27th October 2020
By Natalie Page
Jennifer had the news that no mother should ever have on 9th February 2020. Little Keira had been found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Rattlesnake Point, in Canada. She was just four years old; dead alongside her father, Robin Brown, who had taken her there on a court ordered contact visit, plunging them both to their deaths. Brown was a known domestic abuser; escalating in the final, fatal way that coercive controllers are known (and predicted) to do. It was a murder-suicide.
Jennifer had become a bereaved mother because she was catastrophically let down by the Family Court. The public needed to know what happened to Keira, and why her death could prevent another mother and child going through the same, inevitable pattern.
In Jennifer’s case, like so many others, she had been pleading with judges to reduce or limit the damage done during unsafe contact by Brown to their daughter Keira. Brown had a well-documented track record for abusive behaviour. Time after time Jennifer presented to the court a worrying pattern of his behaviour towards her, Keira, and other women. The court found her concerns had substance and made noises about acting upon those concerns.
The court finally made a move to reduce Brown’s contact due to the risk of harm it was clear he presented. There was another unsupervised visitation in the schedule. It was on this contact visit that he chose to end his life and Keira’s, changing a family beyond recognition forever.
Recently, Toronto Life magazine published a feature on Jennifer’s case entitled ‘Death at Rattlesnake Point’, which demonstrated the way the media can perpetuate damaging myths about domestic abuse cases in the Family Court.
The sort of reporting that emerges surrounding domestic abuse in general can often fan the flames of ignorance. The frequency of ill-informed reporting is enough to have been the subject of various campaigns, focused purely on the way fatal domestic abuse is reported on in the media, and how spectacularly it can miss the point.
During the COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K, we saw the ridiculous headlines where a perpetrators flimsy defence is reported as fact. Lockdown stress and money worries due to COVID-19 have all been recent defences to domestic abuse homicides published in various newspapers. Level Up Media Watch and David Challen all lead commendable campaigns to continually remind journalists what does and does not cause a domestic abuse murder.
When Jennifer Kagan’s life changed forever, she found herself compelled to speak out. When she took that leap of faith with a journalist from Toronto Life Magazine, she found that the reporting is often deeply traumatic if it is irresponsibly done.
The Toronto Life’s piece on the Kagan case made great pains to give the perpetrator in this case a voice and did not shy away from publishing his flimsy defences as fact, like the cases picked up on by campaigners here in the U.K.
The article perpetuates the myth that it was a senseless middle-class custody battle from moneyed parents with nothing better to do than litigate. “What went wrong with the marriage entirely depends upon who you ask, or which affidavit you read” the journalist writes. She refers to the case as a ‘toxic custody battle’. This could not be further from the truth.
Jennifer was repeatedly going to court because of Brown’s abusive patterns, not because she was a ‘bitter ex-wife’ with the ability to wield a lawyer. She had no other option and needed to protect her child. He counter-alleged alienation – a well known weaponised response that often falls out of the mouths of domestic abusers when confronted with evidence of their actions. It is even less credible, when coming from an abuser such as Robin Brown, who had a long history of bizarre and abusive behaviour which the court knew about.
The most problematic myth (aside from a baseless alienation accusation) in a domestic abuse case is the narrative where abuse is confused with ‘conflict’. A one-sided pattern of perpetrating abuse is minimised and explained away as ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ when the victim no longer takes it lying down. At no point does anyone seem to deviate from the conflict Kool-Aid and ask themselves who the true protagonist in all of this is.
The reason this conflict narrative is so damaging is because if the victim of the abuse calls it out or seeks to reduce the harm, they are seen to be ‘contributing’ to the conflict rather than what they are actually doing; which is seeking to reduce the harm inflicted up on their children and themselves.
In the Kagan case it was well known that Brown exhibited patterns of coercive control, the deadliest pattern of domestic abuse. The court records attest to these patterns and document the reality that Jennifer and Keira endured. His patterns included cruelty to animals, humiliating and degrading acts, abduction, pathological lying to the point he led a double life. He conformed to every documented pattern known about coercive control, from the epic but brief courtship, to the Jekyll and Hyde personality. Conversely, Jennifer’s only ‘crime’ was to not be wholly compliant and welcoming of her abusers every action. She sought to try and stop him, she safeguarded Keira where she absolutely should have, as any good mother would. The fact the Toronto Life Magazine echoed this ‘toxic conflict’ narrative is a travesty in this case. The fact the Court made this into a lengthy battle is beyond unjust.
Jennifer is resolute that authorities need to recognise that Keira’s tragic death should be a lesson to the world. Leading the Canadian arm of #thecourtsaid – the global campaign for survivor family justice, Jennifer aims to make a difference. Keira’s story caught the heart of the world, with over 11 million views and counting. The world should not twist this conversation to portray victims as stereotypes that fall so far from the truth.
He had form, and plenty of it. The court knew it and ignored it. He displayed all the red flags that make anyone with any experience of violent offenders poise to spring into protective action when they hear it.
Those protective actions did not happen for little Keira, despite Jennifer’s attempts to ensure it.
In Canada, laws like Bill C-78, and here in England and Wales, PD12J, and the equivalents elsewhere are all intended to ensure cases of domestic abuse are properly judged, with professionals able to correctly risk assess the patterns of abuse. This kind of learning cannot occur in a vacuum. The myths surrounding domestic abuse are pervasive and frankly, getting tired. In the age of information, there is no excuse for ignorance. The media plays a key role for all concerned to try and ensure that we move away from stereotypes that damage our understanding when we should be seeking to enhance it. Misrepresentation, misdiagnosis, marginalisation, or minimisation have no place in this discourse. Domestic abuse does not discriminate. It is the elephant in the room in Jennifer’s case and the cause of the immeasurable grief and unfillable void in her family.
It was not conflict that killed little Keira. It wasn’t conflict that killed all the other children who have been murdered during unsafe contact with a domestic abuser, but you can bet your bottom dollar it’s written all over their case files, the same way it was written in the media about little Keira. It is time we changed the trajectory of this conversation.
Keira was photographed wearing a T-shirt that said “I can change the world” before her life was tragically ended. This little girl will never get the chance to change the world herself, and the reasons why she cannot, should be the catalyst for a world-changing conversation about how we as cultures, nations and institutions fail victims of domestic abuse.