Sue and Lloyd Clarke believe coercive control early intervention could have saved their daughter Hannah’s life and the lives of their three grandchildren, Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3.
“We never knew about coercive control until after the fact. I think if we would’ve known we could have helped and maybe stopped an atrocity," says Sue.
Hannah had left her abusive marriage and escaped with her children to her parents’ house in Brisbane with just two garbage bags of clothes. Her father Lloyd had furnished bunk beds for the kids and secured the house with locks. A protection order was in place. They should have been safe.
Instead, on February 19, 2020, her estranged husband Rowan Baxter ambushed Hannah and their three kids as they set out in the car for the morning school run. He doused them in petrol and set them alight before killing himself in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill. Hannah’s last act was to drive the car towards a bystander and scream for help. She retold her story to the emergency paramedics, and again later when she lay in critical condition in hospital. She died hours later.
Hannah’s murder sent shockwaves throughout Australia, dominating national headlines. The tragic deaths of the mother and her three children at the hands of their father triggered a debate about whether Australia should follow England, Scotland and Wales and criminalise coercive control.
Coercive control describes a repeated pattern of control and domination in a domestic relationship. Importantly, it can include verbal, economic and psychological abuse, not just sexual and physical violence.
Deakin University Professor Marilyn McMahon says a history of coercive control is an even more important predictor of intimate partner homicide than a past history of physical violence.
“Most women who are killed by their partners or ex-partners have previously been victims of coercive control by these men.”
In Hannah's case, Baxter had not previously been physically violent towards her; a fact Hannah and even Baxter used to justify the situation to Hannah’s worried parents, that it wasn’t really domestic violence.
But Baxter’s control was total – for example, Hannah wasn’t allowed to wear pink, she was forced to be intimate with him every night. He belittled and pushed her. The Clarkes believe Baxter also tracked her movements and phone as he would often turn up randomly to a supermarket or a café catch-up to check on her.
“She was a broken woman before she left,” Lloyd says.
“She was frightened," says Sue. "She said to me, ‘Who gets the children when he kills me mum?’ He killed them a week after."
Hannah's parents believe criminalising coercive control could have saved her and her children.
“He would have gone to jail and had some of his entitlement taken from him,” says Lloyd.
Sue believes jail time could be a deterrent to offenders, alerting them they are on watch. "They come out not wanting to go back in. Even that in itself that can help," she says.
The Natalie Curtis case in the UK is an example of how coercive control legislation operates. Her partner would telephone her 30 to 40 times a day, threaten to kill her, throw her belongings out of their house and smash their furniture. She filmed his abuse and escaped the home on June 30, 2012. He was charged with coercive or controlling behaviour, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison on October 3, the same year.
Jess Hill, author of See What You Made Me Do, now a documentary series premiering on SBS on May 5, says coercive control was, for many, a new understanding. But it is how most domestic violence is experienced.
“For a lot of people [coercive control] sounds like second-grade abuse, a lower form of abuse that wouldn’t be so hard to recover from. What the model of coercive control shows, is that where that is present, you are actually looking at a situation of entrapment, not just abuse.”
The psychological trap and the threat of violence for non-compliance is often enough to keep victims in a state of fear. In the case of Hannah Clarke, Baxter would change his routine randomly to keep her guessing his movements.
“Once you start to understand that – the question really is – how on earth [do survivors] leave? How are she and the kids surviving?” Hill says.
Hannah loved ascending into the sky – she represented Queensland in trampolining, coached the sport and was committed to fitness. A video of her carrying Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, huddled in her arms, as she pounds the gym floor, shows her agility and strength.
Sue says: "She was very determined, especially when it came to her Cross Fit. I think that was also a release for her. It was her time for herself and she could just forget what was going on.
“All she ever wanted to be growing up was to be a mum. She certainly doted on her children and loved them so much.
Lloyd said: “She was a very strong person. She was a warrior. [Sport] held her together, and helped her look after the kids and put up with what she put up with for four years."
Hill says coercive control legislation needs to be part of the wholescale reform of policing, especially for marginalised groups who have historically experienced violence at the hands of police. Her upcoming podcast, ‘The Trap’, is critical of police - she cites a survey showing up to 40 per cent of US police had admitted to engaging in physical or sexual violence against their partners. But having coercive control legislation on the books was the urgent first step - representing a cultural change that could save lives.
“The police generally are white [and] male dominated, but there’s no reason if you were going to design something different which is going to respond to gendered violence that you couldn’t do with a lens that particularly fits Australian conditions.
"We’re dealing with some very dangerous men. Unfortunately I don’t see any alternative to having police of some kind respond to that. It’s not fair to put on the community the responsibility for stepping into situations that are life-threatening."
Hill also cites Argentina as a country taking a different approach to tackling coercive control. After a political revolution in the 1980s, the country introduced women’s-only police stations, with social workers, lawyers and psychologists tasked with the mandate to not only respond to gendered violence but prevent it. Only 30 per cent of the time a punitive response is carried out, with police consulting closely with women.
“Just missing those beautiful angels. We had a houseful here of complete chaos, and I’d do anything to have it back again."
“They really consult with them on what would provide safety – and sometimes it’s just going and ejecting the guy from the house. Other times it’s going and giving him a warning. It’s not like the police come in, swoop in and take all the power and the women have to go along with whatever police decide,” Hill says.
Hill says a specialist domestic violence taskforce of this kind, combining culturally appropriate translators and staff for diverse communities, could be trialled in Australia. As the number one law and order issue in the country, women have the right to demand better, she says.
“When you have these [female] police embedded with social workers, lawyers, psychologists, in a real feminist centre, you change the nature of that policing,” she said.
For Hannah's parents, the murders have devastated their lives. They feel cheated of a lifetime of graduations, weddings and a noisy house: “Just missing those beautiful angels. We had a houseful here of complete chaos, and I’d do anything to have it back again,” Lloyd says.
Sue has been unable to return to work. “I used to mind the children every Friday for years. Now I’m lost on Fridays, just a bit lost and empty.
"We want people to understand and see the signs of how dangerous it can be, it concerns us greatly. If we can start educating young people girls and boys, to see the red flags, that’s what we’re interested in."
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT/ 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.
See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).