Working for change – the Family Violence Death Review Committee

Up to three new members are being sought to sit on the Family Violence Death Review Committee (Committee). And, stresses Committee chairperson, Associate Professor Julia Tolmie, despite its somewhat daunting name, being involved on the Committee is both exciting and a privilege, with the chance to see real changes being made against a devastating social ill.

Associate Professor Julie Tolmie

Nominations close on Monday 3 November 2014 at 5pm – see the end of this article for details of how to apply or nominate someone.

What is the Committee and what does it do?
The Committee is an independent committee established under section 59e of the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000. Its role is to review and advise on how to reduce the number of family violence deaths in New Zealand.

Statistics on family violence homicides over the last few years, as set out in the Committee’s June 2014 report (Report), make for grim reading. In speaking with Law News, Associate Professor Tolmie acknowledged that although New Zealand is a “great country” in many respects, “we have not been doing this [i.e. tackling family violence] well”. Compared to figures for other OECD countries, New Zealand women experienced the highest rate of intimate partner violence (IPV) of any women amongst countries reporting from 2000 to 2010.

“Unfortunately, there is lots of room for improvement – not just tinkering but massive scope for change,” says Associate Professor Tolmie. And working towards such change is exactly what Committee members have been hard at work doing. Their findings and recommendations (resulting from in-depth local reviews of death events) are a positive step towards reducing the numbers of New Zealanders who suffer family violence yet fall through gaps in the system that is meant to help them.

Interaction of agencies across the family violence sector
Part of the problem to date has been the lack of cohesion and cooperation between all the various agencies in the family violence system, “each of whom will have different pieces of information, engagement with different family members, different disciplinary mindsets and different powers, cultures, capabilities, capacities and constraints”.

While they are all attempting to help, they may be approaching the problem in totally different ways and without sharing vital information that could make a difference in terms of intervention and prevention. Associate Professor Tolmie comments:

“We all know we need to be working together on the same page but actually doing it is hard. Furthermore, different agencies review their practice in relation to a case of family violence (if it is their client who has died) with a view to improving their individual practice, but no one is sitting across and reviewing the operation of the whole family violence system.”

For example, abuse may have occurred in a previous relationship that a woman’s partner was in, but an agency only looking at one of the files may not pick up on that and may therefore miss key warning signs (like incidents of nonfatal strangulation, discussed later on). The Committee’s point of difference is that, because of its wide-ranging mandate and powers of accessing information, it is “sitting across the whole system” in a way that no other agency or body can do.

“We [the Committee] are given immense power to go and access information across the entire system. When we do a death review, we can access information in relation to every relevant family member involved, sometimes going back many years, across all relevant agencies. You can then get a real picture of what is happening on the ground.”

The Committee’s local death review process involves representatives from all of the key agencies. “We have chosen people who are privy to grassroots practice but still sufficiently senior that they can go back to their own organisations with the insights and understandings they have gained from the review process and effect change.” The Committee then has the responsibility of translating the information entrusted to it from the local death reviews into positive learnings at a national level “so that some of the tragedies of the past can be avoided in the future”.

Working for change
Obviously, much of the information to which Committee members are privy is quite harrowing, but rather than letting it dishearten her, it seems to sharpen Professor Tolmie’s focus on making a difference:

“Some of the most disheartening death reviews involve women who have been fighting for their lives over a considerable time, knowing what is coming but being powerless to prevent it. Some have even resorted to phoning strangers out of the paper in a desperate effort to get help and find somewhere where they can be safe. Often, all we have offered them is a piece of paper with information about how to obtain a protection order … You might only have one opportunity to intervene, and if you lose that opportunity, that’s it.”

The Committee hopes that, as a result of its work, victims of abuse will get more than a piece of paper in response to calls for help. However, reform, particularly in the social sector or governmental environment, can be painfully slow. Not so here, according to Associate Professor Tolmie, who has seen key people listening and picking up on recommendations for change during her tenure on the Committee.

Partly this is because of the Committee’s wide reach across the system, and partly it is because its proposals are sensible.

“We are the only agency to sit across the entire spectrum – encompassing education, justice, social services, health, NGOs. So, yes, we are getting traction, it is actually really exciting. In the three years I’ve been on the Committee, there has been a massive government programme in the area of family violence. We’ve seen things that we’ve asked for picked up and run with.

