect in the world and those of us who are still around get to decide how far that ripple goes. The cycle of trauma continues until someone decides to stop it. Abbie had children and because we still love those children, we just didn't want to give any more ripples of destruction to this awful event.”

The family’s journey of healing continues, and for Perrault it is important to keep on talking about domestic violence.

“I want to talk about it, because we can stop that cycle of trauma in our own family, but this is an epidemic in Saskatchewan and across our country, and during the pandemic it's been especially significant for people,” she said. “There are so many people for whom their homes are not a safe haven and a place of safety, but a place of violence and fear and if one person can avoid the tragic end that Abbie had, then it is worth sharing that story so that something new can grow for that person.”

The conclusion of legal proceedings was a huge relief for the family, because they can now focus on the memory of Abbie without the constant reminder of the events of her final day.

“We just kept being pulled back into those first terrible awful hours and days,” she said. “The sentencing means that we aren't being constantly pulled back and we can talk about who she was and who she is for us, and the impact that she has had in the world and the healing that needs to happen for us and in the world in order for the world to be a more whole place.”

She emphasized that she is not speaking on behalf of the family and everything she shares only represents her own views and feelings.

“Each of us is getting more comfortable with articulating our own parts of the story and it's quite different for each of us,” she said. “So I just want to make sure that I'm respecting that this is how I feel and my siblings or parents may not see it the same way.”

Twin sisters Leah and Abbie grew up on a farm outside Elrose with their two younger siblings. Leah’s favourite memory of her sister is when she was telling a story that got everybody laughing at a family function or social event.

“She would just hold the hearts of the people that loved her,” she recalled. “She just had this magnetic personality, and she would say the most outrageous things that nobody else would say out loud and just get us all laughing.”

For Leah the loss of Abbie’s presence will sometimes be experienced in sudden and unexpected moments, such as when she picks up her phone to call her sister and then remembers it is not possible. Part of the trauma of domestic violence for her is that the violent act was carried out by someone who became part of the family.

“This is one of the particularities of domestic violence that somebody who has been in our family photos for year, someone who sat at our holiday tables, took care of our children, came on family holidays, now becomes this threat and source of profound pain, and that we didn't see that happening,” she said. “I mean, we had concerns, but we had no idea, the extent of what had happened until two weeks before Abbie died.”

Leah now realizes there were hints of a troubled relationship in some conversations she had with Abbie, but at the time the issue of domestic violence did not even crossed her mind.

“We did not know anything about domestic violence,” she said. “We did not know how to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships. We didn't put together that some of the unhealthy patterns that we did see in their relationships might have clued us in to the domestic violence that was happening, and because we didn't know that, we didn't respond as well as we might have.”

It is important for someone in an abusive relationship to feel safe enough to reach out for help, because they cannot leave that situation on their own. They need help and support, but they might experience difficulty to ask for help and for those around them, whether family members or co-workers, the signs might be difficult to identify.

Leah recalled that Abbie spoke to them two weeks before her death about her situation and her intention to leave her partner. From that moment on the family supported her plan to get out, and they were going to help her move on April 22, 2017, but she died on the evening of April 20.

“It is absolutely the highest risk for someone to be violently injured or killed when they are trying to leave,” she said. “What we've learned about that pattern of domestic violence is that when the abuser feels they are losing control is when they are most likely to lash out violently in escalating ways and then ultimately to kill someone.”

Information presented during Okafor’s sentencing hearing indicated he was found guilty on a domestic assault charge in another jurisdiction in 2011. Leah is uncertain if Clare’s Law would have made any difference if it was already available four years ago.

The Interpersonal Violence Disclosure Protocol (Clare’s Law) Act came into effect in Saskatchewan on June 29, 2020. It provides a procedure that allows police to inform an individual at risk about the violent past or abusive behaviour of an intimate partner.

“|If it had been a possibility for us to contact the police and ask about that, it may have made a difference in our recognizing that this was a pattern of behaviour, that it had happened before, that she was at risk,” Leah said. “I believe it may have made a difference to her in terms of her mothering. If she had believed he was capable of those kinds of things earlier, she may have chosen to try to get out sooner to protect the children.”

She considers Clare’s Law to be a small step in the right direction to shift the balance in the favour of victims of domestic abuse.

“When we presume that people are innocent until they are proven guilty, we essentially say that we do not want to restrict the freedoms of people who we cannot say beyond a shadow of a doubt are doing awful things over the potential risk and actual harm being done to victims until we find out about it,” she said. “Why are we so obsessed with protecting the rights of people at the expense of harm to victims? Wouldn't it be better for everybody if we were able to interrupt cycles of violence and patterns of behaviour before the worst happened?”

She believes there is a need for more intervention points to break the cycle of domestic violence and that can be done in different ways, for example workplace-based training on intimate partner violence as part of employee wellness programs.

“We need to be making sure that our employees have access to parenting classes and marriage enrichment and relationship enrichment supports,” she said. “Work is the place where most adults would have an expectation to do training and an opportunity to access those supports. So let's use work, if that's what we need to use.”

She noted there is a need for systems in society to provide ongoing education about how to deal with the challenges that arise in interpersonal relationships.

“One of the things I'm learning is that we could do a better job in high schools,” she said. “We could do a better job in early relationship training. On the side of my day job, I do speaking and writing on a variety of topics, including sexuality for teens. One of the things I've started changing about my presentations since Abbie died is just talking about what some of those early indicators are.”

The questions she has received from teens over a period of almost 20 years are rarely about sex and mostly relational difficulties, for example how to deal with a jealous partner.

“And since Abbie died, one of the things I've been adding is what are the warning signs that your relationship may not be healthy, because the further you get in an unhealthy relationship, the harder it is to get out,” she said. “All of us have this capacity to hurt people when we're hurting and when we don't get healed. When we form entrenched relationships with people and we don't take our time and do our own healing work and encourage our partner to do their healing, we can find ourselves fairly quickly in tense relationships.”

Leah urges everyone to become informed about domestic violence to ensure they can be a resource for someone they love.

“Break the shame and be a person who talks about it,” she said. “Be a person who acknowledges that it happens and that the people who are affected by it don't need to be ashamed by it. Just be somebody who says it does happen and you wouldn't be an awful person if this was happening to you. Be someone who is willing to have those conversations.”

She referred to the work done by Southwest Crisis Services (/www.swcrisis.ca) to provide support services in southwest Saskatchewan.

“They offer counselling, grief support, virtual support to anyone seeking help, including family members,” she noted. “It's a 24-hour crisis line. They're so much more than a shelter. So people do not need to be anywhere close to that level of ready for support in order to get support from them, and there's no judgement there.”

She also suggested the website www.violencelink.ca/go as a good resource. It includes a guide to identify the signs of an abusive relationship and how to leave a dangerous situation, as well as a safety planner on what to take with you, where you can go, and who you can contact for help.

Resources are also available on the website of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS). This website (www.pathssk.org) provides information for survivors, families and friends, as well as information about shelters and domestic violence services.

The 211 Saskatchewan service is available as a free, confidential, 24/7 service via telephone, text, or web chat, and also as a searchable website to connect individuals to a variety of services in the province, including crisis hotlines and services for people experiencing violence and abuse.

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