Updated: Mar 12, 2021
This article deals with domestic violence and might be triggering for some readers. If you require advice or support, visit or call your local police station, and ask for the Domestic Violence Liaison officer or call 1800 737 732. For more resources and services scroll to the bottom of this article.
"The number one failing of the service system was that Hannah Clarke did everything she possibly could to keep herself and her children safe," said Hayley Foster, chief executive of Women's Safety NSW.
On the 19th of February, Australia was shocked into silence by the horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her 3 children by her estranged husband. In the weeks leading up to this terrible event, Hannah and her family had been increasingly worried about threats to their safety. In early January, Hannah had applied for and been granted a domestic violence order. By early February, this APVO had been allegedly breached by her estranged husband, and he was served a Notice to appear in court in March. But it never got that far.
So often we continue to ask victims of Domestic and Family Violence (DFV): “Why don’t you leave?” “Why are you just staying in this terrible situation?”
Hannah had left. Hannah had uprooted her life and moved town. Hannah had done everything that we demand of victims of DFV, but it still wasn’t enough.
DFV affects millions of Australians every year. The ‘Personal safety survey’ conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 2.2 million Australians have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence from a partner by the age of 15, and 3.6 million have experienced emotional abuse. In Australia, on average one woman is killed every week as a result of DFV. These statistics clearly indicate that DFV is not a private trouble, but a public issue. It is a major national health and justice issue and has been for decades.
This is the pandemic that we can’t wear masks against so we just turn our heads away instead.
What have we done so far?
In 2011, the Australian Federal Government released its National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022. This provided 4 action plans to be actioned over 12 years and intended to address prevention, early intervention, protective measures, and overall improvement of front line services. But the plan is almost at an end, what now? Knowledge regarding DFV may have increased, but 2 in 5 people continue to be unsure of where to access help. There continues to be an overall lack of data regarding pathways, services, and access to help for victims.
After millions of dollars spent, the system is still failing. There continues to be no national standard for recording DFV and incidents, there is no consistency in police handling, and access to protection, let alone understanding the justice system requires a dictionary and a law degree.
The Police - Barriers to protection and enforcement
The first time I became disillusioned with the police as a protector and first responder in the case of DFV, I was 15. I was working in my first job as a receptionist at a medical clinic, when a woman, chased by a man, ran across the street screaming and into our clinic. The woman told us that she had attempted to leave her abusive husband that morning when he had caught her. She told us that she had moved to Australia to marry her husband, and had no family or support here. She spoke limited English and we communicated mostly through gestures, short phrases, and photos of injuries she had sustained. We told her that we would call the police, and it would be ok, that they would know what to do.
When the police arrived, two of them went outside to speak to the husband who had completely altered his behaviour and tone, while a third came to speak to the woman. The woman showed him the photos on her phone, she relayed as much as she could of the situation. At one point I saw her become frustrated, she told me, “he speaks better English than me, he will laugh with them and joke with them and they will believe him”.
In the end, they told us there was nothing they could do, it was a case of “he said, she said”. Her proof was insufficient. The most they would do is go back with her to their apartment, help collect her things, and take her to another person’s place. The only person the woman knew, was a family friend, who was a mutual friend of the couple.
I never found out what happened to her. I have no idea how her story went on. The only thing I know is that the people that should have protected her failed.
In cases of DFV police are the first responders. They are responsible for the provision of safety and support to victims, including any children. They are also supposed to be proactive in the prevention of DFV. Help the police is responsible for providing, according to their own ‘Domestic and Family Violence Procedure’ :
Applications of ADVO on behalf of victims
Direct or detain offender of an ADVO
Referrals to support agencies
Development of strategies to address repeat offenders
Arresting and charging the offender
In reality, research has shown that victims continue to have difficult and unhelpful encounters with police. An Australian study, which surveyed 493 lawyers and community advocates working in the DFV field, found that 52% had submitted one or more written complaints about police in the past 2 years. The same study also found that police would often justify inaction based on the fact that alleged victims did not have visible physical injuries. This is further corroborated by a study which found that 52.8% of police believed that they should only be required to arrest in DFV cases if there was clear evidence of physical injuries. These issues are compounded by findings that police continue to view DFV as a relationship issue, thus believing it is not their place to “take sides”. Negotiations involving finding a common solution, remain a common practise, as DFV is dismissed under domestic disturbances. This can be linked to two harmful ideas: the first is that victims are required to prove victimhood often at risk of their own physical or mental wellbeing, and the second that visible physical abuse is a higher priority, when in fact it is now well established that is only a component of a larger problem. If an APVO is ordered, they are only as effective as their enforcement, so if a quick and firm response is not present, and breaches are not taken seriously, perpetrators know that they can get away with further violence.
The police response to DFV is crucial and has significant ramifications for the safety of victims. Appropriate and positive police intervention can be significant in saving people’s lives.
Navigating the Justice system - Problem After Reporting
Reporting DFV is not the end of the story, far from it, the weeks and the months following reporting and removal from the situation can be extremely difficult and dangerous for survivors. People leaving DFV are in an extremely vulnerable position, due to the effects of limited financial, social, and welfare support. DFV is the largest driver of female homelessness, with specialist homelessness services reporting that 42% of all their clients reporting a history of DFV. Thus, access to appropriate assistance and support during these early stages is crucial in decreasing the likeliness of long-term negative outcomes.
