Women’s safety advocates hope a report into the murder of teenage Sydney siblings at the hands of their estranged and abusive father will amplify the voices of young domestic violence victims.
NSW Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan is due to release her findings and recommendations on Wednesday into the deaths of Jack and Jennifer Edwards in July 2018.
The teenagers, aged 15 and 13 respectively, were shot dead while cowering under a bedroom desk after their father, John Edwards, stalked Jennifer on her way home from school.
After using a recently-purchased semi-automatic pistol, the retired financial planner “half-skipped” down the home’s front stairs and drove home to take his own life.
The children’s devastated mother, Olga, slept in her son’s bed after his death before taking her life in late 2018.
A September 2020 inquest was told that despite Edwards’ 40-year history of violence and abuse towards his six former partners and 10 estranged children, police had not charged him with any offence since 1998 and approved his gun licence in 2017.
The experience of the children and Olga in the Family Court was heavily scrutinised after a lawyer tasked with representing the children’s best interests initially advocated for Edwards to see his children weekly.
Women’s Safety NSW chief executive Hayley Foster said independent children’s lawyers too often had no demonstrated knowledge of the impact of family violence on children.
Some lawyers in the family law system, the courts themselves and police need to listen to the voices of children, she said.
“In so many cases, children are forced into situations where they’re not safe because adults around them have made a determination that they know better,” Ms Foster said.
She also hopes the recommendations address the “contact at all costs” culture in family law proceedings and the “massive problem with inconsistent police response” to people reporting domestic violence.
Domestic Violence NSW said there needed to be higher mandatory family violence training for police, reviewed regularly and covering coercive control.
“Attitudinal change is long-term work, however, we have to commit to more rigorous training and resourcing for front line respondents including the police,” agency chief executive Delia Donovan told AAP.
Children should also be included as victims in their own right, with their voices, experiences and views prioritised, she noted.
“How many serious case reviews and domestic homicide reports do we need to read before we take action?” Ms Donovan said.
The inquest has been told the Edwards children spoke of their father’s violence to several health professionals and experts involved in the court proceedings.
No barrier to violence
But the independent children’s lawyer said the teenagers hadn’t raised those concerns with her before she pushed for weekly access visits.
She defended not telling the family court months later that Jennifer wanted an explicit order forbidding her father from contacting her, saying judges and magistrates had previously told her not to disclose a child’s actual wish in court.
Even if a “no-time order” had been granted, police suggested it would have likely had little effect unless a criminal offence was committed at the same time as a breach.
Ms O’Sullivan’s findings are expected to be damning about Sydney police officers’ failures to adequately record or act on Olga’s reports of Edwards’ stalking of her and past abuse of Jack and Jennifer.
The error-riddled abuse report was ticked off by a supervisor in two minutes. It was later updated to include that Olga’s allegations may be “a premeditated attempt (to) influence some future family court and divorce proceedings”.
Officers at another station failed to link the contemporary report about Edwards’ appearance at Olga’s yoga studio in February 2017 to the violent man’s police profile.
Further issues were revealed in the police-run firearms registry, which used a piecemeal verification system to grant licences to those handling the state’s one million guns.
Gun licence review
Edwards’ litany of domestic violence-related events on his police profile failed to ring alarm bells with registry staff under a false impression they should only refuse licences if they found a “mandatory” reason explicitly spelled out in law.
A new commander, parachuted into the position in the wake of the Edwards murders, has since overhauled procedures at the registry, retraining staff and reviewing old licenses.
Ms Foster said the case was all the more devastating as it had all the hallmarks of the systemic issues raised for years by domestic violence victims and their supporters.
“We’re not going to tolerate this being put in the too-hard basket or it being sidelined as a women’s issue that is not very important,” she said.
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