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Deaths after seeking help point to priorities in tackling domestic violence

Insufficient responses to pleas for help and protection by police is a factor contributing to domestic violence-related deaths. AAP/Sarah Motherwell

There was a horrific string of domestic violence incidents in southeast Queensland last week. A man has been charged with the murder and attempted murder of his two young daughters. A women was allegedly chased by car and on foot by her partner, who was armed with a machete.

Two women, Tara Brown and Karina Lock, were both killed in public, allegedly by their former partners.

The Queensland government was quick to respond to these tragedies. On Friday, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the fast-tracking of some of the 140 recommendations made by Queensland’s Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in its report, Not Now, Not Ever.

By Sunday, the government had decided to fast-track particular reforms. These included:

  • the prioritisation of anyone who attends the front counter of a police station for a domestic violence-related matter;

  • internal mandatory quality checks on how police handle over-the-counter requests for a domestic violence order; and

  • the roll-out of 300 body-worn cameras for police on Gold Coast to facilitate the gathering of evidence in domestic violence cases.

On Monday, cabinet will further consider establishing an independent Death Review Board, as recommended by the taskforce.

The swift response demonstrates the government’s strong commitment to improve frontline responses. But what does this mean for women like Tara Brown and Karina Lock? And can these reforms address the heightened risk involved in leaving an abusive or controlling partner?

The Brown and Lock cases

Tara Brown’s case was a tragic reminder that a victim’s risk of escalating – and sometimes fatal – violence is often highest around the time of separation. Less than a week after she decided to separate from her long-term partner, he allegedly hunted her down and beat her while she was trapped in her car. She later died in hospital.

During the process of her separation, Tara Brown had sought help from local police because she feared her estranged partner – allegedly a former bikie. This decision most likely not only challenged his beliefs of male entitlement to power and control over women but also the expectations of loyalty in a subculture that does not engage with law enforcement.

Despite her high-risk situation, police allegedly turned Tara Brown away when she went to a police station and asked for help. Federal MP Anthony Albanese decried this response as “beyond belief” and said it showed there was something “fundamentally wrong with the system”.

The Queensland taskforce identified insufficient responses to pleas for help and protection by generalist support sources – including police – as a factor contributing to domestic violence-related deaths. Its recommendation to ensure the consistent use of a common risk-assessment tool and the gapless co-ordination of services in integrated response models is thus crucial for saving women and children’s lives. It should not be ignored in the government’s response to the crisis.

Karina Lock’s case is another tragic example of the heightened risk involved when a victim decides to separate from an abusive and controlling partner. She had taken out a domestic violence order against her partner. When she met her estranged husband at a busy McDonald’s to discuss finalising their divorce last week, she was killed.

That the estranged couple met in a public place suggests that the victim felt the need to take precautionary measures at this time of heightened risk. This strategy sadly did not save Karina Lock’s life.

We know too little about the nature and timeline of Karina Lock’s engagement with support services. But we do know that, like Tara Brown, she had sought help in relation to domestic violence and had taken legal measures to separate from a long-term abusive relationship and to protect herself. Yet both women ended up being victims of an ultimate act of violence and control by an estranged partner.

Outcomes like these are not only horrific for the victim’s family and friends but can deter other women from seeking help. They suggest that victims are on their own when trying to escape domestic and family violence.

What now?

The prioritisation of domestic violence reports made in person at a local police station, along with quality checks on responses to over-the-counter domestic violence order applications, is a crucial first step in better supporting women and children at risk. But these need to come as part of a complete package of changes.

While it is unfeasible to expect the swift implementation of all 140 recommendations made in the taskforce report, some appear to be particularly crucial – especially for high-risk cases.

The use of common risk-assessment tools by approached support services, the roll-out of integrated responses, the exchange of information between integrated response partner agencies to ensure a gapless co-ordination of services and the ongoing and consistent training of frontline staff – especially in generalist services such as police – need to be the top priorities.

Integrated responses already exist in some places – including on the Gold Coast. But their effectiveness depends on the delivery of informed, well-co-ordinated services by all parties involved.

Alongside these frontline and crisis responses, recommendations around greater perpetrator accountability and evidence-based intervention programs, commitment to ongoing funding for a range of victim services – including free legal aid and transitional and long-term housing solutions – are crucial in ensuring victims’ long-term safety.

Cultural and attitudinal change through awareness and education also needs to remain an ongoing commitment. In the meantime, establishing an independent Death Review Board in a timely manner can help identify gaps in systemic responses to improve the lives of those who continue to be affected by domestic and family violence.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

DVConnect is Queensland’s state wide telephone service offering women affected by domestic or family violence free crisis counselling and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its number is 1800 811 811.

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