This tragedy happened in Australia but it happens everywhere – police ignoring women’s reports of violent men has got to stop.
Ben Smee The Guardian
Hannah Clarke’s death was supposed to be a turning point, but the system is still failing women – with fatal results.
In the days since Kelly Wilkinson was doused in petrol and burned in her Gold Coast back yard, her killing has been repeatedly framed as a sort of unforeseeable or “unfathomable” tragedy.
“No one expected this to happen,” lawyer Chris Hannay, who has been representing her estranged husband, told reporters this week.
As detail now emerges about the events leading up to Wilkinson’s death, frontline workers and criminologists say there is actually a gut-wrenching familiarity to the trajectory of her final weeks and months, as she attempted to flee from domestic abuse.We should be funding stress leave and high-quality PTSD care for all victims of abuse Richard DennissRead more
Wilkinson’s family revealed to the Gold Coast Bulletin she had sought the help of police “almost every day” since first making a domestic violence complaint in late March.
The young mother had told family members and police officers she was scared for her life, and for her children.
According to her sister, when police issued a protection order last month, an officer told the 27-year-old: “We just need to give him space.”
Wilkinson was murdered on Tuesday, while her children played nearby.
Kerry Carrington, a criminologist and expert on gendered violence from the Queensland University of Technology, says Wilkinson’s death was “entirely predictable”.
“If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” she said.
The sort of narrative – that a rational man snaps with no forewarning, even when allegations of escalating violent behaviour are on record – frustrates experts on family violence.
“In almost every case that’s not what happens,” says Claire Ferguson a forensic criminologist and homicide researcher at the Queensland University of Technology.
“There is this obvious set of stages that the relationships go through before they end in homicide. And it might take a very short period of time or it might take a very long period of time. But it’s fairly predictable the trajectory of that relationship from beginning to end.”
People assume that a separation [has] fixed the problem. That assumption rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of DV
Molly Dragiewicz, a domestic violence research professor from Griffith University, says separation – and the making of violence allegations – were factors that heightened risk to women.
“We absolutely know that separation is a time of really greatly increased risk for domestic violence,” Drageiwicz says.
“People just assume that a separation [has] fixed the problem. That assumption rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of DV.
“Just making a report, seeking out a domestic violence order, there is your risk marker. The first time something happens people are shocked. They sort of want to explain it away and hope that it doesn’t happen again.”
For those working with victims of family abuse in Queensland, the most recent killing brings back painful memories of Hannah Clarke and her three children, who were burned inside the family car by her estranged partner in February last year, Doreen Langham, who contacted police “daily” before being found dead after a fire at her Brisbane home in February.
Angela Lynch, the chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, said support services for family violence victims had reported a number of similar cases since Clarke’s killing.A woman is still being killed each week in Australia. We need federal leadershipRead more
“There has been an increase of this use of fire, petrol dousing over the last few years but domestic violence services say it increased after Hannah Clarke.
“This is a pattern. That issue of threatening with fire, the use of fire to kill and maim is a concern.”
Ferguson said men might view using fire as “an opportunity to get control”.
“If you’re a victim of domestic violence and you’re worried your partner is going to kill you, then the Hannah Clarke case becomes something in the back of your mind.
“[An abuser] might view threatening to burn [a partner] or pouring gasoline on them as an opportunity to get them to comply.
“One of the things that stands out to me in this case is that the kids were present at the scene. If the offender is wanting revenge, he might think a good way to do it is to do something in front of her children.
“The children being present, it can be a horrific way to take something from her.”
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, flew to Brisbane to attend Clarke’s funeral in March last year. Her death – like many before – was supposed to be a turning point.
The Queensland government established a taskforce this year, citing Clarke’s death, to look at potential new domestic violence laws, and in particular to legislate to prohibit coercive control.
This week, newspaper headlines have screamed for a rush on those new laws.
Most experts say better resourcing and education would be far more effective and would not require another taskforce, more than six years after the state’s Not Now, Not Ever report, which was then supposed to turn back a tide of serious domestic abuse.
Queensland has processes – which are well-regarded by support services and researchers – that refer high-risk cases to specialist domestic violence teams.
The problem, Lynch says, is that a severe lack of resourcing limits the number of cases that can be referred. She says those high-risk teams tend to take on only cases where the threat of violence is overt.
“The system seems to be responding to the obvious signs, but not the subtle ones,” Lynch said.
“We know when the high-risk situations are, but there is not enough investment in the system for these risk assessments to be undertaken [in enough cases]. When a woman gets a domestic violence order – that would be a key time when there should have been an assessment.
“Men in these situations are coherent. They present themselves as someone who has been wronged.
“In a terrorist situation you don’t wait for someone to blow the bridge up, [authorities] intervene early. We have to intervene early to stop tragedies like this as well.”
Police did not respond when asked how many officers worked in its high-risk domestic violence teams.
The Queensland police service has long faced criticism for problematic attitudes towards domestic violence victims, and an apparent unwillingness to address cultural problems within its ranks.
On Thursday – in an apparent preemptive move before Wilkinson’s family spoke out about her attempts to seek help – police made a remarkable public admission of “failure”.
“It’s important that we examine to what extent it is a systemic failure,” assistant commissioner Brian Codd told reporters.
“Ultimately it’s a failure. A woman has died. Somewhere along the line, she had engaged with the system, with us.”
Asked whether the incident was a wake-up call for police, Codd said: “We’ve had too many wake-up calls.”
Codd, when asked if Wilkinson’s murder was preventable, said: “Wouldn’t you love to turn back time.”
But the mea culpa rings hollow for women who have for years unsuccessfully sought to bring police to acknowledge and reform known problems.
“It’s all well and good to say ‘we’ve failed’ after the fact, but that’s public relations,” says Renee Eaves, an advocate for victims.
“If police were sorry about these sorts of things happening, then something would have changed before now.”
‘After someone’s been murdered, it’s too late’
The latest report by the Queensland government’s Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board identified separation as a risk factor for domestic and family violence homicides.
Separation – or the intent to separate – was identified in more than half of intimate partner killings since 2006. In 58% of cases, researchers found an underlying history of domestic or family violence prior to a murder – though they say this figure is likely much higher “due to the well-established understanding that victims of domestic and family violence under-report their experiences to formal services”.
Carrington has been leading calls for women-only police stations – so far rejected by police in Queensland – having seen the effectiveness of the model in Argentina, where officers work alongside social workers, lawyers, psychologists and childcare workers.
“Where were the high risk teams? Where is the social housing to make people safe during those times [of high-risk, post separation]? Where is the surveillance? Where is the support for women?”
“Our entire approach to domestic violence is reactive and not preventive. You don’t wait until someone is killed.
“After someone’s been assaulted, after someone’s been murdered, it’s too late.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. International helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.