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Why doing 'everything' wasn't enough to save Hannah or her children


Women and children will continue to be killed by abusers who believe they are “above the law” unless governments take urgent action to improve the ways police and courts enforce domestic violence protection orders, experts have warned.

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With murdered woman Hannah Clarke and her three children laid to rest in Brisbane on Monday, advocates are now calling for protection order standards to be lifted and for legal services to be better funded to prevent other domestic violence victims from slipping through cracks in the system.

It comes amid growing anger from women’s groups who have accused the country’s political leaders of failing to take any meaningful steps to address the scourge of domestic abuse in the wake of Ms Clarke’s death.

“The number one failing of the service system was that Hannah Clarke did everything she possibly could to keep herself and her children safe,” said Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW.

“She had a civil protection order which, especially when it was breached, should have kept her out of harm’s way, but didn’t. Domestic violence orders, quite simply, are not protecting women and children who are at risk of domestic homicide, and we need to look at why that is.”

Clarke was murdered last month by her estranged husband Rowan Baxter, who doused the family in petrol and set them alight before killing himself on a street in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.

At the time he was due to appear in court on charges of breaching a domestic violence order by allegedly assaulting Clarke just weeks before he killed her. The order had been granted after he allegedly kidnapped the couple’s eldest daughter on Boxing Day last year.

Angela Lynch, chief executive of Women’s Legal Service Queensland, said the circumstances of Baxter’s offending were still being investigated but that too often breaches of protection orders were not taken seriously enough by police.

“We need to get better at enforcing domestic violence orders particularly when women have been identified as being at high risk,” Lynch said. “We know perpetrators, especially of coercive controlling violence, are testing those orders to see how far they can push the system, how much they can get away with.

“But orders are only effective if they’re enforced, so without a quick and firm response, if breaches are not treated seriously, perpetrators know they can get away with further violence.”

Lynch said Queensland Police had introduced a handful of “high-risk” teams which were specially trained to monitor and respond to dangerous abusers.

“But they’re overburdened and under-resourced … there is not enough funding to support them and that obviously has impacts on the case loads they are able to take on.”

DV orders can be a ‘red flag’ to some

For many victims, domestic violence orders are an effective tool.

A significant proportion of orders made, the vast majority of which are made to protect women, aren’t reported as being breached, and research has shown they can lead to a reduction in some types of violence.

But for others they can be a red flag: the latest national analysis of intimate partner homicides shows almost a quarter of men who killed current or former female partners were named as respondents on protection orders at the time of the killing. (By contrast, a quarter of women who killed male intimates were protected by domestic violence orders at the time of the homicide).

Like other state police forces, the Queensland Police Service says responding to domestic and family violence is a “priority”, with officers attending hundreds of incidents every day.

Still, recent research shows many victims report distressing and unhelpful encounters with police, including a reluctance or refusal by some officers to prosecute domestic violence order breaches or other criminal charges.

Experts say problems also exist among the judiciary, not all of whom have undertaken specialist training and education on domestic violence, especially coercive controlling behaviours and other forms of non-physical abuse.

“The primary place we’re seeing women with protection orders being failed is not actually in the policing of these orders … but in the courts,” Foster believes.

While some magistrates were doing an “amazing job”, she said, others did not have a comprehensive enough understanding of family violence to be able to appropriately assess the severity of risk.

It was “not uncommon”, for instance, for perpetrators who had breached protection orders to be let off with a warning, she said.

“We need specialist magistrates, because, at the moment, whether someone is able to access protection or not depends on who hears their matter in court. It’s currently luck of the draw, and that is unacceptable.”

In “too many cases”, Foster added, women did not call police for help with domestic violence because they did not want to go through the court process, which could be “traumatic and unsafe”.

“If we think the murder of women and children at the hands of their partners and ex-partners is a problem in this country, then fixing our courts is an urgent priority that needs to happen immediately.”

Similar calls for action are being raised around Australia, including by the advocacy group Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, a coalition of more than 65 organisations who are urging women’s safety ministers to commit to improving protection order standards, among other key reforms.

An ‘urgent priority’ that’s ‘chronically under-resourced’

Meanwhile, hopes for change are being pinned on a domestic violence summit being convened at the end of March by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who has said all ideas for stamping out abuse will be considered.

“We brought the issue out from behind closed doors, invested $328.9 million to support our 10-year reform agenda and implemented all 140 recommendations from the landmark Not Now, Not Ever report,” the Premier said last month.

“With the cooperation of hard-working teams across government and the community, we introduced new laws, initiatives and infrastructure to make a profound difference in the lives of Queenslanders impacted by domestic and family violence.”

But Lynch said more funding was needed in every part of the system, which she described as “chronically under-resourced”.

“There has been significant investment in this issue by the government, particularly in Queensland in the last five years,” she said.

“But further investment is urgently required, including in women’s legal services. At the moment, 40 per cent of calls to our service are going unanswered, that’s just one service in an entire system in one state.

“Either domestic violence is a priority, and we properly resource the system to respond to it, or it’s not.”

– ABC / Hayley Gleeson

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