On average, one woman is killed in Australia every week by a current or former intimate partner. You might already know that. It is an often repeated, stubbornly immovable number, cited by almost everyone working for change in the domestic and family violence sector.
Every time we see another article about a slain woman, another news report, we often find ourselves asking- how does this keep happening? A small part of the answer to that question is we fail to identify the risks.
Non-Fatal Strangulation is a form of family violence that involves cutting off the air and/or blood supply to someone's brain. In the family violence context, it is most often perpetrated through the manual application of force, using hands around someone's throat. NFS is, if you can dare to imagine, a terrifying experience for the victim. It is used by a perpetrator as the ultimate act of control, revealing their power to decide if the victim lives or dies. The difference between surviving or dying can be a matter of seconds, and the risk is not over once the offender releases their grip.
Immediate physical impacts of NFS can include loss of consciousness, stroke, seizure, and brain injury. Longer lasting consequences include neck pain, bruising, swelling, burst blood vessels in the eyes and under the skin, difficulty breathing and swallowing, and changes to the voice. However, often there can be no physical signs at all, making it hard to identify and document injuries. There are also ongoing psychological impacts including post-traumatic stress disorder, fear, anxiety, depression, memory loss, nightmares, and dizziness.
Here is where we get to answering the question about the risk we fail to spot. Survivors of this type of attack are seven times more likely to be killed by their intimate partner at a later date, compared to victims of family violence who have not been subject to NFS. It is an ominous warning sign for future homicide, and to date, we do a really bad job at identifying it.
In Tasmania, there is no stand-alone offence for NFS. This means, if a perpetrator is prosecuted, they are usually charged for the crime of assault. You can be found guilty of assault for various things, including if you grab someone's wrist, pull their hair, or slap them. All of this type of offending is serious, especially in the family violence context. However, in order to specifically track the risk of homicide to a victim, we need to be able to track the history of NFS, and we can't do that without a stand-alone offence.
To be fair, Tasmania is getting better at prosecuting NFS in a way that recognises the seriousness of the offence, and the risk it poses to victims. The Tasmanian Office of the Director of Public Prosecution has guidelines that state offences of this nature, "... should be regarded as grave criminal conduct ..." and prosecuting it as an indictable offence should be considered. However, where NFS is not charged as an indictable offence, or not categorised properly by first responders and prosecution, it remains possible that an offence of this serious nature will fall through the cracks.
In July last year, Coroner Olivia McTaggart released her report into the 2014 death of Jodi Michelle Eaton. She was killed by Darren Dobson as a result of strangulation. The coronial report found he had a pattern of attempting to strangle women dating back to August 1997. In August 2012 he had been sentenced to a wholly suspended sentence of two months' imprisonment for a charge of assault for grabbing his partner by the throat.
He was again charged with assault for choking his partner in February 2013, and was in fact on bail for that offence at the time of Ms Eaton's murder. Coroner McTaggart's sole recommendation was: "The Tasmanian government give consideration to the enactment of an indictable offence of choking, suffocation or strangulation applicable to both the domestic violence situation and generally".
Tasmania is now an outlier, with Queensland, NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT having all introduced a separate NFS offence. Victoria has committed to do the same. Without specific legislation to cover NFS as a stand-alone offence, we're still trying to put a square peg in a round hole. While technically NFS is an assault, it is a very specific kind of assault, and we need to prosecute it in a very specific kind of way.
The introduction of a new offence would, when coupled with education and training, highlight the dangers of NFS to Police and first responders, those working within our court systems, and to members of the public more generally. We can't continue to let the risks go unnoticed.
- Yvette Cehtel is the chief executive of Tasmania's Women's Legal Service.
What do you think? Send us a letter to the editor: