Article by: Senator Con DiNino
Ottawa, Canada – Victims of Crime Inquiry
Hon. Consiglio Di Nino rose pursuant to notice of March 27, 2007:
That he will call the attention of the Senate to problems and challenges faced by victims of crime.
Honourable senators, when we think about what it means to be a civilized society, protection of the vulnerable is always top of mind. Yet, there are segments of society that our social safety net still fails to catch. Victims of crime, particularly victims of violent crimes, are one such group.
Their plight frequently captures the attention of Canadians, but all too often only in passing.
Let me share with you some of the stories of some of the people who have been direct victims of crime and the repercussions which have impacted many others.
Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Wamback was walking home from school one day when he was viciously beaten by a group of teenaged boys. The kicks to Jonathan’s head and upper body shattered his skull and bone fragments severed major arteries. Doctors told his parents, Lozanne and Joe, that he was not expected to live, but after an extraordinary struggle, including three months in a coma and seven months paralyzed, he thankfully survived.
After almost killing Jonathan, the accused were charged with aggravated assault. One of them was acquitted. As Jonathan’s mom says, “We were helpless and angry. While my son was in a hospital bed, the accused were out on bail in seconds.”
Life for the family has not been easy, and support for them has been precious little. After four years of waiting for help from agencies created for that purpose, they gave up.
I have become friends with Jonathan and his mom and dad and can personally attest to their courage, perseverance, commitment and their frustration.
Colleagues, there are too many other tragic stories. Let me share a few others with you.
Fourteen-year-old Robbie McLennon was viciously attacked, tortured and beaten to death by a group of teenagers. When Robbie died, so did his family’s dream of a normal happy life. His mother, Kathy, says, “We received a life sentence without any chance of this horror ever going away. I will mourn for Robbie for the rest of my life.” Her painful memories are compounded by the knowledge that one of the convicted young offenders now lives among them. Robbie’s mother still has nightmares, and the now financially compromised family unit cannot provide needed counselling for their youngest son or for her husband, who had to identify Robbie’s body.
Another story is about a 14-year-old young woman who answered a door one evening and was shot in the face and killed by a young friend. After the police investigation ended and the family returned home, they were left to clean her bone and tissue from their home. To her mother’s horror, the Crown negotiated a plea bargain allowing the accused to spend only two years in a youth facility. She learned of the bargain the day before it was approved.
Despite this crippling emotional trauma of the young woman’s younger brother, he does not qualify for assistance.
Naomi Almeida was five years old when she was abducted from her father’s home in London, Ontario, in August 2001. Naomi was later found one block away. She had been sexually assaulted, murdered and hidden in a duffel bag in a neighbour’s apartment. Naomi was only 38 pounds, yet she had 138 wounds on her small body that were inflicted over a period of hours. She also had internal injuries.
Naomi’s father, Al, and younger brother, Travis, still struggle to cope with day-to-day life. Her father said, “We always believed that our governments and agencies would be there to lend us a helping hand when we so desperately needed them, but there was no one. We were left on our own to try and survive.”
Al has been unable to return to work full time and still has difficulty sleeping. He now concentrates on supporting and comforting Travis, who is now bullied at a local school by a gang of young thugs. The school board and police tell them that their hands are tied and they cannot help.
Gerald Leonard, a loving father of six, heroically intervened in a bank robbery in Montreal to protect a Bank of Montreal employee from harm. He was struck in the back of the head with a sawed-off shotgun. After spending months in hospital, partially paralyzed, he succumbed to his injuries in August 2006. His killer has not yet been caught.
His wife, Wanda, while coping with the enormous loss, struggled to access adequate services in the official language of her choice. Eight months later, Gerald’s family is still waiting for the coroner’s report.
Honourable senators, a father in Keswick, Ontario, whose 17-year-old son was attacked and left for dead a few years ago, tells us that today his only fear is leaving this world with no one to look after his permanently injured son when he is gone.
This is a major concern for many families who have suffered as victims after tragedy. Who will care for their loved ones they are no longer there? That is a major consideration.
