The idea was straightforward. Examine the 500 or so intimate partner homicides of women that took place in Australia between 2007 and 2016, and identify how these could have been avoided.
In Australia, intimate partner homicides are the most common preventable cause of death for women aged between 15 and 44. They’re considered preventable because many cases show early warning signs – intervention orders, calls to police, missed days at work and so on.
Monash criminology professor Jude McCulloch and colleagues Dr Kate Fitzgibbon, Professor JaneMaree Maher and Professor Sandra Walklate received Australian Research Council funding to identify “potential points of intervention that might have provided opportunities to prevent such killings”.
More than a year into the project, Professor McCulloch says identifying the cases that will form the basis of the research has proved time-consuming, and is still not done.
“The system for collecting the data is extremely fractured in Australia,” she says. “We’ve had to go through each state and territory separately, where the data is held in different forms. And at this stage we’ve been completely unsuccessful in accessing any data from Queensland.”
So far, the team has reviewed 200 intimate partner homicides, with another 70 to go. They estimate that 140 cases have taken place in Queensland, which they hope to add to the list. Data on murder-suicides – in which a man kills his partner and then himself – also needs to be collected and analysed.
“We’ve gathered about 20 murder-suicides from Victoria, but we haven’t gone to the other states,” she says. “Because, again, the system is fractured, it’s complicated. You can’t just write one letter or make one phone call – it’s multiple contacts, finding the right person, getting the right clearances …”
The wider data gap
The data gap on ‘femicides’ – a term for women killed by their intimate partner – isn’t peculiar to Australia, but is replicated in many other jurisdictions, she says. Since 2015, “the UN has been calling for each state to set up what they call femicide observatories or watches to better collect this data”.
Academics, journalists and activists gather this information when the state does not. In Australia, Destroy the Joint keeps a count based mainly on media sources, while other groups also keep statistics. “We think that counting these deaths is a necessary but not sufficient response,” Professor McCulloch says. But “to better understand the phenomenon in order to prevent it, you do need to have better access to data”.
In Australia, intimate partner homicides aren’t always readily distinguishable from other forms of homicide. “For each state and territory, we’ve gone to sentencing judgments for homicides, and discern from the sentencing remarks whether they are intimate partner homicides, where the perpetrator is a man and the victim is a woman. And that’s what we’re basing our count on.”
Sentencing judgments are typically detailed narrative accounts, in which the judge describes how and where the crime took place, and the circumstances that led to it. The researchers, assisted by Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre staff, Dr Jasmine McGowan and Kate Thomas, have identified about 100 themes from the judgments they’ve analysed so far.
“How many people knew, and who were they? Was it a doctor? Was it a teacher? How many times were they in contact with the criminal justice system? What were the characteristics that were seen to be the motivation of the perpetrator? Was mental illness involved?”
“Violence against women is one demonstration of the unequal position of women in society. So, if you’re really trying to change part of the deep structure of society, it’s not going to come overnight."
Professor McCulloch acknowledges that the judgments may not tell the whole story. They don’t include concerned neighbours or friends who knew of the danger but never told anyone before or after the death. And if a woman didn’t confide in anyone before her death, what can be known about her state of mind, or how her death might have been avoided?
One theme that’s already emerged is that men who have been injured at work and are forced to spend time at home can become violent abusers. “There is something about the stress and loss of status related to sudden loss of employment in relatively traumatic circumstances that might be a red flag in these cases – combined with other factors, probably,” she says. “We’re not aware of it being discussed in the literature.”
A separate category
Although lethal violence is “the most terrible thing that can happen”, traditionally, domestic violence has been placed in a separate category from other crimes. Professor McCulloch readily acknowledges that we’ve moved on from the bad old days, when police regarded domestic assaults as none of their business, but says we still have a long way to go.
“A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t,” she says. “Violence against women is one demonstration of the unequal position of women in society. So, if you’re really trying to change part of the deep structure of society, it’s not going to come overnight, it’s not going to be linear, it’s not going to be from bad to good – there will be a whole lot of mixed things in between.”
So, while Victoria led the world with its Royal Commission into Family Violence, in this country domestic violence is still generally perceived as less of a threat than terrorism.
At least one woman a week is killed by a man in Australia.