Tuesday 21 May 2019

Colette Browne: 'Domestic homicide report can't be left to gather dust - recommendations must be implemented quickly'

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The introduction of domestic homicide reviews is long overdue - but they will only be meaningful if resources are put in place to implement their recommendations.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan launched plans for an independent study of familicide cases, on how best to support grieving relatives in the wake of their loss, which will also consider the introduction of domestic homicide reviews (DHRs).

A feature of English law since 2011, DHRs are a multi-agency review of the circumstances surrounding the death of a person aged 16 or over which has, or appears to have, resulted from violence, abuse or neglect by a person to whom they were related, with whom they had been in an intimate relationship or with whom they had been living.

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In Ireland, as the family of Clodagh Hawe discovered after her husband murdered her and their three children, no such review takes place. Instead, there is a Garda investigation and an inquest, but families are often left tortured by unanswered questions.

The result is that the 'how' of the manner in which a murder takes place usually becomes apparent quite quickly, but the 'why' may never be answered.

The dead may not be able to speak, but the purpose of DHRs is to be their voice and it is vital that we listen. Not only to try to comprehend individual tragedies in their aftermath, but to prevent further tragedies from occurring.

According to a 2016 report from the British Home Office, DHRs "provide a rich source of information on the nature of domestic homicide, the context in which it occurs and, most importantly, in the lessons that can be learned from the tragic event". That information is then used to inform and shape future policy development and operational practice - not just for police, but for the health service, probation service, social services and schools, among others.

That Home Office report considered a sample of 33 intimate partner homicides and found that 29 involved a male perpetrator and female victim. In 24 of these cases, the perpetrator had a history of violence, with agencies having a record of this in 17 of those cases.

There were also 24 cases in which victims had presented to agencies with signs of domestic abuse, but this was not acted upon. Mental health issues were found to be present in 25 of the 33 cases while substance abuse was a feature in 21.

Of the 33 cases examined, poor record-keeping was found to be a feature in 28 - with 12 instances of no records being kept at all. In 27 cases, issues with risk assessments were highlighted, with no risk assessment being conducted in 14 of the DHRs.

For instance, in four DHRs, incidents were found to have been assessed in isolation - meaning police assessing each incident as separate, and failing to detect a pattern of abuse, and agencies assessing risk in isolation from each other.

Communication and information sharing between agencies was highlighted as a serious issue - and, even when that occurred, was patchy and incomplete with a lack of detail in reports, delays in providing information and details shared among some agencies but not others.

The report also concluded that agencies, tasked with protecting domestic violence victims, often don't recognise the signs of domestic abuse. Seven DHRs were found to contain missed opportunities to investigate or intervene while there were nine where non-violent elements - like coercion and control, threats to kill, sexual exploitation, grooming and stalking - were not taken seriously.

There is nothing to suggest a similar review, undertaken in this country, would disclose better results. Domestic violence has never been treated with the seriousness that it deserves. Up until recently we have even been unable to reliably count the incidents of domestic violence. A 2014 report from the Garda Inspectorate found that 45pc of domestic violence calls to gardaí were not being recorded at all.

That's not to say domestic violence is not a huge societal problem. We don't need DHRs to tell us that. The annual report for Women's Aid for 2018 recorded 16,994 instances of domestic violence against women with an additional 3,728 reports of child abuse being made.

The women who suffered violence were beaten, spat at, punched, threatened with arson while they were locked in their home, choked, stabbed and hit with weapons, including hammers and axes. Women were also drugged and raped while unconscious, sexually assaulted with weapons and raped by partners who demanded sex as a right.

In an indictment of successive governments' treatment of domestic violence, Women's Aid called refuges on 244 occasions last year and were unable to secure a place for women and children in 126 cases. Refuges were full 52pc of the time.

According to the Council of Europe, Ireland has only one-third of the recommended number of refuge spaces. Currently, there are just 20 refuges across 17 counties, with no refuge at all in nine counties. When a centre in Rathmines closed in September 2017, the number of family spaces fell from 147 to 137.

Where are women escaping violence supposed to go? Some are joining the homeless list. A review by Focus Ireland found that, of 70 families made homeless in March 2016, 16pc listed domestic abuse as the primary reason they became homeless.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone has admitted the State needs to do more, and has stated the facility in Rathmines will reopen later this year. But only one new refuge in south Dublin, which will accommodate five adults and 15 children, is planned in the medium term - nowhere near what is needed.

Even when the State acts, to enact new laws to combat domestic violence, resources are often not put in place to ensure they are enforced. In January, new legislation to make coercive control an offence for the first time was commenced, but gardaí have yet to receive any training on its implementation.

This is despite a recent warning from the chair of the Policing Authority, Josephine Feehily, that the new law would make it more challenging for gardaí to investigate violence in the home.

Determining how the State can best support those whose loved ones have been killed in domestic violence incidents, and implementing domestic homicide reviews, is of course to be welcomed.

But, without the requisite resources being in place to act on the findings of those reports, yesterday's announcement will make very little practical difference to those whose lives are blighted by domestic violence.

We have a history of spending fortunes on reviews, studies and reports in this country, only for them to be left to gather dust in the bowels of Leinster House following publication.

That cannot be allowed to happen in this instance. Lives depend on it.

Irish Independent

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