The Glenn Inquiry and selling out safety

What should feminists make of the Glenn Inquiry?

Owen Glenn pledged $80 million to sort out child abuse and domestic violence, including a $2 million inquiry to answer the question:

“If New Zealand was leading the world in addressing child abuse and domestic violence what would that look like?”

The appointment of Ruth Herbert to head the Inquiry was the best decision Owen Glenn could have made, and her swift recruitment of the most well-connected (to community) and well-informed (about the dynamics of domestic violence) to advise this Inquiry was inspired.  Her staff choices were not half bad either, including several women with many, many years of experience responding to domestic violence and working with survivors.

Disclaimer: I know Ruth Herbert professionally, and have done for many years.  She is, in my opinion, the single most brilliant feminist structural thinker working in the gendered violence sector in New Zealand.  Which doesn’t mean I always agree with her – but it does mean if I was going to pick one feminist to change structures which fail to ensure victims of domestic violence are safe, and fail to hold people using abuse to account, it would be her.

All swims along nicely.  There’s a website, community meetings starting to take place, and of course that Think Tank.

Then in May, Ruth Herbert and her Operations Manager Jessica Trask both resign.  In just over a month, 28 of the 38 original Think Tank members have left, and the old allegation of assault which Mr Glenn pled no contest for becomes public knowledge.  Other staff members also resign.

Ms Herbert and Ms Trask make it clear there are confidentiality issues in the leaving of the Glenn Inquiry, and who knows how much legal action someone with Mr Glenn’s fortune can buy?  So the exact issues at play in all these resignations are sketchy.

But was has been made clear is the issues at the root of this were safety.  In the words of one of the former interviewers for the Inquiry:

“I think the safety, the literal life and death safety of these people is in jeopardy at the moment under an inquiry being run by people who haven’t experienced [domesticviolence] and have no understanding of how real it is.” She hoped experts were”warning off”victims who had been asked to co-operate.

It’s hard to see how this is salvageable, but then to complicate matters further, a quite astonishing review is made public, which makes allegations about the practices of the Inquiry under Ms Herbert and Ms Trask.  Allegations, it turns out, they were unaware of:

“We were unaware the report was being released and were given no opportunity to respond to the direct criticisms about us contained in the report before it was published.  We continue to be unable to speak publicly due to the confidentiality clause in the contracts we had with the Glenn Family Foundation. We are now seeking legal advice.”

This is astonishing precisely because, if the problem was Ms Herbert, why have 28 out of 38 Think Tank members resigned because she left?

It’s hard not to see this “independent” review as a contracted cover-up, with just a little bit of utu thrown in.  The report says the authors were “engaged” but it’s unclear if that means the Inquiry paid them, or if they were paid, how much.  The authors make their priorities clear when they state:

the most critical challenge for the Board was to secure stability within the organisation, ensure that the leadership and management could function effectively and was sufficiently resilient to withstand any attempt to dislodge the purpose of the inquiry.

They go on to make a bunch of recommendations about data storage, governance and dis-establishing the Think Tank.  They also think the Glenn Inquiry should hire a PR specialist in there pronto. 

Today a critique of this review surfaced, from a former Think Tank member Rachel Simon-Kumar.  If you read one link to this post, go to this one:

Nowhere in the executive summary is there an actual definition of the term “safety” that the authors are trying to evaluate….

The concern with this lack of rigour is that the report focuses on aspects of personal relationships that are irrelevant to safety (ideal, though, for character assassination) but alongside, misses out on key issues central to understanding it.

Central to women-centred research is the understanding that safety is not merely about data collection, storage or retrieval; it is equally about who interprets the data and draws conclusions from them. The values and the framing of the findings is central to ensuring safety of voices of survivors.

In the end, it seems the inquiry would have been served best if a fully objective review had been undertaken by experts who have the skill sets to assess women-centred research. Until such time, it is safe to say that the perils that others have pointed to still persist.

I’m going to leave you with the words of Louise Nicholas, who can always be relied on to put the safety of survivors first.  She withdrew her support immediately after Ruth Herbert and Jessica Trask resigned. 

When I heard that Ruth Herbert and Jessica Trask had resigned from the inquiry I didn’t believe there was any safety left for survivors I was going to support through this inquiry.  My own personal opinion is it isn’t safe for survivors.

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