Warped masculinity is fuelling NZ’s fatal family violence problem

Warped masculinity is fuelling NZ’s fatal family violence problem

While New Zealand’s homicide rate is relatively low, the country has some of the highest reported rates of family violence in the developed world. Experts say a warped sense of masculinity is partly to blame. Katie Kenny and Blair Ensor investigate as part of The Homicide Report.

Preventing violence at home is the first step to ensuring the safety of our communities. But New Zealand has it backwards.

The Homicide Report, a Stuff investigation of homicide in New Zealand, lays bare the country’s problem with family violence. A team of Stuffjournalists has compiled the first publicly searchable database of New Zealand homicides; 1068 men, women, and children, killed from January 2004–March 31, 2019. Almost 400 cases, or 35 per cent, involve family violence.

Half of all women homicide victims (an average of nine a year) were killed by a male partner or ex-partner, the data shows. A significant proportion involve what’s known as “overkill” — where the violence used was far beyond what was necessary to cause death. One in eight victims is a child.

With 70 individuals killed each year, on average, New Zealand’s homicide rate of 1.6 per 100,000 is below the OECD average of 3.6 per 100,000. But it’s common knowledge family violence is our national shame. New Zealand consistently outranks other developed countries when it comes to rates of family violence, particularly intimate partner violence and child abuse.

The devastating consequences extend beyond the home; affecting wider families, communities, and the country’s economy. Children who are exposed to family violence are more likely to go on to commit violence. The economic cost is in the billions of dollars.

Women and children are often target practice for men who go on to commit further violence in society. An analysis of mass shootings in the United States found a “noteworthy connection between mass-shooting incidents and domestic or family violence”.

Family violence occurs in families of all backgrounds, social classes, religions, cultures, and lifestyles. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional and psychological, financial, or spiritual.

One of the most well-known cases of intimate partner violence is that of Sophie Elliott, from Dunedin. The 22-year-old was murdered — stabbed 216 times — by her ex-boyfriend, Clayton Weatherston. The bespectacled former university tutor was typical of many perpetrators, who appear presentable and harmless.

The young woman’s father, Gil Elliott, described it as “a hell of a shock“. “Who would have thought someone like him, an academic with a PhD, could do such a thing?”

here’s never a single cause, says Neville Robertson, a community psychologist and former senior lecturer at Waikato University. But after 30 years of researching domestic violence and working with perpetrators, he says, one common trait he’s noticed among all violent men is their belief in male superiority. “They have a very hierarchical view of relationships and it’s one where men are seen as more important, the breadwinner. They’re very reluctant, or unable, to conceive that relationships could be equal.”

They believe that men are decision makers, for example, and women are responsible for child care, he says. “Many men will use violence to protect those privileges. If [their partner] leaves, for example, they’ll protect those privileges.”

New Zealand has bred generations of men who are unable to express their feelings: “So they act out in super masculine ways just to solidify their claims to masculine credentials.”

Without doubt, intimate partner violence is a gendered problem. Of all victims killed by a partner or ex-partner, 75 per cent were female and 25 per cent male. Even in the latter category, often the woman was the primary victim, and the man the predominant aggressor. We identified 34 cases where a man was killed by his female partner or ex-partner. In 17 of those, the woman was acting in self-defence.

Around 70 per cent of family violence offences take place in front of children, according to the Family Violence Death Review Committee (FVDRC). Research tells us exposure to family violence is just as harmful as direct physical abuse, so intimate partner violence can’t really be separated from child abuse and neglect.

Responding to violence in the home has to be a top priority, says Justice Minister Andrew Little. “Unless we get to them early enough, we’re going to have to just keep expecting that we’re going to churn out violent people.”

Of course, not every child who’s traumatised faces a bleak future, but “there’s a pretty clear link and that’s why keeping children safe, and what we do with families in general, is so vital to their future and actually to our own safety in the community as well,” Little says.

It’s hard to say whether the problem is getting better or worse, given increasing public awareness has resulted in an increase in reports.

At least one-third of Kiwi women experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and that jumps to more than half of all women when the definition of violence is widened to include psychological or emotional abuse. Police are called to an incident every four minutes. Studies show it’s still under-reported.

Detective Superintendent Tim Anderson says police are particularly concerned about the lack of reporting of family violence in gang homes. “It’s often under-reported where male offenders are fuelled by addiction — whether it be drugs, alcohol or gambling — then beat their partners, in some cases to death.”

Senior Sergeant Fiona Roberts, National Coordinator of Family Violence, says they’re “under no illusions we’ve got a very serious issue”.

On her left pocket is a White Ribbon pin, symbolising the anti-violence campaign that calls for men to stand up to family violence. Cumulative harm over many generations has led to the normalisation of violence in Kiwi homes, she says.

Members of Marie Harlick’s family wore similar ribbons in the High Court in Tauranga as her killer, Mongrel Mob member Robert Roupere Hohua, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Hohua brutally murdered Harlick in November, 2016. The 35 year-old’s baby daughter, Vivienne, watched the fatal beating from her push chair.