“In terms of the recommendations in our Report, we don’t just make the recommendations, but we go around beforehand and speak to the agencies involved to get their buy-in, so by the time the Report comes out, the relevant agencies have agreed that those recommendations make sense. There is no sense of just sitting there and hammering out recommendations with nothing happening. And if you can achieve something in such a distressing and traumatic area, it is really exciting.”

Possible legislative reform?
Readers practising in the criminal law area will be particularly interested in the Committee’s two recommendations for legislative change to better address the complexities of family violence, which have already been workshopped with the Law Commission, the Ministry of Justice and the police.

The first proposal relates to non-fatal strangulation – though frequently minimised and hard to detect, nevertheless it can easily be fatal and has a significant psychological impact, making it a dangerously effective method of coercive control. “Women are truly terrified by this – the perpetrator is giving her the message that he has her life literally in his hands. Aside from its intimidatory power, it is also incredibly dangerous – you can die in as little as five minutes,” says Associate Professor Tolmie. By responding to it as a low level assault or unwanted touching, “an important intervention opportunity is bypassed”.

“A strangulation assault is one of the strongest risk indicators we have of a potential intimate partner homicide. However, even if prosecuted, it is not usually currently flagged as strangulation, meaning that subsequent people dealing with the perpetrator don’t have important information about the degree of danger he poses. The worst perpetrator we’ve seen had nine strangulation attempts against three subsequent partners and a step-child. We then went back and looked at the files for other family deaths and realised how many of those involved strangulation at some point.”

While it currently tends to be prosecuted as a minor domestic assault, introducing a specific criminal offence would “red flag” the behaviour as a warning for future harm and fatality. The Committee recommends including it as a separate crime under Part 8 of the Crimes Act 1961.

Secondly, the Committee recommends the modification of the self-defence test under section 48 of the Crimes Act, and, to address the lacuna in the law since the abolition of the provocation defence, wants the government to consider the introduction of a partial defence that can be utilised by primary victims of family violence.

“There are far fewer primary victims who retaliate than there are predominant aggressors who kill, but there are a small number of primary victims who do so. When you look at how difficult it is for women who are dealing with serious levels of victimisation and entrapment to protect themselves and their kids, if the system has failed them for 20 years, then it is incredibly disheartening to see them incarcerated for very long periods of time with minimal recognition of the long histories of victimisation and the levels of trauma that resulted in their offending. Obviously it is quite complex – something needed to be done to address the fact that the provocation defence was operating in an unacceptable fashion prior to its abolition but we obviously don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Associate Professor Tolmie notes.

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What’s in store for new Committee nominees/ applicants?
Applicants/nominees are being sought from a range of backgrounds and areas of expertise, including family violence and/or criminal law expertise, and expertise in Māori/Pacifica conceptual models of family violence.

“This is a rare and exciting opportunity to be involved in this work – to be privy to a process that sits across the entire system in order to determine how it is operating and come up with suggestions to improve it. The work can be quite traumatic, but it is an enormous privilege to be privy to it. We need people who are passionate about it,” says Associate Professor Tolmie.

Committee members will be involved with governance, reading death review reports and refining national recommendations, as well as taking key practice messages out to different agencies, presenting information to different professional bodies and having conversations with the people who can change things.

Conclusion
In terms of her hopes for the future, Associate Professor Tolmie considers that there is “an enormous heart out there and massive amounts of good faith for making this situation better”. Having already seen buy-in to many of the Committee’s recommendations, she is upbeat about New Zealand’s ability to better respond to family violence and break the cycles of the past.

“I believe in our process. Different countries around the world have these types of committees, but I don’t think anyone has a system as good as ours in terms of the depth of our reviews. Although it is a lot of work, the possibility that you can shift things for the better is very exciting.”

If you would like to nominate any suitable candidates, please email Pania Lee at Pania.Lee@hqsc.govt.nz. If you would like to apply directly (i.e. without nomination), please complete the Application Form which can be found at www.hqsc.govt.nz/fvdrc and provide a current curriculum vitae to Pania Lee at the above address. Nominations close on Monday 3 November 2014 at 5pm. 

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