Reviewing death

Trigger warning – this is about deaths through domestic violence, and it’s graphic.  Please be careful with reading it, or don’t read it, if you think it’s going to be too distressing.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a well documented problem with domestic violence – every seven minutes, someone calls the Police for help, and that’s estimated to be just 18% of violence perpetrated.  Domestic violence is also highly gendered, with predominantly men perpetrating, and predominantly women and children being victimised, despite fairly regular claims otherwise by high-profile media men.  Around 50% of our homicides are family violence related.

I feel very fortunate never to have worked with women who were later killed by a male partner.  All of the women I’ve worked with who were stabbed, shot at, beaten up, strangled, burnt, brutally raped, who had bones broken or teeth knocked out or were concussed by blows to the head, women carrying permanent physical injuries – none of those women were killed by their partner.  I know many advocates who have not been so fortunate.

So the Family Violence Death Review Committee has recently released it’s latest report, on deaths between 2002 and 2008, with the aim of reducing these very preventable deaths.

There is a great deal of information missing, starting with whether the victims or perpetrators had sought help from the state (the Police, Child Youth and Family, courts), from non-specialist places (churches, doctors, drugs and alcohol services) or from specialist places (Refuge, Stopping Violence programmes).

Without this information we cannot determine if these deaths happened because these families didn’t recognise what was happening was a problem; were too scared to seek help; or had tried, and been failed by inadequate responses.  We need to know how many of these victims had protection orders in place, and whether these had been enforced adequately.  We need to know how many if any of the perpetrators had previously been charged, or attended stopping violence programmes.  We need to know if it was even possible for women to leave violent men, or if a whole raft of things – protection orders costing money, benefits being cut, Police not taking complaints seriously, the world telling her to make it work because their kids need their dad, debts incurred by him in her name, and so, so many more – make this far, far more difficult than it should be.  We need to know what kinds of contact children killed by caregivers had had with outside agencies, and whether any of them could have successfully protected those children from harm.  And we need to know, when those deaths are of “other” family members, how accurately they fit within the parameters of family violence.  Are we talking about the same dynamics, or something completely different?

Until we know these things, we can’t be sure whether we still need It’s Not OK to be raising awareness of domestic violence and how to seek help, or whether our help-seeking agencies need to reconsider how they work to better keep people safe.

Incredibly, Appendix 5 of the report discusses New Zealand Police “not maintaining” the National Homicide Database in 2007 and 2008, which would account for some of the missing information no doubt.  Though community agencies are likely to hold more data, and it doesn’t appear from this report that they provided any of their knowledge.

The report breaks the deaths down into three categories – couple-related deaths, deaths of children under 15, and deaths of other family members (siblings, cousins etc).  In all three, mostly men kill:

Couple Related Deaths
Eighty-five men killed seventy-five female partners, and thirteen new male partners of their ex-partner.  Eight women killed one female partner and seven male partners.  The most common risk factors were threatened, imminent or recent separation; violence; alcohol and drug abuse, especially by the perpetrator and jealousy.  Something unexplored in this report but previously stated regularly by the Police is that when women kill male partners, the context is usually domestic violence being perpetrated by the male partner.

In at least one third of the couple-related deaths, others knew of specific threats or warnings that the perpetrator had made to the victim beforehand.

Child Deaths
Thirty-five men and twenty-three women killed children.  Children were most likely to be killed by mothers in the first four weeks of life, and fathers and stepfathers as they got older.  The first year of life is the riskiest for children, who usually die from injuries inflicted in assault.

The risk factors for killing a child are physical punishment, drug and alcohol use by the perpetrator, and an extreme response to relationship breakdown.

Other Family Members
Thirty-six men and thirteen women killed twenty-six men and eleven women. 

What does this mean in terms of prevention?
This is the most disappointing part of the report.  They discuss keeping an eye on domestic violence offenders when they are released from prison, and monitoring early parenting, including screening for domestic violence.  Both good, though how skilled the domestic violence screening is will be critical to this being truly preventative.  Increased training for Police, and the suggestion that a risk assessment tool would be useful for quantifying danger.  Also both good.

And that’s it.  I wanted to like this report, I really did.  I wanted to learn new things from it, and take them back to groups I work with, make changes in practise.  There is nothing here to help me do that.  Let’s hope the next report is more useful – or the grim work of reviewing preventable tragedies may not be worth doing, to be brutally honest.

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