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Hindsight and evaluation cannot alter the fate of Luke Batty. But a coroner’s report into his ‘unforeseeable’ murder has at least identified systemic failings in the handling of mental illness and domestic violence. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The shadow of  tragedy hangs over Luke Batty inquest

Rosie Batty after findings in the Luke Batty coronial inquest were handed down this week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

There would have been tragedy in the life of Luke Batty, even if his father hadn’t killed him. Months before his death, in 2013, a police officer and government child worker began a series of interviews with Luke at his home. They were assessing the risk his father posed to him. These were forensic interviews, but not uncaring, and later they would be lauded for their warmth and attentiveness. His mother, Rosie, would marvel at how much Luke volunteered to the two women. Things that, despite their close relationship, Luke had never told her. 

The two officers would affirm previous assessments of Luke. He was “parentified”, in the professional argot: roles had reversed and he had come to feel responsible for his father’s wellbeing. It was a precocious burden, and scarring. Luke was acutely aware of his father’s violence, homelessness and aggressive eccentricity. It made him ashamed and fretful. Despite his age, Luke understood the stakes. “I think I am the only thing he is living for,” he told his counsellor. He wept. 

At the Batty home in September 2013, the two officials were impressed with Luke’s intelligence, articulacy and compassion, traits ascribed to Rosie’s parenting. “Luke’s capacity to engage, relate respectfully to the interviewers, intelligently respond,” Luke’s counsellor said, “is a credit to his mother and evidence of the strength and of her modelling and good parenting.” But the two officers also saw a boy oscillating between gregariousness and reticence, optimism and melancholy. Luke was gifted but troubled, and seething with
an ambivalence towards his father. There was love and resentment in his heart, and an imagined sense of his own complicity in his dad’s trouble. 

Luke was parentified, but it is now his mother’s fate to suffer the crude, unsolicited commentary of those who would seek to become his retrospective parent. Those tactless enough to summon a hypothetical time machine, replacing Rosie with their own infallible guardianship. For former opposition leader Mark Latham, who sarcastically congratulated Batty on her “great taste in men”, the complexity and contradictions of this story can be resolved with the base mockery of a grieving mother. 

Luke’s counsellor, Dr Robyn Miller, remarked upon his ability to “express complex emotional states … and to make meaning with maturity … Children of this age frequently see difficult or violent parents as ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’, whereas Luke was able to relate more of a coherent narrative about his father’s complex difficulties.”

This comment now seems piquantly tragic, and the phrase “complex difficulties” profoundly inadequate. But it is also a counterpoint to the likes of Latham, who have ironically managed to “make meaning” destructively. Coroner Ian Gray’s 111-page report, released this week almost a year after the coronial hearings, is an unintended riposte – a careful account of the complicated context of Luke’s murder. 

Chameleonic tendencies

Luke was not the only one to exhibit dual qualities. His father, Greg Anderson, was almost chameleonic. When Rosie first met him, in 1992, he was loquacious, assured, intelligent. He was charming and well dressed. But in time, another side emerged – one that was violent, coercive and self-obsessed. His temper was capricious, and he seemed to think he was entitled to its violent expressions. Remorse and self-reflection didn’t exist. 

In 2010, Anderson was hospitalised for a severely broken wrist. He became irrationally hostile to medical staff, and so was subject to a mental health assessment. It took 34 minutes. Clinicians noted his “mildly elevated” state, as well as a “thought stream” that was “pressured and voluminous”. But no formal mental illness was diagnosed, rather a tentative assessment that Anderson was suffering “sub-clinical bipolar illness exacerbated by cessation of cannabis with mild hypomania”.

Two years later, Anderson was arrested for assaulting Rosie Batty in her home. The arresting officer, noting his pressured and voluminous ranting about God, invoked section 10 of the Mental Health Act and submitted him for psychiatric assessment. For years now, Anderson was obsessed with religion, and had been muttering ominously about recondite powers. Taken to Frankston Hospital for assessment, Anderson’s behaviour changed. His doctors found him to be “rational, discursive, articulate, completely normal…” He was judged to have full insight, his cognition “intact”. Police officers weren’t convinced. Today, neither is the coroner. “On the face of it,” Gray said in his report, “this non-referral for any follow-up revealed a surprisingly superficial approach. This may have been [a] missed opportunity to potentially engage Mr Anderson through the mental health system.” 

Anderson exists as an awful enigma in the report. His final days are well detailed, his long history of abuse recorded and parsed. But there is deep uncertainty. Coroner Gray said little was known about him, despite “extensive investigation”. His family did not co-operate with the coronial inquiry, nor did he ever reveal much about his past to Rosie. “I am unable,” Gray says, “to make any findings in relation to the reasons for Mr Anderson’s decision to kill his son.” 

But Anderson’s spectre infests the findings, as it did the lives of Rosie and Luke Batty. As those who have experienced troubled and controlling men will appreciate, Anderson existed as a storm cloud. He was a malevolent phenomenon, and unless he was imprisoned it seemed he couldn’t be banished. Anderson’s chameleonic wiles helped him elude psychiatric treatment; his eventual transience helped him evade police and court orders. 

Greg Anderson was never diagnosed with mental illness, and the two interim assessments mentioned here were the only ones he ever received. But rather than confirming a police officer’s belief that Anderson was “bad, not mad”, the lack of diagnosis exists as a frustrating failure. Anderson’s ability to present as “normal” was not proof that he was normal, and his presumed mental illness hangs heavily over the coroner’s report. 

