We must ensure that domestic violence awareness yields results

2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty has helped highlight the prevalence of domestic violence in the community. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Australians have recently seen an increased focus on raising awareness about domestic violence. Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his father, was awarded the 2015 Australian of the Year to highlight the issue. And, in late 2014, the Victorian government appointed Fiona Richardson as Australia’s first minister for the prevention of family violence, followed by the announcement of a royal commission into family violence.

As a Queensland Police constable, I (Terry) can still remember the groundbreaking impact of enforcing the state’s Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act, which was introduced in 1989. Domestic violence has been an agenda item for some time, then. It is not something that society, nor governments, have recently discovered.

But perhaps it is an opportune time to consider what positive results we are seeking on domestic violence. What performance or success indicators are we using to measure the effectiveness of our responses? Do we need to consider a different approach to domestic violence?

How do we gauge success?

The base line for any indicators of success would have to be a reduction in the rate of domestic violence reports and breaches of restraining orders, a reduction in under-reporting from victims, and a decrease in the rate of domestic violence-related deaths.

A review of publicly available information on strategies for dealing with domestic violence in Australian jurisdictions highlights that some have quantifiable performance criteria or measurements stated. Almost all are heavily victim-focused, with little attention paid to actually managing the real problem – the offender.

The majority of strategies are reactive, rather than proactive. Only three strategies have offender-focused responses.

Survey of public information on key performance indicators for combating domestic violence in Australian jurisdictions. Terry Goldsworthy

Current trends

A recently released Australian Institute of Criminology study for the period 2010-12 shows that domestic violence-related deaths increased by 3% as a proportion of national homicides to 39%. This is higher than the average level of family homicides of 38% recorded in a 13-year study between 1989-90 and 2001-02.

Of the eight states and territories, five have experienced increases in domestic violence homicides since 2010. The proportion of this type of homicide in NSW increased by 6%. In Queensland, the increase was 8%.

Interestingly, Victoria, which had a similar number of homicides to Queensland in 2010-12, had a 3% decrease in the number of domestic violence homicides. But even this decrease hides an unpalatable truth that family violence is the leading cause of death and disability in Victorian women under 45 years of age.

The sub-categories of domestic homicides show that intimate partner and filicide remain the main relationship types for this type of death.

Is the criminal justice system failing?

Despite claims of confronting domestic violence, some governments still shy away from the grim reality. In Queensland, when crime data were released by the former Newman government, some crime categories such as “other crime” were dismissed as not being crime important to “mum and dads”.

This category contained domestic violence, which had increased 15% in 2013-14. Within days of this being identified in the media, the Newman government responded by forming an inquiry into domestic violence in Queensland.

Comparison of breaches of domestic violence orders in Queensland, 2012-13 to 2013-14. Queensland Police Service

The concerning aspect of these figures is that they are a reflection of recidivist behaviour – arguably one of the key performance measurements of effectively combating domestic violence.

There have been at least four domestic violence-related deaths in Queensland in 2015. In January, a couple were stabbed to death, allegedly by the woman’s ex-husband. In February, a woman was stabbed to death allegedly by her ex-partner on Bribie Island.

Also in February, a woman, ten weeks pregnant, was attacked and killed with a tomahawk, allegedly by her ex-partner. Perhaps most concerning are the comments from police that the woman, 35-year-old Fabiana Palhares, had done everything right – yet still she was killed.

She had done everything, and we had done everything – it was almost a textbook case of our support of a person … We were doing everything we could. She’d taken control of her safety and we were sending that message every time she called us. When she wanted us to respond, we were there. He no longer had control over her, the system had supported her.

Clearly, the system fell down. The reaction by the police service to those failures does not instil confidence. A snapshot of domestic violence-related homicides for the last three months in Queensland paints a frightening picture.

What is the answer?

There are clear system gaps that need to be improved. One response needed is the creation of a legislation-based national domestic homicide review panel. This would allow us to learn from the lessons that each domestic homicide can provide, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.

Such panels have had international success. One jurisdiction – that of Santa Clara county in California in the US – reduced its domestic violence homicides by more than 90% over a ten-year period. Five jurisdictions in Australia have domestic violence review panels. The NT, Tasmania and the ACT do not have such panels.

Even without such a body, the time has come for full multi-agency disclosure in relation to domestic homicides. This is so that lessons can be learnt and best practice can be developed. These include identifying shortcomings in policy, support, actions, knowledge, training and jurisdictional issues.

Most of all, there needs to be an increased crime-management focus on actually risk-managing offenders. This needs to be done through appropriate risk profiling, particularly of those offenders with a predisposition to commit domestic violence. This can be achieved by paying attention to clear-up rates for breaches, present risk factors, timeliness in dealing with suspect files for domestic violence and associated criminal matters, and active enforcement of orders.

The simple existence of an order will not stop domestic homicides from occurring; targeted and sustained enforcement will. Despite being “paper shields”, orders – and their enforcement – are the first line of defence for victims. It is only after this line of defence has been established that we can look at further options, such as the disempowerment of offenders.

The adequacy of existing penalties is also an important issue. In 2011, Legal Aid NSW noted that, in many cases, the criminal matter associated with the breach of a restraining order (for example an assault) received a greater penalty than the breach, thus not reflecting the breach’s seriousness. Queensland parliament rejected a bill from then-opposition leader Annastacia Palaszczuk in November 2014 to increase penalties for domestic violence breaches.

If the resources and willpower that have been displayed in fighting outlaw motorcycle gangs had been focused on combating domestic violence, many homicides may well have been avoided. As Rosie Batty said:

If we only understood the ambivalence sometimes, and the concessions made to perpetrators – it sends very poor messages to victims … it sends the message to that woman that she’s worthless and there’s no reason to go through a court process.

The time for symbolic gestures is over. The time for practical action is now.