Date: 
Tuesday 24 January 2017

Authors

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs

In March 2010, shortly after making the decision to leave her abusive husband after more than 20 years of violence, Zahra Abrahimzadeh was stabbed to death in front of 300 witnesses inside the Adelaide Convention Centre. Two years later, her husband was convicted of her murder.

In 2014, Greg Anderson killed his 11-year-old son, Luke Batty, at a cricket ground in Victoria. His mother, Rosie Batty, went on to become one of Australia's most prominent advocates against domestic and family violence.

In September 2015, a young woman named Tara Brown died of catastrophic head injuries inflicted by her estranged partner and only weeks later on the Gold Coast, Karina Lock was shot dead by her husband in a restaurant in front of 30 people.

These are the stories that haunt us, that galvanise public opinion and that prompt political leaders to take action.

These stories also serve to focus public attention on the prevalence of domestic and family violence homicides and filicides in Australia. They are the stories that bring texture and heartbreak to the statistics.

And the statistics are damning.

Data from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that of the 479 homicides in Australia from 2010 to 2012, 196 occurred in a domestic context. This is 40 percent of all homicides in Australia.

Over the same period, 34 children under the age of 18 were killed by a parent or step-parent. The average age of the children at the time of death was just under 7 years old.

Behind each statistic is a personal story of tragedy and loss. Collectively, examining the deaths of Zahra, Luke, Tara and Karina can teach us important lessons.

Death review is a forensic investigation into the complex array of factors leading to domestic and family violence death. Death Review Teams look at the circumstances leading up to the death, including the history of service engagement and interactions with government and non-government agencies.

The first domestic violence death review mechanism was established in San Francisco in the 1990s following the murder of 28-year-old Veena Charan.

For months preceeding her death, Veena interacted with various San Francisco agencies, making formal complaints to police, seeking restraining orders and custody orders. Her husband, Joseph Charan, shot her dead at their son's elementary school in front of students and teachers.

The Charan report made a raft of recommendations to improve San Francisco's services. The report led to the establishment of special domestic violence units within the San Francisco Police Department.

The first Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review team was established in Victoria in 2009. Death Review Teams now operate in most Australian jurisdictions.

While Coroners operate in Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, these jurisdictions do not currently have teams dedicated to collecting death review data on all domestic and family violence deaths.

This means that we are not able to compare deaths Australia wide.

There are good reasons to collect national data, outlined in the report released today by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

We know that domestic and family violence does not always fall neatly within the borders of specific states or territories. Those fleeing from violent situations are often willing to cross borders. It is vital that we have a clear understanding of how our systems communicate across multiple jurisdictions.

Without a federal body, there are limitations on monitoring coronial or death review recommendations made to agencies that have contact with victims and perpetrators. Agencies like the Federal and Family Courts or government departments such as Centrelink.

Trends in domestic an dfamily violence deaths and in service responses can be used to inform decision-makers about where to target resources. They also show where changes to policy, law or practices are required or have had an impact.

Over the next 12 months, we will engage with governments and coroners across Australia to identify mechanisms to collect national data and ensure that death review processes exist in all states and territories. This work is funded under the Third National Action Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2016 - 2019.

That our elected officials recognise that violence against women and their children is a national problem requiring a national response is to their credit. Their investment in this issue isa recognition of the vital work that coroners and existing domestic and family violence and child death review teams have done to improve our understanding of domestic homicide and the way our systems respond when challenged.

By learning the painful lessons arising from past tragedy, we can prevent avoidable deaths in the future.

Published in:

Sydney Morning Herald

Published link:

www.smh.com.au/comment/we-need-a-national-picture-of-domestic-violence-homicides-20170124-gtxn8x.html