Sydney Morning Herald
Ruth Pollard November 24, 2008
A STATEWIDE domestic homicide review is being urged, driven by incoherent domestic violence policies and the failure of the legal system to help protect women from being killed by their violent partners.
Such reviews from the United States to Britain and Canada have documented inadequacies in services meant to help women and children, legal impediments, training gaps and patterns of violence that indicate to authorities a family is at increased risk.
The findings have forced changes to policy and practice and in many districts have resulted in large reductions in domestic violence homicides.
Yesterday Victoria became the first state in Australia to establish a review, more than a decade after a Californian county completed its first systemic examination of the high number of women and children being murdered in domestic violence attacks.
"Whether you are looking at a single death or a number of deaths over time, what research shows us is that clear patterns are able to be identified where the system is weak," said Betty Green, the convener of the NSW Domestic Violence Coalition.
"Maybe policy changes are needed, maybe it is increased resources for training police and magistrates - these are the kinds of changes that can come about via a homicide review process."
When a death is reviewed, every service and agency that came into contact with the woman is examined - police, health services, community services, as well as whether there was an intervention order in place and whether the woman had told family and friends about the violence.
"At the moment everybody holds a little piece of the puzzle and we believe by having a fatality review team all those pieces are brought together and you get a much clearer picture,"Ms Green said.
Myrna Dawson is an associate professor in public policy in criminal justice at the University of Guelph in Canada, and is a member of the Ontario domestic fatality review team.
"We make recommendations that are targeted at specific bodies who might be able to implement a change, such as education for health professionals, police or social services on the common risk factors," Professor Dawson said.
"Actual or pending separation is key … in almost 80 per cent of fatalities we have reviewed, separation has played a role in some capacity, but we haven't really targeted resources or training towards what can we do to help victims to safely leave a perpetrator."
Another common factor that has come up in every review is poor communication between the agencies dealing with the victim and the offender, which often include social services and drug and alcohol programs, she said.
"These reviews help us to identify where some of the weaknesses in the system are, where resources need to be focused and to understand what is needed to implement change," Professor Dawson said
In every death, there are what experts call "red flags" - indications the potentially deadly behaviour is escalating and that urgent intervention is required.
These can include threats to kill the woman, threats from the perpetrator to kill himself, separation and post-separation, a history of domestic violence or stalking or access to firearms, Ms Green said.
"There are lots of indicators that come up that will give workers who are well trained some warning that there is something not quite right here, that this woman is at risk."
The NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, first recommended the establishment of a domestic violence review team in 2006, after reviewing police practice in response to domestic violence. Since then dozens more women and children have died, and NSW is no closer to finding out why.
"We can see that looking at … the way families and individuals interact with a range of different government departments and services providers … can give you the benefit, certainly in hindsight, of seeing what you could have done differently," Mr Barbour said.
"By trying to identify factors that continually crop up where you see fatalities in a domestic situation will help identify risks and allow you to intervene in a relationship earlier, with the obvious benefit of preventing a fatality."
The review would also help agencies to improve their capacity to respond to potentially fatal situations, he said.
"My office is very aware of the significantly challenging environment our front-line workers deal with, from DOCS, police, housing, or the non-government sector, drug and alcohol workers.
"But all of those people would recognise the benefit of having an independent body look at the way a family that was the subject of a domestic violence homicide was dealt with and how a family in a similar situation might be able to be helped better in the future."
Superintendent Rodney Smith, the corporate spokesman on domestic violence for the NSW Police Force, said his service supported the introduction of a domestic violence homicide review.
"We are looking at trying to intervene at the earliest possible opportunity from a policing perspective to get the best outcome as we can for victims of domestic violence and hold the perpetrators to account."
But the Department of Community Services is not as keen. Without expressing any support for the process, a spokeswoman said DOCS recognised there had been calls for a review.
But it warned that if a review was established, it should "not duplicate existing review processes undertaken by NSW Police, the Coroner, the Ombudsman and the child deaths review team".
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/11/23/1227375062015.html