A “psychiatric autopsy” was performed by Professor Paul Mullen, who determined that Anderson suffered from a delusional disorder. Gray notes: “Professor Mullen reasoned that had Mr Anderson been diagnosed and treated with medication to control his delusions, his abnormal ideas might not have driven him to criminal and violent behaviour”. Mullen is far from the only person to consider Anderson mentally aberrant – police, counsellors and Rosie Batty would attest similarly during the hearings. But Gray also commented on the difficulty of integrating those like Anderson into the system. “Mr Anderson appeared to be able to exercise a level of control over his own conduct and switch between irrational and rational behaviours and presentations. One of the most important issues to emerge here, and in other cases, is the inability or failure of the system to bring people like Mr Anderson inside the framework of the system and begin processes of change.” 

But as the coroner’s expert panel said, there are very few opportunities in the system to compel mental health assessment. Magistrates could suggest but not require them. “There should be a judicial power,” Gray said this week, “that can be activated where there are safety concerns, particularly in relation to children, to mandate that a perpetrator be assessed by a forensic psychiatrist. Had such a power existed, the court could have ordered Mr Anderson be psychiatrically assessed before his application for contact with Luke was considered.”

Given the myriad conscious crimes and manipulations of Anderson, many have sought to focus merely upon his agency. This has meant that mental illness has been ignored in some interpretations of Greg Anderson, who, like Rosie Batty, has become a cipher for our own anxieties and certitudes. 

‘A wearing battle’

Rosie sought assistance – and often received it – but it was she who was on the frontline. In dealing with a furiously unreasonable man, her strategy became a mixture of protection orders and mollification. Negotiating with violent irrationality is exhausting, and Rosie grew to hate Anderson. “It’s a wearing, wearing battle,” Batty said at last year’s hearings. “Trying to figure out what’s the best for everybody. All the time, what’s the best for Luke, what’s the best for Greg, what’s the best? There were no clear answers about anyone, anything in life.” 

But for a while she hated more the idea that her son would not have a father. This was her contradiction, and an utterly natural one. Rosie’s counsellor, Dr Jan Heath, noted in June 2013 a certain “anomaly” in Rosie’s thinking. On the one hand, Rosie abhorred the idea of treating her son as a possession, a commodity to provide or withhold from his father – and she also felt compelled to “placate” Anderson in some way. On the other hand, Rosie wanted the courts to seize total authority and cease Anderson’s contact with Luke. 

“And I saw that as an anomaly,” Heath testified last year, “in so much as she did want the courts to say that he couldn’t, because she didn’t feel strong enough to say ‘no’ to him. However, she also wanted him to have access. So that was always at odds. I sort of always suspected that had something to do with Rosie’s background, with regards to having lost her mother at an early age and so by virtue of that she wanted to ensure that Luke would have a relationship with his father.” 

It would be wrong to blame Rosie. In fact, Gray determines, it would be wrong to blame anyone other than Greg Anderson himself. This is the heart of his findings – that despite certain flaws and contradictions in the system, despite individual’s anomalies, despite certain flags, this wasn’t foreseeable. “While it is tempting with hindsight,” Gray said this week, “to regard Luke’s death as foreseeable because of the way Mr Anderson behaved towards Ms Batty and others, I conclude, based on the comprehensive evidence in this case, that Luke’s death was not reasonably foreseeable by any entity or person, including Ms Batty. No one person or agency could have reasonably been expected to foresee that Mr Anderson would be that rare perpetrator, and Luke the rare victim, of a violent filicide.”

The system was often responsive, prescient and sympathetic – just as it could be frustratingly impotent and closed. The system was as contradictory or shifting as the individuals that came within it. But, Gray said, “There was no causative link between the system gaps and flaws and Luke’s death.” 

Then there was the greatest uncertainty of them all: the near impossibility of predicting a parent killing their child. “I find that there is no validated risk assessment tool that can accurately predict whether a parent is likely to commit filicide,” Gray said. 

Ill-formed opinion

For Rosie Batty, the death of Greg Anderson wasn’t the end of vindictiveness. Plenty of strangers have adopted the cudgel, and offered their own hot and grubby assessments of her. Twitter is rife with them. We will never be short of people who are unrestrained by their ignorance; whose opinions are made more incandescent by it and not less. They have skipped decency, so there’s little chance they will grapple with the nuance and recommendations of Gray’s report. As they will miss the beating heart of Rosie’s project – a resurrection of Luke as martyr, and her own defence against nihilism. It would be wrong to view Rosie as supernaturally fortified – she is, at essence, a grieving and traumatised mother – but she continues to make meaning in beneficial ways.

Gray’s report is a repudiation of the hindsight bias – of the phenomenon where, after the fact, the event seems painfully predictable. While Gray dismisses this creeping determinism, he has offered 29 recommendations and called the Victorian premier’s attention to them. They will professionally affect courts, counsellors and police officers. It’s hoped that police might execute warrants more swiftly, that bail conditions for perpetrators will be revised, and delays in serving family violence orders improved. Gray has also asked that risk assessment frameworks be validated and universal, and powers conferred to the judiciary to mandate mental health assessments. 

It is a harrowing document, and one defined by both concrete recommendations and a certain sad resignation to the wicked complexity of human motivation. Aside from Greg Anderson, there are no villains.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "The shadow of  tragedy". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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