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In domestic violence, strangulation is a ‘hidden’ predictor of femicide, experts say

Amanda McCormick, an associate professor of criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley, says strangulation is a major warning sign that someone is at much greater risk of being murdered by their intimate partner.

“The thing about strangulation is that it’s quite hidden: Many abusers will use this as a form of power and control, but it often leaves no visible wounds,” McCormick said in a recent interview, adding: “It’s one of the most common forms of strangulation. the best predictors of murder or femicide.”

The federal government updated the Criminal Code in 2019 to add strangulation to the definition of assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm. The change means that domestic abusers can now be charged specifically for assault by strangulation.

However, McCormick said without adequate training on the offense it may not be used properly. Strangulation doesn’t always leave marks on a victim’s neck, so police, prosecutors, and even health professionals need to know to ask about it. And they must be able to recognize possible signals, such as a cough or sore throat.

“If they don’t know how to investigate and document a strangulation, they will recommend a lesser attack,” she said.

She also noted that the change to the Criminal Code took place just before the COVID-19 pandemic upended routines around the world, and that there may not be much awareness in the legal system that assault by strangulation is now a defined is a crime.

Recognizing strangulation, or knowing how to recognize it, can be a matter of life and death. McCormick pointed to a 2008 National Library of Medicine study showing that someone in an abusive relationship is more than seven times more likely to be killed by their partner if they have been strangled by that partner in the past.

There are other health risks that are not well understood, McCormick added. Being strangled increases the chance that a victim will have a stroke, or develop brain damage or mental health problems from a lack of oxygen, she said.

McCormick’s latest work looks at the sentences judges hand down for assault by strangulation, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. So far, she has found that offenders are largely given light sentences, despite the serious risk they pose to their partners.

“So there’s a complete disagreement here,” she said. “The police need training. Lawyers need training. Judges need training. The majority of healthcare professionals need training.”

Last month, the California-based Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention held a two-day training session in Ottawa for police officers, medical personnel, military personnel and others who work with victims. “The most dangerous perpetrators of domestic violence strangle their victims,” institute co-founder Casey Gwinn said in an Ottawa police news release.

McGrath, who now lives in rural Newfoundland, testified April 11 before a Senate committee studying a bill to create a national strategy for the prevention of intimate partner violence. She hopes this strategy will also include training across the justice system on intimate partner violence, as well as the risks and red flags associated with strangulation.

McGrath said she would like to see special courts established to handle cases of intimate partner violence, where judges and lawyers are trained on the issues involved and better equipped to make decisions that protect the victim from further harm. She would also like to see governments make it mandatory for health professionals to report strangulation in domestic cases to police, just as they must do when there is evidence of stabbings or shootings.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Ministry of Justice said Friday it would investigate such a policy.

However, McCormick worries that victims will be more afraid to seek medical attention for strangulation if they know police will be involved. “These women need to see a doctor,” McCormick said. “Deterring them from doing so poses significant risks to their lives and health.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press