Domestic violence victims are still being failed by the system — will a new approach help?

Domestic violence victims are still being failed by the system — will a new approach help?
  • PublishedSeptember 16, 2023

How many times have we heard it?

“Violence in a family context is a scourge on our community,” Premier Roger Cook said on Tuesday.

“Women have the fundamental right to feel safe in their home,” prevention of family and domestic violence minister Sabine Winton told parliament later that day.

“One death is too many.”

At this stage, the scale of the issue and the desperate need to address it isn’t up for debate. We’re past that point.

The vast majority understand the scourge and the urgent need to address it.

And in recent years solid progress has been made. But it’s not that simple.

DV deaths scrutinised

Since mid-2012 a little known figure of the government – WA’s independent Ombudsman – has been reviewing every family and domestic violence death in the state.

That includes where the person who died and the suspected perpetrator were married, in a de facto relationship, related to each other, or other similar situations.

In 2012—13 his office investigated 20 deaths. Last year it was nine, despite WA’s overall murder rate remaining steady.

When you factor in a growing population, domestic violence deaths have fallen significantly, while the overall homicide rate has barely changed.

It’s why advocates say time and time again the investment made so far – which the government puts at around $200 million since 2017 – has saved lives.

But that’s not the end of the story

“We’re also talking about the lives of women and children who might not be getting killed right now, but imagine living in the fear that you might,” leading domestic violence advocate Alison Evans said on Tuesday.

It’s impossible to know how many women are living that terror right now.

But we know an increasing number are facing the horrific choice of staying in a dangerous situation they might not escape from alive or fleeing into homelessness.

Of the 4,932 women who reached out to homelessness services in June this year, 2,756 had also experienced family and domestic violence. More than half.

Post-separation period critical

Dr Evans pointed out the gap that creates between the talking points of the Premier and his ministers and the reality on the ground.

“We’re saying to women and children, look, we’re here to support you and to leave, or we’re here to ensure that the perpetrator leaves but we actually need to do that in action,” she said.

“We need to be there supporting women and children all the way and that includes in that post-separation period when we know that they’re at heightened risk and we know that they’re relying on us to support them into safe housing.”

And it’s that post-separation period which advocates return to time and time again as the missing puzzle piece in WA’s current approach to domestic violence.

The deaths of Lynn Cannon and Georgia Lyall are two recent examples of how dangerous that time can be.

A close up picture of a blonde woman smiling
Lynn Cannon was murdered by her estranged husband in December last year. (Supplied)

Ms Cannon was murdered in a “particularly savage” stabbing attack by her ex-husband in December last year, two years after the pair had separated. 

Ms Lyall was found dead in her South Guildford home in July, with police believing she was killed by her former partner who took his own life hours later. 

A close up image of a woman with an unidentified child
Police believe Georgia Lyall was killed by her ex-partner, who later killed himself.(Facebook)

Another report from the Ombudsman last year found more than half of all West Australian women and children who died by suicide in 2017 were known to the state government as victims of domestic violence

Nearly half – or 42 per cent – of those deaths occurred more than a year after the woman’s final family violence report to police.

Change in approach sought

The government’s announcement this week – of a taskforce, a lived experience body and an element of its gun reforms – represents fairly minimal change in and of itself. 

What advocates hope is that it will unlock a “transformative” shift in the way domestic violence is handled in the future.

A woman wearing a white hat and purple shirt holding a white cross walking outdoors during a rally.
Advocates hope a new approach to domestic violence, bringing agencies together, might help improve things.(ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

And a key part of that is addressing the walls that exist between different government departments, as well as with service providers.

“Across government and also within the community sector, we need to keep working together to break down the silos to better share information and data, including patterns about perpetrator behaviour,” prevention of family and domestic violence minister Sabine Winton said this week.

A close up of a woman with blonde hair.
Sabine Winton is trying to bring agencies together to work cooperatively on family violence.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

It’s an acknowledgement that, often, women and children who lose their lives to domestic violence are known to government departments and agencies.

And yet, despite the efforts of all those they had contact with, they did not survive.

Advocates hope that by having all the key players in the room – the heads of government departments, including the Premier’s Office, as well as major sector players – will result in some kind of breakthrough.

Undoubtedly change also needs to happen in all areas of the community to make that impact real.

But the government has to play a leading role in that change.

Whether that can be achieved through this latest taskforce might finally show whether that sentiment we so often hear – that enough is enough – is more than just a reflex reaction to the latest reminder of this society-wide scourge.


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