During sentencing, Justice Anne Hinton noted Hohua had been physically and sexually abused as a child. He was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to three years in prison at age 17, and went on to abuse Harlick. He was on bail for assaulting her at the time she died.

Breaking abuse cycles means focusing not only on victims and children, but also perpetrators, Roberts says.

“If we don’t address that issue then nothing changes no matter how much other support there is. That’s what we’re committed to doing.”

She’s optimistic about the government’s multi-agency approach, and new legislation.

That movement started under former Justice Minister Amy Adams, who in 2017 announced a reform of family violence laws. There was broad support for many of her proposals. Under the current government, the legislation was divided into two bills which passed into law last year: the Family Violence Act 2018 and the Family Violence (Amendments Act) 2018.

The former replaces the Domestic Violence Act 1995. Changes include allowing agencies to apply for protection orders on behalf of victims, enabling more information sharing between relevant agencies, and extending the maximum duration of a police safety order from five to 10 days. The latter makes changes to the criminal law and introduces three new offences: strangulation or suffocation, assault on a person in a family relationship, and coerced marriage or civil union.

On November 6, 2018, the day the bills passed their third readings in Parliament, Little said, of family violence: “We don’t just have a problem, we have a crisis.”

Less than a month later, a 21-year-old Auckland man was the first person to be arrested and charged with strangulation, just days after the offence — with a maximum seven-year prison sentence — came into effect. More than 700 have been charged since then, Roberts says.

Strangulation is an important predictor for future, lethal intimate partner violence. “We may know it’s not OK, but some of vulnerable communities may not know that,” Roberts says. “We now have a tool to hold someone to account.”

Last year, Green MP Jan Logie, Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice (Domestic and Sexual Violence Issues), announced a new joint venture to tackle family and sexual violence. The joint venture brings together 10 government agencies, from Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Social Development, to Health, Justice, and Police, and will be informed by an independent Māori advisory group.

The first step is to come up with a national strategy and action plan. That’s still underway, Little says.

n the meantime, police have been leading a multi-agency pilot, called the Integrated Safety Response pilot, to ensure the immediate safety of victims and children and to work with perpetrators to prevent further violence.

Key features include dedicated staff, funded specialist services, and an intensive case management approach to work with high risk families. The pilot is currently operating in two places: Christchurch and Waikato.

Acting Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Farrant, officer in charge of Canterbury police’s family protection team, credits the pilot with saving the lives of up to 10 people. (He won’t talk specifics, but says several of the cases involved high level strangulation or gangs.)

It’s been running since 2016 and is set to expire on June 30, unless new funding is made available. When asked about the pilot’s future, Little says he can’t disclose what’s happening with the upcoming budget, but feedback to date, from both sites, has been “very good”.

“We have keenly studied the feedback out of the pilot so far and are very keen to see it progress.”

Māori are over-represented among family violence victims and offenders, as are those from the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Intersecting disadvantages — contemporary and historical — continue to contribute to the problem.

Violence against women and children isn’t part of traditional Māori culture. Rather, the violence within whānau we see today reflects the patriarchal norms of the colonising culture, as well as trauma from widespread fragmentation of Māori social structures that were enforced during and after colonisation, according to the FVDRC.

He Waka Tapu, a Māori kaupapa health organisation in Christchurch, has been working in the community for more than 20 years. In July last year, police partnered with it as part of the Integrated Safety Response pilot.

The partnership involves having a “navigator” available in the Christchurch Central custody unit to work with perpetrators and families after an incident, to address the causes of offending and, ideally, reduce family harm in the community.

He Waka Tapu chief executive Jackie Burrows says while the organisation initially focused on programmes for men who had committed violence, it’s since grown into a “full wrap-around health service for victims and perpetrators”.

“We acknowledge many victims will go back to their partners,” she says. “And at the end of the day, the children still have two parents, so even if they separate they’re going to need to learn how to behave appropriately with each other to ensure they’re not creating another cycle of abuse.”

More than 90 per cent of their clients are Māori, and services are delivered using a kaupapa Māori framework, encompassing tinana (physical well-being), wairua (spiritual well-being), hinengaro (mental well-being) and whānau (family well-being).

“Intrinsically, for Māori, that’s how we operate.”

Burrows would like to see more opportunities for former offenders looking to work in the sector. “We’ve got people who work with us who have offended. They’ve done a lot of work on themselves, and come into this space, yet we’re limited with what we can do with them because of their record.

“If people see others have changed, that it’s possible, then it gives them hope.”

Family violence is a preventable problem, says Professor Jane Koziol-McLain, chair of the FVDRC. Yet, as a society, we tend to treat it as an inevitability.

There’s no one thing that will “turn the tide,” she says. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to challenge our systems. This is an incredible opportunity with the new strategy, with some of the legislative changes that have happened, the police transformation, the [pilot] — all of these things I believe are important interventions that signal a shift.

“But we’re not quite there yet.”

Last year, there were 26 family violence-related deaths; an increase on previous years and one third of all homicides that year. This year, we’re on track for 32.

– Additional reporting by Stacey Kirk.