Intimate partner violence can be life sentence for victim

This opinion piece from Board Voice advocate (and former executive director) Jody Paterson appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist in March. Board Voice has partnered with The Cridge Centre for the Family on the important work of advocating for awareness and services for victims of intimate partner violence who have incurred a brain injury as a result. That’s as many as 90 per cent of victims who have been physically assaulted, but diagnosis and availability of specialized services are largely unheard of in BC and across Canada.

By Jody Paterson

Tyler Mark Denniston is going to jail. And on the one hand, that’s a win in the world of intimate partner violence, where 80 per cent of the crimes aren’t even reported to police and a conviction is far from certain.

But the impact of the Greater Victoria man’s beatings will be felt by the women he attacked for so much longer than he’ll be in jail. That’s not just about having to live with the trauma — it’s about brain injury.

People experiencing intimate partner violence end up with a brain injury (IPV-BI) from that violence as frequently as 90 per cent of the time. A majority of them, in fact, end up with multiple brain injuries, because intimate partner violence is rarely something that only happens once.

Denniston was given a four-year jail term this week for attacking his then-girlfriend in 2018 and 2019. But he has a history of major assaults of previous girlfriends before that, all of a type most associated with brain injury. He strangles his intimate partners. Hits them in the head. Smashes their heads into furniture.

One of his victims said in an impact statement at Denniston’s trial that since her abuse, she has become someone she doesn’t recognize. She has trouble falling asleep, has terrible nightmares when she does, and is experiencing periods of explosive anger, panic and suicidal thoughts. Whether she knows it or not, that could be because she is now living with a brain injury on top of all the trauma she has endured.

But if she’s like the vast majority of victims of intimate partner violence, her brain injury will go undiagnosed and unsupported. IPV-BI is such a newly emerging concept that even victims themselves don’t think about whether they’ve incurred a brain injury.

The impact of their untreated brain injury can put them at risk of losing their job, their housing, their kids and so much more, and they won’t even know why.

It seems unbelievable that a woman who is beaten by her partner violently enough to incur a brain injury could suddenly find herself on the precipice of profound poverty, homelessness, child-protection involvement and social isolation as a result of the assault. Surely services are there to support her, or she could move to the head of the line for housing and supports to keep her safe?

Unfortunately, there are no designated services at any level — in B.C. or Canada — specifically for people experiencing IPV-BI. While some bright spots are emerging within Island Health around piloting occupational therapy assessments as a means of helping victims get past diagnosis barriers, that work is in its earliest days.

More broadly, there are no guidelines for health professionals to follow to ascertain IPV-BI-caused injury. No overarching plan. No targeted funding. No consensus as to what should be done, or data being collected.

And if work on all of that got going tomorrow, there are other hurdles. Start with the fact that only one in five women beaten by their partners even reports the assault to police, rendering most victims of IPV-BI completely invisible in our systems.

Add in the stigma, lack of witnesses and fear factor for the victim around doing anything that might spark a whole other assault, and it’s not surprising that the majority of women aren’t even going to visit the doctor about that hit to the head they took, or after they’ve regained consciousness from being strangled.

And even when they do seek medical attention, there are no provincially funded community services for them unless their concussion shows up on an MRI scan. Which is not often the case, because it’s an injury that doesn’t show up well on an MRI, and is much better diagnosed through its impact on a woman’s ability to function.

At any rate, unless a woman can pay for that assessment of her functioning, and the services she needs as a result of what’s discovered, she’s never going to get that support anyway. It was nice to see IPV-BI get some solid mentions last fall in the B.C. government’s Safe and Supported action plan against gender-based violence, but we are so badly overdue for some genuine action on this appalling state of affairs.

So yes, Tyler Mark Denniston is going to jail. But he’ll be out in not much more than a couple of years if he behaves himself, and his life will carry on pretty much the way it always has. His victims, on the other hand, have been handed a life sentence.