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What use DVOs? Inquest hears the evidence

p2347 Jeanette Kerr 1By KIERAN FINNANE
How effective are Domestic Violence Orders (DVOs) in protecting victims? In the two deaths subject to this week’s inquest by Coroner Greg Cavanagh, DVOs were in place but finally were of little use.
Yesterday the inquest heard the facts on the matter from Jeanette Kerr (pictured). She is Assistant Commissioner with the NT Police but spoke as a civilian, who in January this year completed a Masters in Criminology at Cambridge University.
Her thesis examined Aboriginal intimate partner violence (IPV) in the Northern Territory, including detailed statistical analysis over a five year period, from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2014, with a view to reducing serious harm.
Of the 61,000 domestic disturbances between opposite sex intimate partners recorded by police, 21,000 involved criminal incidents. Almost half (47% ) of these incidents involved breaches of DVOs. Of these, more than half (55%) also involved an offence against a person or property.
When first offence cases are taken out the data set, in 60% of  IPV offences, a DVO is in place.
This analysis has certainly “brought into question their effectiveness in preventing IPV”, she said.
Coroner Greg Cavanagh commented that DVOs have never been seen as “a panacea” – they are but one of a number of measures.
Counsel assisting, Kelvin Currie, asked Ms Kerr why they are ineffective in 60% of cases.
Ms Kerr suggested DVOs rely in part on stigmatisation but the stigma associated with having a DVO against you and with being arrested is not as high in Aboriginal communities.
She said also a large number of the breaches come from people living in small communities where the choices for victims, mostly women, are constrained. Many either don’t want to leave or can’t leave, for cultural, kinship, economic or other reasons.
The age group 18 to 29 years is particularly vulnerable as both victims and offenders, her study found.
A common view that there is a high rate of change of partner in IPV cases was not sustained by her analsyis: over the five year period, three quarters of cases involved the one relationship between offender and victim.
Domestic disturbance incidents in Alice Springs account for 23% of NT total, but yield 33% of the total crime harm. This proportion is in contrast to the picture for the rest of the NT, with the exception, to a degree, of the remote southern region.
Asked for a hypothesis to explain this, Ms Kerr suggested that it might relate to cultural factors and the harshness of the environment experienced over the generations.
“Tough people?” asked Mr Currie.
“Tough people,”  she agreed.
Alcohol was involved in 85% of the total IPV incidents. The crime harm increased significantly when both offender and victim were intoxicated. In less than 1% of cases was the victim alone intoxicated.
Ms Kerr has recommended that the NT Government pursue “a more flexible family and community focussed” approach to the issue.
Non-contact DVO orders are clearly not effective for people who wish to stay together.  She spoke of “wrap-around interventions and supports” to keep the woman safe, with police also intervening in criminal incidents.
A starting point is to identify the couples most at risk of harm. It’s not simply a matter of recidivism. She said there were couples in the data set involved in as many as 60 incidents but without a high level of harm.
She said the use of weapons or being involved in IPV at a young age are key indicators of future serious harm.
Alcohol outlet density and the availability of “packaged alcohol” (i.e. takeaways) are also among the most significant factors associated with serious harm –  an observation that is “almost a given these days,” commented Mr Currie.
With 38% of Aboriginal people in the NT under the age of 15 (compared with 19% in the non-Aboriginal population), Ms Kerr also spoke of the importance of education programs around respectful relationships, starting at as young an age as possible. This shouldn’t rely on a school-based model, she said, as we know many young Aboriginal people are not going to school.
Meanwhile, Acting Assistant Commissioner Kate Vanderlaan, who has sat in on the inquest all week and gave testimony yesterday, agreed with Mr Cavanagh that the criminal investigation of the death of N. McCormack, in which her husband Nathan Swan is the principal suspect, “could have been more robust”.
Mr Swan is apparently in Western Australia. The court had heard earlier from an officer with the Major Crime Squad that Mr Swan had been served with a summons to appear at the inquest. However, the summons was not put directly into his hands, but rather the hands of the mother of his new partner, at an outstation near Hall’s Creek. Mr Swan at the time was believed to be in the Broome area.
Because the service had not been to him directly, Mr Cavanagh was unable to issue a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear at the inquest.
Commander Vanderlaan told the Alice Springs News Online that the investigation has never been closed and is being actively pursued.
Primarily, “we need to put things to Mr Swan,”  she said.
He can only be extradited from WA if he is going to be charged. In other words, police have to be able to make out a prima facie case against him.
With what has been put before the Coroner this week, is that not enough?
“We need to do a lot more,” said Cdr Vanderlaan. “Everything needs to be corroborated.”


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