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Desmond inquiry: Veterans Affairs manager says family violence training was needed


PORT HAWKESBURY, N.S. — The inquiry investigating why a former soldier in Nova Scotia killed three family members and himself in 2017 heard Wednesday from Lionel Desmond's case manager at Veterans Affairs, who testified she could have benefited from training in identifying family violence.

"And if there was training specific to detecting risks to homicidal (behaviour), that perhaps could have been helpful, too," Marie-Paule Doucette said during her second day of testimony at the provincial fatality inquiry in Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

The public servant said Desmond — an Afghanistan war veteran diagnosed in 2011 with PTSD — made it clear his marital relationship was strained, though he said dealing with it was not his top priority.

"At the time, he was clear that his relationship was difficult," she said, adding that shaky finances were also a major concern. "That remained a theme as I worked with him."

Doucette said she did not suggest couples counselling to her client, and he did not request it, when she first assessed him in November 2015. "I'm not sure he was in a good place to do couples therapy," Doucette said via video link from New Brunswick. "I don't think it would have been the priority to help him."

On Tuesday, Doucette told the inquiry she was not sure there was much more she could have done to prevent the tragedy, but she made it clear she did not have enough information about Desmond's disintegrating marriage. Doucette said that in her new job she is now in the habit of asking more direct questions about marital conflict.

Among other things, the inquiry is examining whether the federal and provincial personnel who provided assistance to Desmond were adequately trained to recognize the signs of intimate partner abuse. The inquiry has heard that three hours before Shanna Desmond was killed by her husband, she sought information about how to get a peace bond from a non-profit group that offers support to women and children facing intimate partner violence.

Lionel Desmond, who served in Afghanistan in 2007, was medically released from the military in June or July 2015.

The inquiry heard Wednesday that in February 2015, Desmond had made several phone calls to Veterans Affairs to prepare for his transition to civilian life. At the time, he was posted to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in central New Brunswick and was part of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.

Despite his efforts, it took six months for Veterans Affairs to appoint Doucette as Desmond's case manager, the inquiry heard.

Doucette's initial assessment of Desmond reported that the 32-year-old "had great difficulty controlling his emotions and his generally heightened anxiety often leads to … anger outbursts or panic attacks."

Her report on Jan. 16, 2016, said Desmond had difficulties in his marriage, including poor communication, conflict and unstable living arrangements. As well, it said he had limited social supports and spent much of his time on his own in his home in Oromocto, N.B.

"The veteran currently presents as lacking the ability to cope with his emotional turmoil," the report said. "The mental health professionals he has connected with report an inability to begin working through his military-related trauma due to ongoing … disabling symptoms of PTSD."

Doucette said she did not have access to documents related to his mental health treatment in the military. "In certain cases, it would be helpful," she testified Wednesday, noting that she required the consent of the veteran to get those files. "I can see the value if the veteran wants to share them with me."

At the time, Doucette concluded Desmond was at a high risk of failing to integrate into civilian life.

The inquiry has heard that between June and August 2016, Desmond took part in an intensive residential treatment program in Montreal for veterans requiring mental stabilization. The health-care professional at Ste. Anne's Hospital, however, determined that the former corporal had made limited progress by the time he left the program.

The specialists at the hospital said they detected possible cognitive deficiencies that may have interfered with his treatment, and they strongly recommended more testing, including a neuropsychological assessment.

But that never happened.

The inquiry heard Tuesday that Doucette struggled to arrange supports for Desmond after he left the Montreal hospital and moved in with his wife and young daughter in rural eastern Nova Scotia. Doucette testified that she was beset by bureaucratic barriers.

On Wednesday, she confirmed that after 14 months as Desmond's case manager, her client had made little progress toward rehabilitation. "He remained at risk of an unsuccessful transition," she said. 

The inquiry has heard that Desmond received no therapeutic treatment between August and December 2016, though Doucette managed to connect him with a psychotherapist in Antigonish, N.S., in early December.

On Jan. 3, 2017, Desmond bought a Soviet-era SKS 7.62 carbine, which he used later that night to kill his 31-year-old wife, their 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, and his 52-year-old mother, Brenda, inside the family's home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

The Canadian Press