Lessons to learn from murders of two women
In November 2022, the Department of Justice released two Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHR), covering equally harrowing murders of women which took place in domestic settings. The two victims were assigned pseudonyms, and were victims of men with whom they had close personal relationships.
Domestic Homicide Reviews were introduced by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland in December 2020, under the auspices of Section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.
Former Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA stated at the time: “The focus will not be on apportioning blame but on learning and the sharing of good practice to improve how incidents, and indeed victims, of domestic abuse, are responded to.”
The overall aim is to ensure that there is an in-depth analysis of any murder case where the perpetrator (or alleged perpetrator) was either related to the victim, lived with the victim, or where there was an intimate relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.
Cases investigated by a DHR assign pseudonyms to the victim of the case in question. On 8 November 2022, the Department released its findings on the murder of ‘Ellen’, who was murdered by her adult son, ‘Thomas’.
The report brings up a series of key findings and learning points which must be drawn upon to prevent, insofar as possible, future crimes of a similar nature from taking place.
The first key finding in the report is the need to promote an improved organisational culture where victims of domestic violence and abuse feel listened to, safeguarded, and supported, and where harmful behaviour is effectively managed. It further finds that there is currently limited understanding by professionals of the underlying dynamics and circumstances surrounding child to parent violence.
There is a need for better understanding of families’ needs on a case-by-case basis, according to the report, which outlines the complex needs which were required for ‘Ellen’, and her son, as well as her other child. It is purported that her son, the perpetrator, had many interactions with police and was subject to Non-Molestation Orders against an extended family member, and that the family required protection from the son.
Additionally, the burden of protection and care for ‘Ellen’s’ youngest child lay with the victim herself, with authorities failing in their duty to protect ‘Ellen’ and the family from the threat posed to them by ‘Ellen’s’ son.
The report further outlines that the police’s powers to safeguard vulnerable people were not carried out to a satisfactory level in this case. There were occasions where ‘Thomas’ was in police custody but was still able to make contact with ‘Ellen’. ‘Thomas’ was arrested two months before he murdered his mother, where police recovered two knives in his possession.
After he received a conviction for possession of an article with a blade/point in a public place, the report purports that “police, having since reviewed the evidence, cannot conclusively say whether either knife was used in ‘Ellen’s’ subsequent murder”.
The report further states that there was no overarching plan in place with the authorities as to how to deal with a family member who was destructive within an intimate or family setting.
“‘Thomas’ from his youth, displayed repeated violent, abusive, coercive, and controlling behaviours towards ‘Ellen’ and others. He consistently ignored civil orders and bail conditions imposed on him.”
It further outlines how ‘Thomas’ was convicted of a litany of crimes which fell just below the threshold for ‘Ellen’ and her family being given the adequate protection they needed from him by authorities.
The report concludes, stating: “This review, of the most tragic of circumstances, has provided a rich source of information about the nature of child on parent violence, how organisations failed to work together, and what can be learned from this moving forward.”
‘Amy’ is the pseudonym assigned to a woman who it is believed was murdered by her partner. Her murder is a case which, the report states: “Highlights the need for organisations and society to radically rethink how to address male violence against women and girls. It is a deep-rooted problem and one that requires a whole-systems approach to bring about change.”
‘Amy’ is believed to have been murdered by her partner ‘Stephen’, who committed suicide before it was possible to have charges pressed. They were in a relationship for one year prior to her murder, during which time he was imprisoned four times.
The report illustrates how there were opportunities missed to identify the risk posed to ‘Amy’ and her child from the perpetrator. “A specific concern was raised to HSCT 3 that ‘Amy’ was in a relationship with a ‘prisoner’ who was not to be in the company of children. While this was addressed with ‘Amy’, and she reported the relationship to be over, there is no evidence that HSCT 3 attempted to establish who this person was and record the information for future reference.”
The perpetrator was classified as a ‘high-risk’ domestic abuser to police. The report references a visit by police to ‘Steven’ and Amy’s’ residence where there was a child present, a knife was mentioned, ‘Stephen’ “appeared to be under the influence of drugs”, and ‘Amy’ stated that she was not present in the home despite a woman’s voice being heard in the call which prompted the police visit.
In addition, the report outlines a contributing system error. “Following a primary referral to the relevant HSCT, all subsequent information received is recorded in an electronic case file and not as a new referral. This means it is more difficult to search and retrieve information in order to inform decision making.”
The report continues: “There are different dynamics and motivations between intimate partner violence and adult family violence. However, no consideration was given to the fact that this individual, who was alerted as a high-risk domestic abuser for family adult violence, was likely to be a risk to his intimate partner and child.”
Similar to the case with ‘Ellen’, the report highlights the need for an overarching plan to manage an individual who caused harm within an intimate/family relationship.