It’s like Groundhog Day: another woman and her children horrifically murdered by her partner.
The faces are different, but their story is eerily familiar.
Hannah Clarke was trying to leave her estranged husband and the father of her three children. She was afraid of him, having sought safety with her parents.
Yet despite the presence of a domestic violence order (DVO), which Rowan Baxter was found to have breached, he was free to ambush Hannah and their children on their way to school.
We know the patterns
According to the National Coronial Information System, there are approximately 100 deaths due to family homicide a year.
Every seven to nine days, a woman is killed due to family violence.
Family violence support services:
- 1800 Respect national helpline 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line 1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line) 131 114
- Relationships Australia 1300 364 277
We know that the time of greatest risk is when a woman is attempting to leave her partner, with more than 50 per cent of homicides occurring within three months of separation.
So why is it, when we know of these patterns, do we not see a response from the legal system that reflects that understanding?
When two young men were murdered in one-punch attacks, there was a swift response.
The now-infamous lockout laws were introduced in 2014, along with the 3:00am “last drinks” — and the results were striking.
The number of alcohol-related injuries at St Vincent’s plummeted, with serious facial fractures falling by more than 60 per cent. Moreover, there were no alcohol-related deaths recorded at the hospital during this period.
Why hasn’t there been a similar response?
These achievements came at a significant cost, however.
Deloitte Access Economics estimated the lockout laws cost Sydney’s night-time economy up to $16.1 billion, while Labor MLC John Graham, a member of a parliamentary inquiry into the laws, claimed 176 venues and individual venues in Kings Cross had closed since their introduction.
This is how the ‘monster myth’ allows domestic violence to unfold
With attempts to rationalise the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children, we risk blaming the monster and not the man, Rowan Baxter, and the society that allowed these murders to unfold.
While there will always be some doubt about the exact size and scope of the economic costs, there is absolutely no doubt that they are significant and sustained.
It was, however, a cost the Government was prepared to make in order to keep other young men safe.
At the time these laws were introduced, 90 coward punch deaths had been recorded in a 12-year period — an average of seven deaths per year.
By contrast, there were 129 deaths per year due to family homicide.
This begs the question: Why hasn’t the Government responded equally, if not more robustly, in response to family violence?
Domestic violence and the family court
Despite the absolute cruelty of the murder of Hannah and her children, some headlines still described how Baxter missed his family or had promised not to do “anything stupid”.
Comments on social media suggested Hannah was responsible for her own death
“…take note ladies…you’ll burn for taking a man’s children away from him lol,” one read.
Family homicide is strongly associated with a previous history of domestic violence. It is also associated with separation from the family.
I survived my abuser. But Hannah Clarke’s murder is a reminder that many women don’t
If actions speak louder than words, then what Australia is actually saying to victims of domestic abuse right now is “roll the dice”.
It should be of no surprise then, that the most at-risk women and children for familial homicide are those going through the family court — particularly those who have a background of domestic violence.
Yet, we see few protections offered to women who describe assault in the family court. In fact, in my clinical practice as a consultant psychiatrist, I have seen patients lose their children after advising the court they and their children are in danger.
In some cases, women who raise abusive behaviour with the courts are labelled a “hostile parent” or “parental alienator”, while others report being advised by their lawyers not to discuss the abuse at all.
At the same time, we have reduced the number of shelters and crisis accommodation, with only 9 per cent of abused women seeking refuge given long-term accommodation per year.
What we are effectively doing is hamstringing women — the most at-risk women, who have been abused but are trying to leave — and telling them they are not allowed to raise the issue of domestic violence.
We then send them home into a community where there is no safe place or extra security afforded to them.
Our inaction is remarkable
Almost all domestic violence assaults heard in the criminal court occur in the context of escalating, multifaceted abuse, where a man is attempting to control his partner and elicit fear.
Even when found guilty, only about 16 per cent will face a custodial sentence, the average length of incarceration being 370 days for the most serious kinds of assault.
Furthermore, only 1.5 per cent of perpetrators will complete the full sentence in custody.
Looking at these facts, politicians and legislators’ lack of response to violence against women is remarkable.
Domestic violence may not seem that important to the average Australian.
But until we start responding to violence within the home with the same indignation that we do when it is carried out by strangers on the street, these horrific events will continue to occur.
Dr Karen Williams is a consultant psychiatrist specialising in traumatic stress disorders. She is the founder of Doctors Against Violence Towards Women.