The incredibly heart-breaking story of the murder of siblings Jack and Jennifer Edwards at the hands of their father in Sydney in 2018, highlighted again how precarious and fatal domestic violence situations can become, particularly when the police and other authorities fail in the exercise of their duties.
The NSW State Coroner released her findings regarding the inquest into their deaths last week. The report confirmed that the children’s mother, Ms Olga Edwards had disclosed the abuse they experienced at the hands of Ms Edwards’ former husband, John Edwards, to a number of authorities, and yet a “string of errors and omissions” were made by police, firearms registry staff and a family court lawyer.
The report found that despite Ms Edwards reporting the abuse to police, there were many mistakes made in the way that the police processed her complaint. For example, there were no steps taken to interview her children or her former husband, and there had been no comprehensive search undertaken of her former husband’s police records, which would have disclosed a history of domestic abuse and apprehended violence orders.
The fact that Ms Edwards reported the abuse is notable. It is more often the case that many victims don’t report on domestic abuse out of a fear they won’t be believed or that the abuser will find a way to ‘get around the law somehow’. Recent statistics show that 60 percent of victim survivors of domestic and family violence don’t go to the police.
But in this case, Ms Edwards did go to the police. And they, and other authorities, let her and her children down.
This is not an isolated case. In fact, in NSW, there have been a number of victims of domestic abuse who received “inadequate responses at the hands of police”, as revealed by the Domestic Violence Death Review Team (DVDRT) in its latest report to the NSW State Parliament.
The DVDRT is an initiative of the NSW Coroner’s Court which is tasked with reviewing cases of domestic violence deaths that occur in NSW. It reviews individual closed cases of domestic violence deaths and at the same time, seeks to identify system issues that have led to such deaths, and make recommendations for change.
The most recent report of the DVDRT reported on a number of cases in the past two years where victims had gone to the police and received similarly inadequate responses.
In one case, the victim’s former boyfriend, who had been abusive and controlling throughout their relationship, began stalking her after their relationship ended. She received threatening text messages from him and told her friends she was afraid of him. She coincidentally went to the police station on an unrelated matter and whilst there, disclosed to the police officer on duty that she had been having trouble with the abuser and expressed concern about his behaviour. The police officer however didn’t record the complaint in the police system, nor did she provide the victim with any information about Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs) or referrals. She took the victim’s phone number but neither she nor the victim knew that the ex-boyfriend had a police history of domestic violence offences and had previously been named in an ADVO protecting another woman. The victim did not approach police again, despite the fact that over the next week, the abuser continued to stalk and harass her. She was murdered by the abuser that same week.
The report concluded that “victims were sometimes given inaccurate advice, their complaints were not recorded correctly or at all, and they did not get a positive response at the front counter. That stopped them from reporting future episodes of domestic violence.”
The DVDRT also found that, given that “public messaging around domestic violence instructs victims and bystanders to report episodes of violence and abuse to police as the primary responder, these poor responses to reporters are particularly concerning.”
A new initiative proposed by the DVDRT to address this concerning issue is to place independent specialist domestic violence workers on-site at NSW police stations. Workers from the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service would be placed at five police stations in NSW. These workers are currently located at courts throughout the state. Their focus is on assisting women and children with “information, advocacy, safety planning, and referrals to housing and other services.”
The report identified that co-locating police and specialist domestic and family violence services could also allow support services to conduct more effective outreach directly to victims and allow greater collaboration and increased communication between police and workers from domestic violence support services.
The trial will begin next month and has been welcomed by representatives of front line domestic violence services.
Initiatives that work to make women and children safer when it comes to reporting domestic violence are to be welcomed. It is hoped this is the first of many creative new initiatives that will be implemented when police, government and welfare support services work together to ensure the safety of women and children in abusive domestic violence situations.