By Ruth Pollard November 24, 2008
THE number of women and children murdered in domestic violence is at a 10-year high, prompting calls for an urgent review of the state's fractured legal, police and community service systems.
At least 74 women and dozens of children die in Australia each year at the hands of violent men, making up the majority of all murders committed.
But experts warn the real death rates are even higher because of serious weaknesses in the way homicide data is collected. Family law changes that force shared custody and mediation have placed even more women and children at risk of harm, they say.
The Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hull, announced yesterday his state would be the first to implement a domestic violence death review, saying the aim was to analyse all cases and develop more effective strategies to reduce homicide rates. The NSW Government has so far ignored these calls.
It is not hard to find flaws in the way the police and legal systems deal with violence against women. In the past two years alone there have been countless preventable domestic violence homicides, where danger signs were not recognised, or worse - ignored, where women repeatedly sought protection and did not receive it, where children were killed because women at risk were denied help to survive away from violent partners.
These are just a few cases:
A woman and her daughter were found dead earlier this year. The Herald understands the woman, who was not an Australian resident, sought an apprehended violence order but police rejected her pleas for help because they thought she was complaining in order to get residency.
Gary Bell murdered his children, Bon, Maddie and Jack, then killed himself in Pericoe on the South Coast this year - he had been arrested for assaulting his wife just beforehand but was released by police. The family was known to the Department of Community Services.
Rachael Young was shot and killed in front of her child by her ex-partner, who had just been granted bail on assault charges.
A woman and her baby were burned to death in their home by her boyfriend - violence had been repeatedly reported to police.
The NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, said the Government's response to the issue was inadequate and a review would significantly reduce the death toll by identifying risk factors for domestic violence homicides and where families fall through the cracks.
"You will usually see threats of violence or homicide being made before a death occurs, or find access to weapons, or previous examples of depression, drug or alcohol issues," Mr Barbour told the Herald.
"Looking at how they are dealt with, whether they have been properly identified by agencies as signalling greater risk down the track, is very important to preventing these deaths."
Similar reviews - some in place more than a decade - in the US, Britain and Canada have resulted in a dramatic drop in deaths. In Santa Clara County, California, there were 51 domestic homicides in 1997. With reforms implemented after a homicide review, deaths fell to three last year.
The sheer volume of harm - more than 27,000 domestic violence-related assaults in NSW last year, making up 30 per cent of all assaults reported to police and about 35 per cent of all police work - is overwhelming. Then there are the deaths, peaking in NSW this year at a 10-year high of 29 domestic violence-related murders from July last year to June.
The majority of these occur in partnerships deeply scarred by violence, often with apprehended violence orders or other legal interventions in place. Nationally, at least 40 per cent of all homicides involved intimate partners or ex-partners or another known family connection, said Judy Putt, head of research at the Australian Institute of Criminology.
In NSW, a much more limited collection of data from the Bureau of Crime Statistics puts domestic violence-related homicides at 34 per cent of all murders. Yet this is only part of the picture, as the only homicides counted are those prosecuted through the courts. Murder-suicides, which make up a quarter of cases, and family annihilation, where the father kills his children, possibly his wife, then himself, are not counted, as there is no one to prosecute.
The horrific deaths of the three children in Pericoe, or the murder of Ingrid Poulson's two children and her father by her estranged husband in 2003 are not counted in the statistics, because the men killed themselves.
"Our key concern is that the increased number that we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg and that there are a lot more women dying in domestic violence-related fatalities than what we know about," said Betty Green, the co-ordinator of the NSW Domestic Violence Coalition.
Despite education campaigns, there were still significant misunderstandings about domestic violence in the community and in key services such as police, leading many to miss clear danger signs women and children were at extreme risk, she warned.
"Women do not die by accident, they don't die because of a mistake, they die because of a culmination of a repeated pattern of violent behaviour," she said. "There is no passion, there is no love in a domestic violence fatality. It is really, really important that we name it for what it is - in most cases it is premeditated, it is anger, it is revenge and it is the ultimate act of control."
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/11/23/1227375062534.html
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