Illustration: Michael Mucci. Photo: Michael Mucci
On a late March day in 2002, William Cotter arrived at his wife's house in Massachusetts like a man going to war. He had a sawn-off shotgun, handcuffs, pepper spray and ammunition belts. As his daughter cowered upstairs, Cotter shot his wife, Dorothy Giunta-Cotter, at close range, before turning the gun on himself.
Social workers who had dealt with Dorothy later realised her fate had been predictable and preventable: there were red flags and clear signs her husband intended to kill her. So in a world-leading reform, they decided to change the system and turn the tables on violent men.
As Victoria's $36 million Royal Commission into Family Violence begins its work, experts are searching the world, and Australia, to find the best answers to a basic question: can the murders of women by their partners or ex-partners – a weekly tragedy in Australia – be prevented?
The Massachusetts social workers harnessed ground-breaking research identifying a common pattern leading up to domestic murder. It involved a 20-item scale of risk factors such as past violence, partner substance abuse, recent separation, forced sex, threats to kill, attempted choking and controlling behaviour. (Dorothy would have scored 18.)
Then, having identified the women most at risk of being killed, the Greater Newburyport Domestic Violence High Risk Team – a range of service providers, including police – did everything they could to protect them and their children.
They used GPS monitoring of high-risk offenders, "dangerousness hearings" that kept men in jail if they were judged a threat to family members, increased police visits and suspension of child access. Shelters were a last resort: it was the man who was inconvenienced. But they would also help victims find transitional housing and erase their social media profiles if necessary.
The high-risk team began accepting cases in 2005. It has since helped 129 women living in extreme danger and lost not one to murder (in the 10 years before, there were eight domestic violence deaths in the communities the team covers).
After successful pilot programs in Hume and Geelong, Victoria is rolling out high-risk assessment panels, although the risk assessment relies on professional judgment, not a point system like the Massachusetts model. And they don't have all the tools of the American model.
Victoria's Risk Assessment Management Panels, based on a British system, are monthly meetings of domestic violence experts, police, court registrars, housing, child support, drug and mental health professionals. The panels develop a plan for the most dangerous cases – a small fraction of the 65,000 family violence incidents in Victoria recorded last year – and share information about the high-risk women (mostly with their consent) and offenders.
"The panels are geared towards sending the perpetrator the message that he's accountable and police and services are monitoring his behaviour on a very active basis," says Bernadette McCartney, executive manager of community support at family violence service Bethany and chairwoman of the Geelong panel.
Family violence experts welcome the roll-out of high-risk teams, but want the royal commission to look at whether the panels have powerful enough tools to curb domestic murders. Should high-risk offenders be tagged and monitored by GPS, banned from seeing their children, locked up until their court hearing (a controversial move as our system does not punish for potential crimes in the future) or compelled into long-term behaviour change programs?
"The system we have for interrupting the violence and doing something about these men [who are likely to kill] is still in the rudimentary stages," says Domestic Violence Victoria's chief executive officer Fiona McCormack, who is supportive of the Massachusetts model. "It would be useful to give those high risk management models a bit of teeth."
Before losing office, the Napthine government promised GPS monitoring for high-risk offenders, and the Andrews government said it would consider any measures that may help. The Labor government has promised $900,000 for emergency alarms and closed-circuit television monitoring for the 200 most at-risk women. Emergency alarms, or safety cards, capture GPS, audio and visual data that is live-streamed to a call centre which notifies emergency services if the perpetrator shows up.
Cathy Humphreys, one of Australia's leading domestic violence experts, would like to see better evidence collection by police after domestic violence incidents, GPS tracking for high-risk offenders, more training to recognise risk factors, a more responsive court system and banning child contact for a small group of serious offenders. "You can't be a violent offender and a good father," says Humphreys, professor of social work at the University of Melbourne.
Responding to arrest warrants and breaches of intervention orders are also key. Humphreys cites the case of 11-year-old Luke Batty, killed by his father Greg Anderson last year on a Tyabb cricket field. At the time there were four warrants out for Anderson's arrest.
Family violence experts say another case last year – the murder of 43-year-old Kelly Thompson by ex-partner Wayne Wood – showed how the system can fail at-risk women. Thompson's phone records showed she made 34 calls to Wyndham police in the weeks before her death. Neighbours called police after they noticed Wood hanging around Thompson's Point Cook home despite an intervention order. Police allegedly told the neighbours to "call back if you hear screaming or breaking glass". Ms Thompson was murdered shortly after. Wood then killed himself.
Former state attorney-general Rob Hulls recently released a Centre for Innovative Justice report recommending intervening early in the cycle of violence and bringing perpetrators into the spotlight. Hulls said it meant using contact with police, courts or correction systems not only to make an arrest or impose an order, but to connect a perpetrator with treatment and perhaps crisis accommodation so he does not "slip out of view". Hulls also raised using the court's authority to apply swift sanctions, even "flash incarceration".
McCartney believes that a Scottish model has some answers for Victoria. Scotland, and particularly the city of Glasgow, took a radical approach to serious and serial domestic attackers by investigating all their potentially criminal activities. Police share intelligence on domestic abusers and then systematically monitor them, picking them up for speeding offences, being alcohol-affected, using drugs, not paying child support, stealing or driving without a licence.
"For me, in a perfect world, different sections of the police force would work together to develop a web of accountability for these men," McCartney says. Since 2011, McCartney's Geelong panel has dealt with the cases of 122 at-risk women and 277 accompanying children. About 80 per cent of the perpetrators in these cases were using the drug ice, McCartney says.
Libby Eltringham, policy and legal worker at the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, says the state's risk-assessment framework should be reviewed – particularly to cover the risk of child murder – but she thought it was important for the roll-out to happen before any further tools, such as GPS monitoring, were considered.
The closing date for submissions to the royal commission is May 29.