Someone to Watch Over Me by Trevor Plumbly

family violence

Checks and Balances

The killing of children anywhere is always hard to come to terms with, but it gets tougher when it happens in your own home town. There’s little doubt now that Edward Livingstone was a troubled soul, with a history of sexual violence against his partner Katherine, which culminated in her being granted a protection order in May 2013.

For some strange reason, this order wasn’t finalised till August of that year. Later, during a supervised visit to their two children aged 6 and 9, Livingstone presented the children with used cartridge cases in much the same way as you and I would hand out sweets. In January 2014, Livingstone called at his ex-partner’s home in the quiet Dunedin suburb of St Leonards and shot both his children before turning the gun on himself.

As ever in these tragedies, nobody admits any failings; was it, in fact, foreseeable or preventable? The background strongly suggests that it was, and that to me seems as unthinkable as the tragedy itself. Whilst I admit that violence doesn’t always parade itself in bright colours, in this case, surely the indicators at least warranted closer monitoring.

Desperation

It’s well documented that far too many women have a high tolerance to spousal abuse either from conditioning, self-blame or totally misplaced loyalty; but for some there is a breaking point. Katherine reached that point after being subjected to four hours of sexual torture at his hands with the children banging on the locked bedroom door. Like most in her position, she sought the protection of the law in the form of a court protection order. Sadly, many of these orders carry little weight outside a courtroom; non-compliance is often treated by a ‘talking to’ by overworked, untrained and sometimes uninterested police officers. That might sound harsh, but here’s a man considered by the court to be a threat to highly vulnerable people, handing out shell cases to young children. Unbelievably, when the shell cases were given to the police by the children’s mother as evidence of her concern, the officers involved decided to discard them without any record being made or, it seems, any form of follow-up with Livingstone.

In Practice

The Coroner, to be fair, levelled a few mild shots at various parties, but undid any good she might have initiated by assuring all concerned that there was no evidence to suggest that best practice was not followed. I just can’t get my head round that statement as it makes the assumption that everybody involved did their jobs adequately. As Anne Stevens, Katherine’s counsel, put it, by extending that acceptance to the eventual outcome it implies that since everybody that could have helped did their best, the tragedy was going to happen anyway! It was either an ill-considered comment on the Coroner’s part or a case of dispensing a bit of benign judicial absolution. Meaningful comments from the police superintendent offered a bit of spin-speak but failed to include information such as:

  • What exact action was taken with Livingstone following his first breach of the protection order?
  • What disciplinary action are the two police officers facing for failing to record the existence or the disposing of the cartridge cases?
  • What, if any, social service agencies were informed or consulted after the breach of the protection order.

Off the top of my head the following could have provided far more ‘hands-on’ support than the courts or the police:

  • Child, Youth and Family (CYF), NZ’s child protection service
  • Women’s Refuge
  • Shine (a domestic violence support group)
  • Victim Support
  • The fearsomely titled ‘Family Violence Inter Agency Response’ (FVIAR).

Basic Practice

Sadly, I’m beginning to believe that far too many social service agencies and the police have lapsed into spending too much time on computers and tiptoeing round force-fed correctness; physical cries for help don’t pop out of computer screens, neither do the solutions: basic human contact is needed for either to have any validity or effect. Last words belong to lawyer Anne Stevens; refreshingly avoiding ‘wheelbarrow’ words she simply said, ‘You can set up committees and reviews till the cows come home, but it’s all out there; just do the job.’. . . I hope someone’s listening.

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