Strategy under attack

by James Gardiner / 26 February, 2005
Violent crimes have been increasing in New Zealand for more than a decade. Now a five-year government initiative to reduce violence against women and children has foundered and police are struggling to get convictions for violent crimes against women.

Another summer, another spate of violent deaths. And this summer virtually all the victims have been women or girls. Just before Christmas, a 14-month-old girl, Mereana Wairakau Karoline Ponamu Clements-Matete died of internal injuries in Palmerston North Hospital. Police quickly established it was homicide. A 24-year-old man, said by police to be "known" to the victim, has been arrested.

Barely a fortnight later, the Rangitikei town of Marton was rocked after 83-year-old Mona Morriss was stabbed to death in her home on January 3 or 4.

Two days later, barmaid Tania McKenzie's naked body was found in the Whanganui River on the morning of her 20th birthday. Despite extensive publicity, including revelations that both were sexually attacked, and outpourings of grief and anger from the women's families and communities, police are still hunting the killers. Then on January 10, Natasha Hayden, 24, was found dead in a car at McLaren Falls Park near Tauranga. A 25-year-old unemployed man has been charged with her murder.

At the same time, the 111 emergency call system operation has been under attack since the tragic failure to help missing Auckland model Iraena Asher last year.

Almost annually, police report success in reducing crime rates. Burglary, theft and car conversion rates are down. Yet, the murder rate remains constant and, according to police statistics, crimes of violence have been increasing steadily for more than a decade. What's more, conviction rates for crimes such as rape, attempted sexual violation and assaulting females have fallen in the past decade - not because men have stopped offending, but because police have failed to secure prosecutions.

Frustrations over police failings, especially in terms of violent crime, have turned the issue into a political football. Police Minister George Hawkins has come under fire for suggesting - or at least that's what National opponent Tony Ryall said he was suggesting - that women were more worried about the risks of road crashes than being attacked in their homes.

All this when the government is over halfway through a five-year plan specifically designed to make the country safer for women.

In its "Action Plan for New Zealand Women" launched last March, the government pledged to "reduce the incidence and impact of violence on women and children through the Prevention of Family Violence Strategy, known as Te Rito, and the Crime Reduction Strategy".

Under a chapter headed "Well-being", the plan stated: "Personal well-being combines health and social factors with a focus on improving access to services, preventing violence against women, and addressing physical and mental health issues specifically affecting women." Te Rito stemmed from a Cabinet decision in 2002 that set out a plan "to maximise progress toward the vision of families/whanau living free from violence".

The plan involved drawing in non-government organisations dealing with family violence to work with the government departments with responsibilities in those areas, led by the Social Development Ministry.

Te Rito's executive group was to provide progress reports to Cabinet every six months from 2004-06, but when the Listener asked for copies, the ministry could only provide one, dated April 2004. A spokeswoman said because of staffing changes and restructuring she did not know whether there had been other reports or where they were. The Listener's request would have to be dealt with under the Official Information Act. A month later, the nearly year-old report eventually provided suggests major teething problems and little progress three years into the plan.

"Although preventing family violence requires a multi-faceted approach, it has become evident that progressing work simultaneously on all 18 action areas has been resource intensive for both government and non-government agencies," it says. "Overall, the progress made on the 18 Te Rito areas of action has been slower than anticipated."

Brian Gardner, from the National Network of Stopping Violence Services and a member of the Te Rito executive, puts it bluntly: "I don't think women are any safer than they were two years ago. To date, government strategies like Te Rito have delivered very little. It has the potential to do so. We hope it will escape from the policy whirlpool and provide more money for community agencies. There has been some money, but mostly it goes to government initiatives."

Gardner says the problem with putting most funding through state agencies is that those organisations see only part of the problem. "The vast majority of the women who are victims of domestic violence don't come near police or the courts. They end up at women's refuges and the National Network of Stopping Violence agencies. Most don't have [Family Court] protection orders; most don't want to get in contact with police. They don't want him arrested, they want the violence to stop."

The reasons are complex. Cost is a big factor. Obtaining a protection order costs on average $1700, and legal aid, if available, may not cover it all. The perceived stigma of being a domestic violence victim is also a factor. "It's seen as a private crime," Gardner says. "There are feelings of shame, of guilt and that they are the problem, which is what their abusive partner might have been telling them for years."

Social Development Minister Steve Maharey and Women's Affairs Minister Ruth Dyson were asked to comment on the government's lack of progress in improving women's safety and what, if anything, they proposed to do about it. Neither minister chose to respond before deadline.

There may be another reason for women's reluctance to go to court. The past decade has seen a disturbing drop in the number of successful prosecutions for crimes such as "male assaults female". Every year about 7500 complaints are laid with police, according to Inspector Rob Veale of Police National Headquarters, and about 5500 go to court. But Justice Ministry figures show that the number of convictions has been falling every year from 1994 (4157 convictions) to 2003 (2877 convictions) - a 31% drop.

Victoria University criminologist Jan Jordan says that one of the difficulties in measuring the effectiveness of government initiatives on reducing violence against women - or violence generally - is not knowing the starting point or the benchmark.

The recent case in the Waikato, where a rape complainant who called police was told to walk to the police station, was one example. "A lot of police detectives and even detective inspectors don't know they've got a policy for dealing with rape."

The case of Iraena Asher, who repeatedly called police because of fears she might have been drugged and that someone was pressuring her for sex, was another. Police have been severely criticised for sending a taxi, which went to the wrong address. Transcripts of what was said in the emergency call centre showed staff using language that police chiefs agreed was inappropriate and disrespectful. "The Iraena Asher case is a classic example of where stereotypes can affect outcomes," says Jordan.

