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Victoria officer named to domestic violence post

May 23 2012

The B.C. government has hired a senior Victoria police officer to help overhaul domestic violence services across the province.

Insp. Clark Russell, a 35-year policing veteran, joins the new domestic violence office in the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The office is working with five other ministries to identify gaps in services and better co-ordinate government response to domestic violence. It expects to complete a comprehensive plan of action by July 31.

Children's Minister Mary McNeil called Russell's hiring a "huge" addition to the office given his previous experience setting up integrated police units, including the Victoria Regional Domestic Violence Unit. He also sat on a coroners panel in 2010 that reviewed 29 deaths linked to domestic violence and made recommendations for dealing with similar cases in the future.

"He already has close relationships with all of the stakeholders and groups that deal with domestic violence, and that we're going to have to deal with," McNeil said. "There's a comfort having him involved."

The B.C. government created the domestic violence office in March after Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond issued a report on the murders of three children at the hands of their mentally ill father, Allan Schoenborn, in Merritt in April 2008.

Turpel-Lafond criticized the province for its slow progress in establishing a co-ordinated system to protect children and families. She noted that little had changed since the 2007 case in Oak Bay, where Peter Lee murdered his wife, son and in-laws before killing himself.

"British Columbia is far behind and they need to get on top of it," Turpel-Lafond said.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark acknowledged the failure in the legislature and promised to do better.

"Not enough has been done across government to fight domestic violence," she said. "Work is spread across ministries, it's diffused and it's far less effective than it should be."

Cory Heavener, who led the Schoenborn and Lee investigations for Turpel-Lafond's office, was hired in March to lead the domestic violence office.

Russell said now that a permanent office has been established, staff can examine the recommendations from the Peter Lee coroners inquest and the 2010 death review panel.

While Greater Victoria's domestic violence unit has been successful in having police, social workers and staff from the Ministry of Children and Families work together on high-risk domestic violence files, that's not happening provincewide, Russell said.

There should also be a better strategy offering specialized training to police officers working in smaller rural or isolated communities, Russell said. Training should also extend to frontline social workers who develop safety plans for families and look for warning signs, he said.

"I think [with] this office, one of the many things it's going to have to look at is - what kind of things can we do to strengthen everyone's approach to domestic violence," Russell said.

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