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Despite the Queensland government’s huge financial commitment to the battle against family violence, the brutal murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children at the hands of her abusive husband highlight how far there is to go. By Bri Lee.

Queensland’s domestic violence struggle

Hannah Clarke’s parents, Lloyd and Suzanne Clarke, are flanked by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (left) and Queensland Police Service Commissioner Katarina Carroll (right) during last Sunday’s vigil for their daughter and three grandchildren.
Credit: AAP Image / Sarah Marshall

The murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children – Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3 – on the morning of February 19 in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill shocked the nation.

Rowan Baxter’s crime made the familiar statistics horrifically palpable: in Australia one woman each week is killed by a current or former partner, one child killed almost every fortnight by a parent.

The circumstances leading up to these killings have been variously described as “classic” and “textbook” cases of domestic violence. But they occurred in a state that has been vocal about addressing family violence – under a state government that has accepted and enacted all 140 recommendations laid out in Quentin Bryce’s 2015 “Not Now, Not Ever” report, committing a record investment of $328.9 million over six years – and, as such, stand as a reminder of just how far Queensland, and Australia, still have to go in dealing with this epidemic.

Hannah Clarke left Rowan Baxter in early December 2019, taking their three children with her. Clarke’s mother, Suzanne, said her daughter was afraid to go to the police about Baxter’s behaviour in case it made him even angrier. However, he was placed under a domestic violence order (DVO) after kidnapping their elder daughter on Boxing Day during an organised contact visit.

Baxter breached that DVO, losing his right to the custody of his children. The order was then amended in late January, and he regained access to his children, only to lose it again just a week later, after another alleged assault on Clarke in early February.

A friend of Hannah Clarke’s told the ABC the final breach incident involved Baxter printing out revealing images of his estranged wife and putting them in the family car during another arranged visit. Baxter is said to have tried to break Clarke’s wrist when she confronted him about this in front of their children. Police confirmed they were involved in the family’s situation for several months before the February killings.

Between that final incident and the familicide, Clarke was still helping facilitate video chats twice a week, so Baxter could see and speak to the children. Hannah’s brother, Nathaniel Clarke, told ABC’s 7.30 that when Baxter spoke on the phone to his children on the night of Tuesday, February 18, he “had a plan” and was a “blubbering mess” – knowing exactly what he was going to do the following morning.

Suzanne Clarke told A Current Affair Baxter could manipulate her daughter. “The night before he killed them, he was on the phone to the children crying, and when she hung up, or the children hung up, she said to me, ‘Mum, I feel so bad for him.’ ” Hannah Clarke had asked her mother just the week before, “What happens to my babies if he kills me?”

On Wednesday morning, as Clarke and her three children left home to go to school, Rowan Baxter got into the passenger seat of the family car. He poured petrol on Clarke and set fire to the car with all five of them inside. The three children died there, while Hannah Clarke was taken to hospital. She was able to give a full account to police before succumbing to her injuries later that night. Baxter died at the scene from self-inflicted wounds.

One of the most alarming and difficult things to deal with in the aftermath of this crime is that Hannah Clarke did everything a person is “supposed to do” in a situation of family violence.

She kept in contact with a supportive network of family and friends, she reported Baxter’s violence to the police and he was placed under a DVO. She took her children and left Baxter, moving back in with her parents.

She attended mediation with her estranged husband and attempted to find a compromise for their custody arrangements – a reasonable split of time with each parent, which he rejected. She reported Baxter when he breached his DVO and his access to the children was rescinded.

It must also be acknowledged that as a white woman, with English as her first language, with no physical or mental disability, Clarke represents a demographic that, statistically speaking, would be best placed to navigate the system. But, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison acknowledged, “the system failed”.

Di Farmer, Queensland’s minister for Child Safety, Youth and Women and minister for Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, said that as soon as the government started acting on the “Not Now, Not Ever” report’s findings in 2015 – including public awareness campaigns, education, and increased services and visibility of support systems – reports of domestic and family violence “started going through the roof”.

In the week following the murder of the Clarke family, Women’s Legal Service Queensland (WLSQ) has reported a significant increase in the number of calls for help they have received from women whose partners have threatened to do to them what Baxter did. In both an immediate and ongoing sense, Farmer says, “the more we deal with it, the more we see”. Similarly, she attributed the rising number of breached DVOs in Queensland as evidence that “the police have the tools to do that now”.