Veale, whose title is "violence reduction manager", has worked in the area of family violence for 12 years and his impression is that violence against women is increasing.

But, unlike Australia, where statistics of the sex of violent-crime victims are compiled, New Zealand does not readily have that information. Every year, about 100 to 120 crimes are recorded here as homicides, about half of which are murders, roughly a quarter manslaughters, with a sprinkling of infanticides, illegal abortions and assisting suicides. The total homicide figure is blown out somewhat by the fact that attempted murders (between 20 and 60 in each of the past 10 years) are recorded in this category, alongside crimes such as conspiracy to commit murder and inciting murder.

Women's Refuge spokesperson Sheryl Hann believes that the rate at which women and girls are being killed is being hidden, or at least understated. "The Police and Justice stats suggest only 12% of homicides are family violence, but we think it's closer to half," she says. "For example, when someone did check back, of every homicide in one year, 27 out of 50 were found to be family violence situations. The vast majority of those are women. The police stats might show that violent crimes in general are going down [in fact, they don't], but domestic violence statistics are going up. Refuges are getting busier and busier. We are just absolutely swamped."

One reason in part is the government's determination to deal with domestic violence, which in December it identified as one of New Zealand's top five social issues. Its own agencies have been generating more and more referrals to the country's 70-odd women's refuges.

"All the agencies in the health sector are referring people on to us. Now, Work and Income are about to do the same thing. All our agencies are overworked and underfunded. We haven't had an increase in funding for 10 years or more."

Veale agrees that domestic violence may be on the increase, but says - and Hann shares the view - this may be due in part to greater awareness and lower tolerance of violence in the home, which is a positive thing. "We're certainly getting more calls," he says, "and 85% of the people who call us reporting family violence are women."

Veale says it is true that police see only part of the problem. "The people who come to us often are in crisis. That's why we tell our staff to treat it seriously. When people are getting thumped in the middle of the night, they need us there urgently."

But he is frustrated by the fall in successful prosecutions. The most common reason is likely to be the withdrawal of complaints by women either fearful of retribution or daunted by the judicial process. Veale is reluctant to criticise his colleagues, but says police need to make more effort to get witnesses and evidence other than the victim's statement.

"You should build your criminal justice system to recognise the different dynamics between people in intimate relationships. In the US, they come from a view that the system should acknowledge that victims will recant."

Hann points out that it is already police policy not to rely solely on a victim's statement for prosecution.

Gardner says the victims of domestic violence who do complain to police have good reason to be fearful. "The vast majority of guys I've worked with have made threats: 'If you go to the cops, I'm going to get you.' Pets have been killed as a threat. The most dangerous time for women is when they leave relationships."

Relationships may make people happier and wealthier, but for women they carry a greater risk of being hurt or killed. A study published late last year in the Medical Journal found that 15 to 17% of women aged 18 to 64 had suffered at least one act of physical violence inflicted by non-partners. Among the same group of women, between 33 and 39% had been victims of violence, including sexual violence, inflicted by partners.

One of the study's authors, Janet Fanslow of Auckland University, says that although New Zealand has "pretty good" policies and policing strategies for dealing with family violence, it has a problem with implementation and co-ordination of initiatives and responses. Sustainability of funding was another problem. Short-term grants were not enough, because "we don't get change on these problems quickly".

The cost of domestic violence and violence generally is not borne by victims alone, but by the whole community. An Australian study last June by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, which looked at the health costs of domestic violence, found that intimate partner violence was "all too common, has severe and persistent effects on women's physical and mental health and carries with it an enormous cost in terms of premature death and disability. Indeed, it is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than any other of the well-known risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking."

The study was the first of its type in the world to estimate the disease burden resulting from such violence. It pointed to earlier studies that showed women were more vulnerable to violence in a relationship than in any other context and were overwhelmingly more likely than men to be victims.

It contributed 3% to the total disease burden for Victorian women and 9% for women aged 15 to 44. Although an apparently low 0.6% of physical injuries suffered by women (for which they sought treatment, anyway) were attributable to intimate partner violence, it was responsible for 33% of depression, 26% of anxiety and 13% of suicides.

Waikato University community psychologist Dr Neville Robertson, who has done considerable research into family violence as well as working with organisations set up to stop violence, says women worldwide are "by far" the majority of victims of murders except in countries, such as the US, with high levels of gun ownership. "As a colleague of mine remarked, the gun is kind of a gender equaliser."

Robertson says every high-profile murder of a woman attacked on the streets or at home naturally sends waves of fear through other women, who feel vulnerable, and there are also cases of some men citing such crimes in order to terrorise their partners.

He believes that most murders stem from family violence. Even when killers don't know or don't have any relationship with their victim, most have been raised in violent families. "Stranger violence is often just a manifestation of something that has begun behind closed doors."

Seasons of Ill Will

Holiday times can be especially dangerous for women. Since 1991, more than 40 females have been victims of murder or manslaughter around Christmas or Easter. In 1995, for example, 11-month-old Veronica Takerei-Mahu died on Christmas Eve as a result of head injuries, 26-year-old Witinana Mita was stabbed to death on Christmas Day and two days later pensioner Vera Thompson was suffocated by her 17-year-old grandson. Many of New Zealand's most high-profile murders of young women - including Maureen McKinnel in Arrowtown, Olivia Hope in the Marlborough Sounds and Kirsty Bentley in Ashburton - have occurred in the most festive week of the year.

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