This week we have been inundated by media reports of the untimely and horrific deaths of Hannah Baxter and her three children, Lainah (aged 6), Aaliyah (4) and Trey (3).
We know that we are losing more than 1 woman a week to family violence in Australia, but the loss of an entire family, including three young beautiful children, is impossible to fathom. As a family lawyer, this story echoes those of other young lives lost: Darcey Freeman, Luke Batty, and the three Farquharson children to name only a few. Young innocent lives, gone too soon, at the hands of family violence perpetrated by someone they loved.
There has been a lot of discussion around the Baxter family and the failure of the family law system to help them. But what is apparent from the reports received, is that Hannah had not yet sought the assistance of the family law courts, although it is not known whether she had sought family law legal advice, having only separated from her husband, in December 2019.
What could a lawyer have done to assist Hannah and her children?
Our ability to assist in circumstances such as these depends on the timing of when advice is sought.
What we know is that a person is most at risk from being harmed by a violent partner in the period leading up to, and immediately following, separation. So careful planning is required during this period.
In my view, safety planning is the most important aspect of family law advice in family violence cases. Critical elements to this planning include the timing of when the separation should occur, where the victim (and their children) should go and what financial assistance they will have to enable them to leave.
One of the biggest decisions that can be made is whether it is safe for the family to remain in the home, and whether it is necessary to have the perpetrator of violence removed by an intervention order. Often when a family flees the home in circumstances of family violence, they are moving away from their support network of friends and family, so it may be preferable to have the perpetrator of family violence removed, if possible. Services provided by the Protective Group, which undertakes a security assessment of the home, can ensure that if it is possible for the family to remain in the home, it is safe for them to do so.
Lawyers can assist in obtaining an intervention order to facilitate a separation and to ensure the perpetrator does not attend the home, the victim’s work, or the children’s school. An urgent court application can deal with interim financial issues, such as payment of any mortgage or access to funds, and also to seek protective parenting orders for children. If a victim does not have the funds for a lawyer, there are domestic violent grants which can be obtained to assist in the interim period.
Hannah did have an intervention order against her husband but given that he ambushed her in her car and on the school run, she had little opportunity to contact the police, or seek to enforce that order.
If Hannah had sought the assistance of the family law courts, what more could have been done to assist her?
If there was any suspicion that her husband was suffering from mental health issues, and that Hannah and the children were at significant risk, then the Court could have ordered him to be psychiatrically examined, and otherwise made recommendations as to his ongoing time with the children. Time may have been suspended during such an assessment.
Would this have made any difference? It is simply impossible to know. However, it is important that families seeking to escape domestic violence are aware of the options and support services available to them.
Help is available
Lawyers are not the only source of support during this time, and it is important to note that 1800 Respect and the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Helpline (24 hours) are available. There are additional services provided by other community organisations, such as the Salvation Army, which can also help in providing financial assistance, counselling and accommodation services.
There are also various smart phone apps, which are available to assist victims of family violence, including Penda, Daisy and Bonnie.org.au which all provide immediate support services in your local area.
If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000. If you require any initial advice around family violence legal issues, please call KHQ Lawyers on (03) 9663 9877.