On Monday afternoon, hundreds gathered at a twilight vigil to remember Kelly Wilkinson.
The Gold Coast mother-of-three’s charred body was found in her backyard last Tuesday; her estranged husband, Brian Earl Johnston, was later charged with her murder.
Ms Wilkinson’s death was one of three, at the hands of domestic or family violence, to rock Australia last week – and exposed, aside from the obvious, a “massive problem” that could have “disastrous” consequences for women and children if it continues to be ignored.
As well as being charged with murder, Mr Johnston was charged with breaching a domestic violence order (DVO) that had been in place since March, and breaching bail. Ms Wilkinson’s family told the Gold Coast Bulletin she had gone to police “almost every day” to report his alleged behaviour.
And while Mr Johnston’s lawyer, Chris Hannay, told reporters last week that “no one expected this to happen”, gendered violence experts, advocates, Ms Wilkinson’s own father and Gold Coast police lamented that the 27-year-old’s death was not just predictable, but “totally preventable” – for one key reason.
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On the Gold Coast alone, the number of serial domestic violence offenders disregarding protection orders has spiked by more than 100 in just a month – averaging 12 each day in March according to police figures.
In Adelaide, where nine-month-old Kobi Shepherdson died in a suspected murder-suicide at the hands of her father last Wednesday, chilling court documents revealed an extensive history of allegations of domestic violence inflicted by Henry Shepherdson on Kobi’s mother.
Yet charges were dropped against Mr Shepherdson last year after he threatened to kill his infant daughter and her mother – as they were for more than half of defendants (54 per cent) who made it to court in South Australia.
“It is a massive problem,” Women’s Safety NSW CEO, Hayley Foster, told news.com.au.
“We know that for most women, having a domestic violence order in place increases her safety and reduces risk for further violence. But it’s not foolproof.
“Unfortunately, it can be hit and miss, and depending upon the particular police officer or magistrate, women can experience being disbelieved and have their pleas for help dismissed.
“And we see this every day. It is not uncommon for police to dismiss domestic violence order breaches five, 10 or 15 times, but even if police take action, the matter could go before a magistrate that lets the offender off with a slap on the wrist over and over again.”
“Women regularly tell us that their ADVOs (apprehended domestic violence orders) are being breached,” Law Reform and Policy co-ordinator at Women’s Legal Service NSW, Liz Snell, told news.com.au.
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Last year, more than 35,000 defendants faced court charged with breaching DVOs, according to a Friday report by The Australian of unseen Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) experimental family and domestic violence figures.
“Women also often tell us that when they report breaches of ADVOs to police, insufficient action is taken by police, including a failure to lay criminal charges for the breach,” Ms Snell said.
“There need to be consistent consequences for the breaching of ADVOs by the predominant aggressor.”
According to the ABS, while 87 per cent of defendants were convicted, most received a non-custodial sentence (a penalty that doesn’t include time in prison) involving a fine (40 per cent), a community supervision or work order (29 per cent) or a good behaviour bond. Only a quarter received a custodial sentence in a prison or correctional institution.
“Currently, unfortunately, it takes a horrendous murder – as we have seen last week – for these issues to be brought to the public’s attention and for governments to sit up and take notice,” Ms Foster said.
“But the reality is, there are thousands of women and children each year affected by an inconsistent response to domestic violence order breaches.
“And we will never break the cycle and achieve a reduction in violence against women and children if we don’t start enforcing domestic violence orders consistently.”
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Considered one of the key mechanisms for protecting victims of abuse, a DVO is a civil order which can be made by police immediately and confirmed by a local magistrates court, and is used in instances where the police (and then courts) are concerned for a person’s safety from violence, she explained.
The cost of ignoring the scale in which they’re breached and “getting this wrong can be disastrous for the women and children involved”, Ms Foster added, sending “a dangerous permissive message to abusers and a message of hopelessness to victims”.
Children are also not “systematically protected” by DVOs, she explained, because police often “don’t want to interfere with a father’s access to their child”.
“It should be our primary concern to protect children from violence and abuse. We know witnessing and experiencing violence and abuse can have catastrophic impacts on children well into adulthood,” Ms Foster said.
“We need to ensure children’s voices are better heard right throughout the process, and we need to ensure they are safe first and foremost.”
This is an issue “that has been put in the ‘too-hard’ basket for too long”.
“We’ve been calling for stronger enforcement of domestic violence orders for decades,” she said.
“But Australians have had enough and they’re making their voices heard. They no longer want to wake up to another woman or child killed. They’re demanding action and governments are beginning to pay attention.”