Protection Orders – Do they work?

Robbed of a future

Edward Livingstone came back to his ex-partner’s house in the quiet suburb of St Leonards in Dunedin. He had been separated for the past year. He had a shotgun. Katherine, his terrified partner, fled the house. She would not have thought he would harm the children. He shot his six and nine year old daughter and son. He then turned the gun on himself.

As a parent of two children I was immediately saddened for all involved. These two young children will not grow up to be whatever they were going be, to realise their unique potential in the world. We will also have a mother racked with, “If only…” questions. Friends, family/whanau and neighbours will be wondering what they missed. We are only left wondering, could this have had a different outcome?

This tragedy that took place in Dunedin this week will result in many questions being asked. Debate will traverse a range of subjects as we try to make sense of such a senseless crime. This is not the first time a crime of this nature has taken place, and regrettably it will not be the last. Debate will be fierce around the effectiveness or otherwise of Protection Orders. They are after all only a piece of paper. However they are a piece of paper that has significance.

I am a strong supporter of Protections Orders, having been involved in helping to shape the Programme Regulations for the Domestic Violence Act, 1995. The DVA Act heralded in better accountability for perpetrators of family violence. It also meant that where a person has used violence within the family/whanau setting, they are required to undertake a programme (either individual or group) to explore their behaviour and develop the necessary skills for maintaining safety with others.

Protection Orders, like the anti-smacking legislation, puts a line in the sand about what we expect in terms of behaviour within our private lives. We don’t have to look too far to know that this is important given the amount of abuse that goes under the radar. We know that in the majority of cases family violence is a tradition and is learnt through observing those around us. By breaking the cycle of witnessing violent and abusive behaviour we can start to build resilience and protection for future generations of children. When children see dads and mums, step-dads and step-mums, and uncles and aunties managing situations well, they know what to do when they are in similar situations.

Protections orders are also an investment in the future safety of women and children in subsequent relationships. When relationships break down, there is a time of obvious distress for most people. Shattered dreams and hopes impact upon anyone who separates. However, over time we tend to find ourselves in new relationships. If we can put that line in the sand and make a new start in terms of different behaviour, then we can look forward to a good life along with those around us.

Some will raise the question. “Do Protection Orders make a bad situation worse?” Do they drive men, and it is more often men, to take the sort of action that Edward Livingstone did? This is far from simple to explain. In my view there are a wide range of factors to traverse. These will include many of the following.

  • What work was done with Mr Livingstone regarding safety planning and in particular his emotional distress? In other words did he attend and complete a programme as a condition of his Protection Order, what was the result and what was missed? We know that there is a group of men who are very dependant upon their partners and the threat of being parted can be overwhelming. They can easily become intoxicated with feeling of rejection and abandonment. They will generally be candidates for breaching Protection Orders, stalking and are at a high-risk for further violence, sometime extreme.
  • Where was Mr Livingstone’s support network (including his place of work) and how much were they aware of what was going on? In other words who was Mr Livingstone accountable to? We know that having people take an interest and being there during times of distress, is one of the key factors in lowering risk.
  • Two breaches, admittedly by phone, tell us something and should not be minimised. Breaches of any order communicate a strong message to others, particularly to women in the case of Protection Orders. It communicates that “I will not adhere to what the court has decided”. It also says that “I will not respect your rights to managing the contact provision of the order”. In terms of Protection Orders the applicant can decide on the level and nature of any contact.
  • How did this man access a firearm without a license? Gun licenses are automatically revoked when a Protection Order is granted. We know that anything can be a weapon but we also know that when firearms are involved there is potency.

Protection Orders are critical for safety, particularly women and children. While in this case the piece of paper did not stop a father murdering his two children and then killing himself, it is one of the few responses that allow the opportunity of those who perpetrate violence to have contact with agencies who can help to move through the process of separation and develop skills to manage distress that arises from the situation.

 

Published on Sunday, January 19th, 2014, under Family violence

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