Could the Senate Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children Prevent Future Deaths?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names of deceased persons and mentions domestic violence and murder.

Public hearings officially joined the Senate Committee Request on missing and murdered indigenous women and children. The survey has found “Murder rates for Indigenous women are eight times higher than for their non-Indigenous counterparts.” This came as no surprise to many of us who have worked in this field for a long time.

In fact, these numbers are likely to be higher when including manslaughter rates. The rate at which women are murdered in Australia over time (2005-06 to 2019-20) decreased. But according to the Australia Homicide Report 2019 -20report, this is unfortunately not the case for aboriginal women.

When women are murdered in Australia, it is understandable contemptdisplays of pain and moments of reflection in our parliament.

However, there is often a silence in the media and in public discussions about the violence experienced by Indigenous women, as Indigenous studies professor Bronwyn Carlson has explained.

This inquiry has the potential to give a voice to the Indigenous women and children we have lost and continue to lose to violence, and to end the silence that ensues.

Read more: No public outrage, no vigils: Australia’s silence on violence against Indigenous women

What is this senatorial investigation?

In November 2021, First Nations Greens Senators Dorinda Cox and Lidia Thorpe called for a Senate inquiry into the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children in Australia. Through measures such as hearing testimonies from survivors of violence and reviewing police responses, this will be an opportunity to investigate what can be changed to better address violence against Indigenous women and children in Australia.

Available data tells us that Aboriginal women represent up to ten% of unsolved missing persons cases in Australia, many of whom are presumed dead. Indigenous women are also 30 times more likely to be hospitalized for assault-related injuries. As part of its public hearings, the inquiry examines these damning statistics.

However, the investigation is also thorough, ask for more on women’s stories, with the intention of going beyond the statistics and hearing how people are affected by their experiences of domestic violence.

Police and domestic violence services not helping

My research revealed that violence against Aboriginal women is significantly underreported and the perpetrators regularly go unpunished. This is not to say that Aboriginal women are not asking for support: they are and have been. However, they often face the dilemma of who to contact safely and what the consequences of reporting might be.

For First Nations women, there are significant risks to consider when reporting abuse to the police or seeking assistance from domestic violence services. These risks include having their children taken from them by child protective services, the women themselves being arrested for unrelated criminal matters, and the risk of being wrongly identified as the abuser.

Researcher in criminology and law Emma Buxton-Namisnyk A study of domestic violence policing among First Nations women in Australia found that “there were very few examples of police interventions that did not cause identifiable harm”. Buxton-Namisnyk found that this harm was due to police inaction and failure to enforce domestic violence laws. In some cases, these were police interventions that “eroded victims’ agency” by criminalizing victims and increasing police surveillance of their families.

In June 2022, Acting Coroner Elisabeth Armitage rendered overwhelming discoveries against Northern Territory Police in the death of Roberta, an Aboriginal woman from the Katherine area. Armitage said the police “did nothing to help him”. In fact, the fatal assault was the seventh time Roberta’s partner abused her in less than two weeks. This was five days after the police told Roberta to “stop calling us”.

Armitage summed up this case as one in which the police failed to follow any of its procedures regarding domestic violence complaints. She also found their mannerisms towards Roberta to be rude and dismissive.

These actions and failures were not limited to police actions. The triple zero call operator misclassified Roberta’s calls for help, and the parole officer supervising Roberta’s partner was oblivious to his breaches of parole conditions. The breakdown in communication between these services and the lack of support offered to Roberta created the conditions that led to her death.

This case also speaks to a larger problem of witnesses not responding to calls for help from our women. The Northern Territory is a unique jurisdiction in that it is obligatory for all adults report domestic violence “when the life or safety of another person is seriously or imminently threatened” or be liable to a fine of up to $20,000.

Despite this, Armitage explained that there were witnesses to the abuse Roberta suffered, who did not report. To my knowledge, no one has been held responsible for failing to report.

Read more: Unintended, but not unintended: Coercive control laws will disadvantage First Nations women

There are stories behind the numbers

During this Senate investigation, politicians must consider the stories behind the statistics, like Roberta’s. It is these stories that demonstrate the need for domestic and family violence death reviews in all of our states and territories. They provide the opportunity to understand the victim’s story and how they are affected by the services and systems currently in place.

But it is also essential that indigenous peoples are included in the process of reviewing and analyzing what is wrong with services intended to save lives.
In addition to this, there needs to be a thorough review of cases over time to understand trends regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. We need to determine whether systemic issues or practice issues are responsible for the failure of these women.

While United Nations violence against Indigenous women and girls report In the United States, Indigenous women already face violence in the form of racial discrimination and systemic inequities. Our cries for help should be answered by a culturally safe person who can hear our stories and respond with care and respect to help us navigate to safety.

Norman D. Briggs