Jennifer Kagan is still struggling with the death of her daughter Keira.
But focusing on being an advocate for other parents trying to protect their children from abusive ex-partners has given the Vaughan, Ont., mother hope that Keira’s death was not in vain.
“Keira, in her four-year-old mind, wanted to change the world and that was her favourite T-shirt. So this is Keira’s little way of changing the world,” Kagan told Global News, explaining how a new private member’s bill, known as Keira’s Law, tabled last month in the House of Commons seeks to protect other children involved in child custody litigation.
On Feb. 9, 2020, Keira was reported missing while she was spending the weekend with her father, 35-year-old Robin Brown.
Brown’s girlfriend called police and reported that the father had said he was taking Keira hiking. Halton Regional Police later found Keira and Brown dead at the bottom of a steep escarpment in Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area in Milton.
A coroner found that Keira and her father had injuries consistent with a fall and referred the incident to the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee for further review. From the beginning, Kagan and her husband, Philip Viateur, believed it was a murder-suicide.
Just two weeks prior to Keira’s death, Kagan brought a motion to suspend or supervise Brown’s access to their daughter because she worried that Keira was at risk.
There had been a long history of coercive control, abuse and ignoring court orders in the years after Kagan and Brown separated and divorced. And the abusive behaviour was escalating.
The judge said the evidence about Brown was “serious” but said the motion was “not urgent,” calling the evidence against Brown “persuasive and compelling.”
The judge adjourned the case to give Brown a chance to respond and tasked Jewish Family and Child Services (JFCS) with investigating, stipulating that JFCS “could request urgent relief at any time during the investigation.” Keira was found dead before the case ever made it back to court.
“I was shouting from the rooftops to both judges and Jewish Family and Child Services that Keira was in danger and I was not listened to,” Kagan said.
Bill C-233, introduced by Anju Dhillon, member of Parliament for Dorval—Lachine—LaSalle, on the second anniversary of Keira’s death is aimed at educating all judges on the dangers of domestic violence and coercive control.
Viateur, a family court lawyer who played a big role in trying to curtail Brown’s access to Keira, understands why more training is needed by judges, some of whom don’t have a background in family law.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with giving parenting time to parents, but when a parent is displaying really concerning and abusive behaviours, there comes a point when the court has to protect the children and focus on the child’s rights and not the parent’s rights and that was missed,” Viateur said.
“If you want to be an accredited arbitrator or mediator in this province, you have to do 21 hours of mandatory domestic violence training and you have to update that training every year for five years, but judges don’t have that.”
Pam Damoff, member of Parliament for Oakville—North Burlington, who is working with Dhillon on Bill C-233, told Global News that judicial education around domestic violence is one step in dealing with the systemic problem in society when it comes to understanding intimate partner violence and coercive control and how it affects children.
“If we can get this private member’s bill passed, then I believe Keira’s legacy will be a positive one and one that will save lives moving forward,” said Damoff.
The bill is expected to be debated on April 28 before it goes to the Status of Women Committee and the Senate, and eventually becomes law.
“There’s an urgency because the COVID-19 pandemic has really exacerbated the domestic violence crisis,” said Kagan.
The Domestic Violence Death Review Committee will ultimately make a finding as to how Keira died and make recommendations.
Last July, Kagan filed a $16-million civil lawsuit against Jewish Family and Child Services, alleging that caseworkers knew that Keira was at risk, but did not do enough to prevent her death.
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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