Death reviews lead to call for "radical change" in response to dangerous family violence

Image: Dave Heuts

The Family Violence Death Review Committee's (FVDRC) fourth report urges support services and society in general to take "more responsibility for preventing abusers from using violence, rather than expecting the victims of family violence to keep themselves and their children safe."

The report is based on data on all family violence homicides that took place from 2009 to 2012, plus 17 in-depth regional reviews of selected death events. A media summary of the report findings is also available.

Findings

The FVDRC found that 47% of all homicides over this period were family violence and family violence related deaths.

It reports on the 63 intimate partner violence deaths, 37 child abuse and neglect deaths and 26 other intrafamilial violence deaths in this period.

Findings include:

Intimate partner violence

In IPV deaths, three-quarters of offenders were men and almost three-quarters of the deceased were women.

Among the 46 female deceased, 44 (96%) were killed by their male intimate partner. Two women (4%) were killed by women. One of these killings occurred in a same-sex relationship.

Among the 17 male deceased, 13 (76%) were killed by their female intimate partner. In four deaths (24%) men were killed by other men. Three of these men were killed by their female partner’s ex-/new partner, and the offenders all had histories of abusing these women. In the remaining case, a man killed a male friend who had an affair with his wife.

Of the 55 IPV deaths with an apparent history of abuse in the relationship:

  • 93% of women had been abused in the relationship
  • 96% of men had been the abusers in the relationship
  • All six of the Māori women who were offenders in the death event had been the primary victim in the relationship with the deceased.

The report also considers ‘overkill’, the phenomenon of using violence far beyond what would have been necessary to cause death. Overkill encompasses multiple stabbings, severe prolonged beatings and/or multiple violent methods (for example, strangulation, sexual violence and stabbing). 44% of the IPV deaths were due to ‘overkill’. 96% of the overkill offenders were male.

Other findings on IPV deaths include:

  • 50% of IPV deaths took place in the context of a planned or actual separation
  • In 22 of the 63 IPV deaths, 36 children, 3 young people and 1 adult child saw or heard their parent being killed, and/or found their dead parent(s), and/or saw their dead parent(s) being attended to by emergency services.

Child abuse and neglect

  • Of the 37 children killed by abuse and neglect, 19 died by assault. The people responsible for the assaults were: a step-father in nine cases, a father in four cases, a mother in one case and another female carer in three cases (a grandmother, aunt and informal caregiver).
  • Mental health issues were more likely to be a factor when women killed children, while relationship and custody issues were more likely to be an issue in killings by men.
  • Eleven children were killed by eight parents who committed or were thought to have attempted suicide, four newborn babies were killed by their biological mothers, and three children were thought to have died from neglectful parental supervision.

Recommendations

The report calls for a "radical change in the way New Zealand responds to its most dangerous and chronic cases of family violence." It urges support services and society in general to take more responsibility for preventing abusers from using violence, rather than expecting the victims of family violence to keep themselves and their children safe.

It says "Agencies should contain, challenge and change the abuser’s ability to use violence, and there should be more recognition of lethal risk indicators such as specific threats to kill, non-fatal strangulation and extremely jealous, controlling partners."

The Committee acknowledges the importance of behaviour change programmes for abusers but suggests social workers and other practitioners should have a "healthy scepticism when working with abusers. Abusers rarely admit what they have done and many are skilled manipulators."

The Committee’s recommendations include the following:

  • The Campaign for Action on Family Violence extends its focus to encourage safe and effective interventions by friends, family/whānau, neighbours and workmates. This should include: challenging the normalising of family violence; educating the public about coercive control and lethality risk factors; and emphasising the importance of seeking help when victims are at risk of being killed.
  • New Zealand Police further strengthens its response to family violence by: better managing offenders who have been violent to multiple partners and/or children; better supporting repeat victims; developing tools to assess the risk of offenders killing their victims; using the concepts of a ‘primary victim’ and a ‘predominant aggressor’; and ensuring that children’s records state whether they are covered by a protection order.
  • Better support is given to children whose parent, caregiver or sibling, is killed in family violence.
  • A group is established to clarify the roles of each organisation involved in caring for child and adult survivors of family violence.
  • The Government considers: including non-fatal strangulation as a separate crime under the Crimes Act 1961; modifying the test for self-defence to make it more accessible to homicide defendants who are the primary victims of family violence; and introducing a partial defence for primary victims of family violence who were not acting in self-defence when they retaliated against their abusers.
  • Judges be given: education and training on family violence; and more background information about defendants charged with family violence, including any previous history of family violence convictions.

The full list of recommendations is on page 20 of the report.

Media:

New defence urged for defence victims, NZ Herald, 26.06.2014

Dozens of children witness homicides in NZ each year – report, TVNZ, 26.06.2014

Family violence takes huge toll, Radio NZ, 26.06.2014

Image: Lonely leaf left alone by Dave Heuts Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)