Another story is about a mother of a murdered 15-year-old girl who sits demoralized as her daughter’s killer receives a free university education in Canada’s prison system, while her surviving son has never received any financial, educational or psychological assistance.
Honourable senators, these cases are heart-wrenching. Unfortunately, there are many, many more. Every year, thousands more become victims of violent crime. Behind every number is a story of a life that is tragically changed and, more often than not, shattered. For some, it is a grief unimaginable.
It touches the lives of families, friends, neighbours and, indeed, the whole community. These people, too, are victims of crime.
We often hear of what happens to perpetrators who are found guilty. The media always reports on their fate. However, what do we hear about their victims’ families, friends and communities?
While their trauma is most acute in the moments of their victimization, all too often it is only the beginning of their pain and suffering.
Victims may suffer hospitalization or lasting physical injury leading to loss of employment.
Some victims are forced into social assistance. Emotionally, they may be scarred, living with anxiety, depression and fear. It can affect relationships with friends and family, and forever alter their lives.
From the first day victims or their families are thrust into the criminal justice system, challenges await.
It may be the appearance of indifference by first responders, who may lack appropriate sensitivity training.
It may be the long waits and paperwork for compensation claims that in the end may do little to ease financial burden and instead increase the psychological toll.
It may be the lack of guidance in navigating through the system of criminal procedures, whether at trial, parole hearings and other such events.
It may be the challenge of finding counselling or adequate services in the language their choice.
Each endured slight compounds the sense of frustration and isolation.
In my own province of Ontario, the ombudsman, André Marin, released a report in February entitled Investigation into the Treatment of Victims by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.
He calls the report, “Adding Insult to Injury.” Mr. Marin discovered a litany of failures plaguing the body responsible for compensating victims of crime. He said that too few people knew about the existence of the compensation board and too many victims emerged “scarred and justifiably embittered by the bureaucratic sclerosis they have encountered.” The average processing time for a claim was an astounding three years.
While that report is the most recent to come out of a provincial jurisdiction, and I am pleased to say that reforms have been introduced and funding has been pledged, I am left to wonder how much more needs to be done across Canada.
Honourable senators, all this is to say that we as citizens, policy-makers and a society must admit that we have not done enough.
On March 16, the federal government announced an injection of $52 million into programs, services and funding for victims of crime over the next four years. It also announced the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.
I applaud these initiatives. The ombudsman’s office will be independent of government. It will promote access to existing government programs, ensure the federal government meets its legislative and policy commitments, and identify and explore victims’ issues.
The announcement of new funding will also help. Most will go toward the federal victims fund, which aims to “improve the experience of victims of crime in the criminal justice system.”
The following are objectives of this initiative which, if implemented, will help ease current deficiencies.
It includes promoting participation by victims in the justice system, encouraging the development of law, policies and programs for victims at all levels of government, and the provision of limited emergency financial aid to those with exceptional circumstances.
The government announcements are welcome measures. Many in the victims’ rights movement have been calling for the creation of an independent ombudsman’s office for years. The additional funding is also a step in the right direction.
To be sure, there is more to be done.
Our modern system of justice has been built around due process and fairness for the accused and, in a just and civilized society, that is as it should be. However, we have not been as fair and as just to victims and their families. They too are deeply affected by the administration of justice and all too often ignored.
Honourable senators, we cannot control the infliction of individual acts of criminality and violence, and what has been taken away we surely cannot restore, but we do have the ability to influence how victims and their families are treated in its terrible wake.
Across Canada, legislators in other provinces and territories are also speaking to this issue on behalf of countless victims whose voices are often neglected and excluded from the debate on matters dramatically affecting their lives.
Government ministers, backbenchers and opposition members, as the case may be, will release statements, ask questions or speak in their legislatures about this issue.
Honourable senators, I do not believe we truly understand, or know the full extent of, the agony and suffering, or have a full grasp of the needs and challenges of this too-large a group of Canadians.
For that reason, after debate on this inquiry is concluded, and I hope a number of honourable senators will participate, I intend to refer this issue to the appropriate Senate committee for a full and thorough study.
On motion of Senator Comeau, debate adjourned.