Deb Frecklington, Queensland Liberal opposition leader, told ABC Radio Brisbane it was time for another review, and that her party were “more than happy to have a bipartisan approach to this issue”. Farmer agreed and said, “We’ve always been bipartisan. I think the community needs that and wants that. The premier has always been strong about that. It goes to the heart of the message we send about DV in general.”

Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Council, which was announced in November 2019, met for the first time on Friday. Co-chaired by journalist Kay McGrath and former police commissioner Bob Atkinson, it includes ministers and experts from across women’s groups, health and the law.

Di Farmer spoke to The Saturday Paper before that meeting and indicated the council had received a huge amount of feedback and suggestions for “next steps”. All suggestions would be seriously considered, she said. Recurring themes have been the push to legislate against coercive control and stronger support for both parties around the high-risk time of separation.

In the wake of Hannah Clarke’s death, several experts have suggested her relationship with Baxter exhibited signs of coercive control. Nathaniel Clarke told 7.30 his sister’s husband “had to control every moment he was in”, while Clarke’s friends said he was recording her on devices without her knowledge and photographing her movements.

Both family and friends have said Baxter was demanding sex every night or “forcing her to have sex with him every night”. The word “rape” was not used, but it is important to articulate that intercourse occurring under threat or coercion is rape. Suzanne Clarke said Baxter controlled what her daughter wore. In hindsight, the family realised he had tried to isolate her from them, driving “a wedge” between family members.

With hindsight it also becomes clear that Rowan Baxter’s conduct is an exemplary case of the law’s inability to deal with dangerous and escalating behaviour constituting coercive control. It appears that Hannah Clarke did not go to the police until Baxter became physically violent, and by that time it was only a matter of weeks until he killed her and their children.

The time of separation is the highest risk for perpetrators’ violence escalating and possibly leading to homicide. When the perpetrator has contact with children, those occasions can become a focus for their criminal behaviour.

Dr Heather Nancarrow, chief executive of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), has recommended police monitoring of, and mental health support for, perpetrators who are identified as being at high risk of escalations of violence about the time of separation. Di Farmer confirmed this, and similar plans had been suggested over the preceding week.

These events have also brought renewed focus to concerns about a culture of disrespect towards gendered crime within the Queensland Police Service.

Detective Inspector Mark Thompson, the original investigating officer in the Clarke murders, was removed from the case after saying his job was to keep an “open mind” about the events. “Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence, and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband? Or is it an instance of a husband being driven too far, by issues that he’s suffered by certain circumstances, into committing acts of this form?”

This came in the wake of many worrying stories about QPS’s actions in domestic violence matters.

Last year, in October, a senior constable pleaded guilty to using a police database to obtain the details of a domestic violence survivor and sharing them with her abuser.

A massive data report from the ABC earlier this year showed that the QPS rejects one in five sexual assault reports – compared with one in 20 in other states, such as Tasmania.

Then last week, Guardian Australia reported a Queensland woman successfully prosecuted her own domestic violence matter in civil court after police refused to charge the man due to a “low level of public interest”. The woman alleged her former partner doused her with petrol, a claim he admitted to during the civil proceedings.

Di Farmer said she has been working with the minister for Police and the police commissioner, after completing a months-long process of community consultation in relation to sexual violence.

“We talk about culture change but it’s also about skill set,” she said. “A generalist officer dealing with anything from property crime to jaywalking to whatever may go an entire shift purely dealing with domestic violence, and we know that perpetrators are extremely skilled and deceitful, talking down the seriousness of a situation.”

WLSQ has raised the issue of further police training, but explicitly tied this to the introduction of coercive control legislation.

In the wake of the Clarke murders, WLSQ’s chief executive, Angela Lynch, denounced the cycle of horror, reflection and inertia that has come to characterise Australia’s response to family violence.

“A coronial inquest is not enough, this will take too long and we need an immediate response that matches the magnitude of the domestic violence crisis our community is facing,” she said. “Until we put this as a real priority with a list for action, we won’t see any significant change.”

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "System failure".

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Bri Lee
is a lawyer and the author of Eggshell Skull and Beauty.

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