Stop asking women why they don't leave their violent partners. Just stop.
This week's horrific story from the NSW Coroner's Court should provide a clear answer. In 2018, John Edwards killed his two children, Jennifer and Jack. A few months later, their mother Olga took her own life. This week the inquest heard police records revealed John Edwards had been abusive to four previous partners and to one of his other children. Of course, it is unlikely Olga Edwards ever knew about any of that. There are no public red flags against the names of people like John Edwards. I wish there were.
But other people knew Olga and her children were in fear for their lives. They had fled the family home to live in a rented property. It was in that house where Jack slept with a cricket bat because he was so frightened of his father's violence. It was there where Jennifer and Jack were murdered.
Why wasn't there a public red flag against the name of John Edwards? He had a history of stalking and assault charges, but he was able to get a gun licence even though in 2010 he had been knocked back because of a prior apprehended violence order.
Very, very few children are murdered by their parents. The Australian Institute of Criminology released a report in 2019 which calculated around 25 children were killed each year by parents or step-parents, parent-equivalents. And perhaps some of the reasons we have trouble saving these children is because anyone involved in supporting children rarely sees cases like these. The crime is so horrific that we can barely contemplate it, so we don't know how to stop it.
This week is National Child Protection Week, and nowhere has it been made more clear that we are not doing enough to protect kids than in this inquest.
But Sue Packer from the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN), a paediatrician and 2019 Senior Australian of the Year, says there are actions we can all take to save children. We can't just sit back and assume someone else will listen to kids. Children can't look after themselves, they can't filter what is going on around them and they certainly can't protect themselves. We have to be available and trustworthy, she says, especially for children who feel like they have no one to protect them, no one to trust.
"It comes down to putting children first. You check in on your own kids all the time, but you have to check in on others. Spend a minute focusing on kids you know. Are they the same? Or different?" she says.
"If children see you are interested and that you are involved, they are more confident exploring with you anything which worries them."
Of course, of course, you have to have due diligence when one person is accusing another. But that requires an actual investigation, not an instant dismissal.
Packer says that neighbours, friends, teachers, bus drivers and local shopkeepers all have a part to play.
"We have finally recognised we have underestimated family violence and underestimated the impact of domestic violence on children - no child should even peripherally see violence," she says.
In other words, we all need to be better bystanders.
Researchers at Monash looked at the 52 identifiable murders of children between 2000 and 2009 in Victoria alone. In that study, 16 children were killed by their mother, 15 by their father, nine by a stepfather and one by both parents. Risk factor information was only available in 36 cases, and in nearly three-quarters of those cases the murders followed parental separation. Mental illness, domestic violence and child abuse were all in the risk mix.
Separations put kids at risk, but it also put mothers at risk. Earlier this year, after the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children, I looked at the data analysis on domestic and family violence-related homicide from the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network. Of the 121 cases between 2010 and 2014 where a man killed a female partner, over one-third of those men (36.4 per cent) killed a former partner. Of the cases where there was a current relationship at the time of the homicide, just under one-third of cases were ones where one or both parties had indicated an intention to separate.
The network concludes separation or intention to separate is a key characteristic of male-perpetrated intimate partner homicides. Olga Edwards was in fear for her life. And she left her husband because she thought she would be safer.
University of Melbourne professor of social work Cathy Humphreys says she is sick of hearing the question most often posed about women experiencing family violence: "Why doesn't she leave?".
Humphreys says while it is true that the murder of children by a parent is thankfully rare, the threat of violence is not.
"So many men threaten to kill either women or children, you don't know when it is real. There are thousands of women across Australia who go into panic mode," she says.
"'Will it be me next?' they ask themselves."
The problem is that women are not believed.
Of course, of course, you have to have due diligence when one person is accusing another. But that requires an actual investigation, not an instant dismissal. It requires fewer of the Pauline Hanson-style conspiracy theories, and more of the actual getting of evidence.
There was plenty of evidence which could have saved the lives of Jack and Jennifer. But nobody believed Olga Edwards, even though there was plenty of evidence to support her case. Instead, John Edwards' claim that his wife would make false allegations against him seems to have been persuasive. Despite his previous violence and abuse, he held sway.
And he held sway until he killed his children. Someone could have listened, perhaps even the police or the Family Court.
There is systemic and institutional blindness but we all, as individuals, need to open our eyes.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.