It’s been six months since the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children, but Australia’s domestic violence protections have 'gone backwards'.
It’s been six months since the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children, but Australia’s domestic violence protections have 'gone backwards'.

‘Opportunity lost’ when it comes to family abuse protections

SINCE the brutal murder of Hannah Clarke and her children in February, Australia's protections against similar atrocities have gone backwards, a leading researcher says.

Perpetrators are getting away with more under the cover of COVID-19, CQ University domestic and family violence researcher Dr Brian Sullivan says.

And he has warned against the recent push for digital-only support services for victims, as perpetrators regularly use devices to stalk, control and intimidate.

"I am just so disappointed that COVID-19 has taken Hannah Clarke and her family off the front pages," Dr Sullivan said.

"Of course, the pandemic had to take the attention, but those horrifying murders in February, and so many others, had Queensland at a turning point for tackling domestic and family violence.

"Now without action now that opportunity will be lost."

Ms Clarke and her three children were fatally burned in a murder-suicide by her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.

Dr Sullivan, a Brisbane-based researcher with CQUniversity's Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research, said policymakers needed to escalate police interventions urgently.

"The only effective way to stop violence is to focus on the offenders - it's not enough to help victims escape, and provide them shelter, if the abuser can just disappear off the radar, and into the shadows, to continue his abusive way," he said.

"I've seen really horrifying examples of how cunning DFV offenders can be, often posing as victims to pursue their ex-partners through refuges, or creating false identities to monitor their social media."

Dr Sullivan believes the Queensland Government should consider new "focused deterrence" policing measures to reduce DFV.

The approach - which Dr Sullivan says has proven successful in the United States - classifies all known DFV offenders on a risk scale, and mandates interventions, for instance immediate criminal charges and jail time for a high-risk offender who reoffends.

"Lower down the scale, a new perpetrator for instance might be given a zero tolerance message from police and community stakeholders, and offered relevant support for change - but sanctions and consequences for noncompliance are laid out for him, and if he reoffends the consequences are to be swift, certain and appropriately severe," Dr Sullivan said. 

"So, it is a carrot and stick approach, and it's showing promising results in reducing police call-outs, incidents of dv, and fatalities."

*For 24-hour domestic violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or MensLine on 1800 600 636. The Suicide Call Back service is on 1300 659 467.

Originally published as 'Opportunity lost': Concerns over DV protections