In 2020, the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children – Aaliyah (6), Laianah (4) and Trey (3) – by her former partner, Rowan Baxter, terrified the nation. It has provoked significant calls for urgent action against violence against women and improved recognition of coercive control as a leading forerunner of female murder in intimate measure.
Lawyers, including Hannah Clarke’s parents, have campaigned for the introduction of coercive control as a stand-alone criminal offense.
Yesterday, the findings of the coronal judicial inquest into these deaths were announced. It is a clear reminder that men’s violence against women is a national crisis and system reform is urgent.
Here’s what the forensic autopsy found, and what systemic changes are needed.
We must not accept the murder of women as inevitable
Jane Bentley described Baxter (who later killed himself) as “a master of manipulation”:
I find it unlikely that any further action by police officers, service providers, friends or family members could have prevented Baxter from eventually carrying out his murderous plans.
It endorses a key message of recent inquiries at the state and national level of the need to increase offenders liability at all points of the system.
However, we cannot accept the status quo that one woman in Australia is murdered every nine days by a current or former partner.
Violence against women is preventable. Baxter’s actions confirm the well-proven fact that men who commit intimate intimacy with women rarely do so “out of the blue”.
Rowan Baxter had a history of violence. The findings of the forensic autopsy document how Baxter in the period before his “last act of cowardice”:
was the subject of an application for domestic violence
violated the terms of a domestic violence order, an act for which he was not charged
was the subject of an assault charge
had a history of compulsive behavior, details of which were provided by a friend of Hannah’s in an affidavit to Queensland police before her death.
The forensic autopsy also revealed that Baxter, in his relationship with Hannah, used reproductive coercion, technology-facilitated and image-based abuse among other forms of intimate partner violence.
Numerous Australian death reviews have found that the period of relationship separation, history of coercive and controlling behavior, and interactions with the family court system are well-known precursors of female murder in intimate measure.
Advocates of victim survivors have repeatedly said they are best placed to determine their risk.
The forensic autopsy showed Hannah Baxter was in contact with police and expressed her concern to family and friends.
It exposed a system that was not built to deal effectively with men’s violence against women, or to contextualize every systemic interaction in a broader pattern to reveal the real risk to women and children.
Read more: ‘All these people with lived experience are not heard’: what survivors of domestic violence want policymakers to know
The need for whole system reform
The coroner made recommendations to improve policing, child safety and service system responses, including:
a trial of a specialized domestic violence police station
increased training for all specialist violent police officers
increased funding for men’s behavior change programs in both prisons and in the community.
The recommendations emphasize the importance of multidisciplinary responses and show that work in silos is inefficient.
There has been significant recent reform in Queensland and across other states and territories.
This includes legislation designed to improve domestic violence risk assessment and management practices, and to put in place information-sharing schemes that are essential for a whole-system response to domestic violence.
Victoria’s information sharing system seeks to ensure that risks are kept in full view of all parts of the system.
It aims to ensure that when women interact with various agencies, their experiences of an abuser’s violence are shared among professionals tasked with assessing and managing risk.
The findings of the forensic autopsy provide a clear reminder why effective risk assessment and information sharing are essential components of an effective whole-of-system response to domestic violence.
Read more: There is $ 1.3 billion for women’s safety in the budget and that is not nearly enough
We must recognize children as victim survivors in their own right
The inquest found:
there was no real assessment of the risk of harm to the children by QPS [Queensland Police Service] or Child Safety Officers – the only assessment was that Hannah was able to take care of them.
This finding is critical.
Children often remain invisible at different points of the domestic violence system.
Yet one child in Australia is killed by a parent almost every two weeks.
Although children are typically treated as an extension of their primary caregiver, the risks children face must be identified and addressed in their own right.
Victoria is currently developing a child- and youth-specific risk assessment and governance framework, as part of reforms stemming from the Victorian Royal Commission on Domestic Violence.
But in most Australian states and territories, the risks specifically for children are unaddressed.
Read more: ‘Silent victims’: Royal commission recommends better protection for child victims of domestic violence
An urgent need for sustained national and state action
The findings of the inquest are a stark reminder of the dire cost of men’s violence against women in Australia and the need for urgent action.
With a new federal government in place, and the expected impending release of the next national plan to end violence against women and children (as the old one expires today), we now need a whole government commitment to address everyone. forms of male violence.
The draft National Plan (which replaces the one that is about to end) sets out a commitment to address prevention, intervention, response and recovery. It is encouraging that this draft plan has provided a much-needed commitment to the recognition of children as victim survivors in their own right.
As the next National Plan comes into place, we need to focus on delivering the evidence-based recommendations of recent inquiries, commissions and consultations. Critically, we also need a transparent approach to monitoring progress.
By the end of May, 20 women in Australia would have been killed by men in 2022.
We must not wait for the inevitable findings of the next judicial inquest.
A brave national commitment is now needed. We desperately need a new national plan, coupled with a state and national resource commitment that fits the depths of the crisis.