Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Caged boys case highlight family justice issues

VICTORIA - The facts are clear enough - if you slap someone around, you'll be in less trouble in court if you hit someone in your family.
A new report looked at how courts in four provinces - not including B.C. - dealt with crimes of violence. The review included comparing the treatment of people guilty of crimes against family members with other offenders.
And on the whole it found the courts were much more lenient when the violence was within the family.
Only 28 per cent of people convicted of a violent sexual assault against a spouse went to jail; the number rose to 36 per cent if the attack was outside the family.
Only 15 per cent of family members convicted of physically abusing children go to jail, compared with the 23 per cent of strangers who commit the same offence.
Across the board you're about 50 per cent more likely to go to jail if you behave violently to an acquaintance or stranger than if you attack a family member.
It's alarming, especially coming in the same week as a court decision that shocked Canadians.
An Ontario couple who had caged their two children for much of the time over a 13-year period pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and failure to provide the necessities of life. The boys had been adopted by their aunt and her husband. Their life was a nightmare of physical and psychological abuse starting when the youngest was two and lasting until they were in their late teens.
The abuse was "near torture" over 13 years, Judge Donald Halikowski found. The boys were beaten, threatened and locked in crib-size pens. They were denied water, becoming so thirsty they drank their own urine.
Yet the parents received nine-month jail sentences.
The judge found the boys were difficult, the parents felt bad now and they had “good intentions underscoring their punishments.” Thus the light sentence.
Expect an appeal. Paul Jenkinson of the BC Association of Social Workers spoke for many critics. "This sentence provides no general deterrence to parents who choose to abuse and humiliate their children and provides no hope for abused children seeking justice.”
One case could be an aberration. But the study, by the Centre for Justice Statistics, looked at 47,000 cases. And it found the courts consistently treat offenders who abuse someone in their family more lightly.
It's a finding that is even more critical because in Canada violent crimes are largely done by the people who are supposed to love us. Of the 47,000 violent offenses studied, 35 per cent involved an assault on a spouse. Another eight per cent involved assaults by family members on each other, or children. And 32 per cent involved friends or acquaintances.
That suggests a couple of things.
First, that the family is not the safe place that we all like to think. And second, that the courts' approach of lighter sentences might not reflect the importance of deterring such a major crime problem.
I'm slow to second guess or criticize the courts. My direct experience - as a reporter, not a defendant or crime victim - has been that within the limits set by resources and laws the courts function surprisingly well.
And it's not hard to understand the desire of a judge to find a way to keep a family on the edge of disaster together, and the reasons for imposinge probation, not a jail term.
But the Ontario case, and the study, suggest that their approach to family crime doesn't reflect how widespread, or serious, the problem is.
There's no quick fix, and instant solutions like new law with mandatory sentences would do far more harm than good.
But the study provides important information for the courts to consider in sentencing. And it's a reminder to us all that the family is a dangerous place for far too many people.
Footnote: We warn our children about dangerous strangers. But of the 47,000 violent offences reviewed, 43 per cent involved an attack on a family member; 32 per cent violence against a friend or acquaintance. In 92 per cent of the spousal violence cases men were the offenders; men were also responsible for 84 per cent of the assaults against children and youths.

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