Yet while researching for this article, I spoke to a few of my friends who are law students, regarding evidence and legal proceedings. Within minutes of talking my head was spinning, with jargon, useless bureaucracy, loopholes, and the trappings of a system that seems designed to make it as difficult as possible to gain protection, let alone justice. I have no other emotions, but sheer anger and frustration with a system that can be so difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone when you are under significant stress. These deficiencies are a result of historic marginalisation of women in the legal system and the reality is that this system is not built in this way - it reflects the way we value women and treat these issues, fundamentally.
So what next?
What we need on a large-scale is community advocacy. We need to continue to discuss DFV publicly and demand better, not just in the months following a tragic incident. We need to push for greater funding for support services and programs. We need to ensure that survivors of DFV are included in the policy making process, so that it is more accessible and appropriate.
In the meantime, to help someone through the reporting and legal process:
Advocate for them!
One cannot underestimate the importance of individual advocacy. People must know what their rights are as victims so that they know what should demand. During the reporting process demand that the police take action or refer you to support services. Remember that every station should have a domestic violence liaison officer. For additional legal advice try one of these hotlines:
Women legal advice line: 1800 801 501; http://www.wlsnsw.org.au/contact-us/
Domestic Violence Legal Advice line: 1800 810 784
For help and protection regarding court proceedings: 1800 938 227
Aboriginal legal services - regarding care, protection and family matters: 1800 733 233
LGBTIQ community legal service: 1800 244 481
Empower them to continue to advocate for themselves!
Literature reviews regarding barriers to reporting found, that the embarrassment, shame, and worry about discrimination faced by police were among the key reasons victims would not call the police, so be there for them, and assure them that it is their right to be safe. This is also important when a full summary of the Victims Rights ACT 1996 (NSW) can be found here.
Offer practical advice during the process of reporting. E.g. offer her a place to stay, offer to mind her children, or cook a meal for her, or accompany her to the station if that is what she wants. Offer help in whatever they feel comfortable and supported in, and sometimes asking twice doesn’t hurt. Especially when you come from a culture where out of politeness and ‘saving face’ you feel like you can’t accept help. Also, never underestimate the benefit of just being there, so that they know that when they are ready, they can turn to you and they are not alone.
Listen and believe.
As the leading DFV not-for-profit Our Watch states: “If a woman tells you she’s experienced violence, the most important thing you can do is listen to her, believe her and make sure she knows you’re there to support her”.
If you are experiencing DFV or know someone who requires assistance, here are some key resources:
If you are in immediate danger, please call 000 for Police and Ambulance service.
Men’s Referral Service- Provides telephone counselling, information and referrals for men in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania 1300 766 491; https://www.ntv.org.au/
Developed by 1800 RESPECT Android devices: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=au.com.medibank.projectconnect
IOS devices: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/daisy/id968542048?ls=1
For a comprehensive contact support list https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/domestic-violence/services-and-support/contacts/a-z
Finally, this piece is in no way the end-all or be-all, it doesn’t claim to have all the information and all the answers. It is the examination of part of the key issues victims of DFV face when attempting to seek help and protection. I have attempted to add as much information as I could, but we must be proactive! Read more and find out more. Have these conversations openly and regularly.
And above protect yourself and your loved one:
Here are some good places to start you off:
Lead Editor: Tahmina R.
AIHW., 2019. Domestic Violence. Aus Gov. Accessed at:
AIHW.,2019. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019. Aus Gov. accessed : https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/b0037b2d-a651-4abf-9f7b-00a85e3de528/aihw-fdv3-FDSV-in-Australia-2019.pdf.aspx?inline=true
Barrett, B.J., St. Pierre, M. and Vaillancourt, N., 2011. Police response to intimate partner violence in Canada: Do victim characteristics matter?. Women & Criminal Justice, 21(1), pp.38-62.
Birdsey, E. and Snowball, L., 2013. Reporting violence to police: A survey of victims attending domestic violence services.
Douglas, H., 2019. Policing Domestic and Family Violence. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 8(2), p.31.
Ghafournia, N., 2011. Battered at home, played down in policy: Migrant women and domestic violence in Australia. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(3), pp.207-213.
Gover, A.R., Pudrzynska Paul, D. and Dodge, M., 2011. Law enforcement officers’ attitudes about domestic violence. Violence against women, 17(5), pp.619-636.
Laschon, E., 2019. “Domestic violence still at ‘unprecedented’ despite hundres of millions being spent’. ABC news. Accessed from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-05/an-australia-free-from-all-forms-of-violence-and-abuse-against/11470584
Myhill, A., 2019. Renegotiating domestic violence: police attitudes and decisions concerning arrest. Policing and society, 29(1), pp.52-68.
NSW Police Force., 2018. Domestic and Family Violence Procedure v.4. NSW Police . Accessed at: https://www.police.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/477267/Domestic_and_Family_Violence_Policy_2018.pdf
Riga, R., 2020. “Hannah Clarke's family speak out after horrific murder-suicide, said she suffered burns to 97 per cent of body in car fire”. ABC News. Accessed at:
Rollings, K. and Taylor, N., 2017. Measuring police performance in domestic and family violence.
Voce, I. and Boxall, H., 2018. Who reports domestic violence to police? A review of the evidence. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, (559), p.1.