Hannah Clarke’s tragedy offers us a chance to learn how to do better

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Few of us have met Hannah Clarke, but most will remember her name.

Hannah and her three children – Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3 – were burned to death after Rowan Baxter ambushed their vehicle in Brisbane on February 19, 2020.

Hannah and her children stayed with Hannah’s parents, Sue and Lloyd, fearing the ex-husband who could not accept a life without the woman he had decided, early on, to possess.

Their deaths made international headlines and focused policymakers’ deliberations on coercive control, funding domestic violence and police training.

The Prime Minister, Premier, Commissioner of Police and a pile of other big wigs lined the front row for a funeral that couldn’t have been sadder.

More than two years later, we now have the results of a coroner’s inquest – and his determination should be a big red alert in the way we view domestic violence.

Coroner Jane Bentley’s voice cracked as she delivered her findings, which included a judgment that it was unlikely anyone could have stopped Baxter’s murderous path.

Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey. Photo: AAP

She’s right. As a journalist, I followed this story moments after a plume of smoke and a symphony of sirens went off in a street not far from my house.

Nothing could have stopped Rowan Baxter, who the coroner also called a “master of manipulation”.

An accomplished manipulator

Baxter was able to borrow money from strangers, have good people put their own reputations on the line to defend his, and convince others over and over again that it was Hannah who was the bad one here, not him.

Even after she died, and the revelations of her abuse were released, two of her colleagues continued to call me, arguing that I had been “brainwashed” by those on Hannah’s “side”.

Rowan Baxter was an accomplished actor, and his own son — through a previous relationship — says so.

Baxter twice said he would murder his son too – once when he was about 10 years old, and another when he was a few years older.

“I don’t know if he was going to hang us (him and his mother) or choke us,” he told me after Hannah’s murder.

Baxter confirmed this story to others. One of them, a friend, told me he asked me if he ever saw himself planning to kill someone else. His response: “No. No. No. No way”.

So would the coercive control laws – now set to be implemented in different jurisdictions in Australia – would have worked with Rowan Baxter? It’s unlikely.

Would an apprehended domestic violence order arrest a freak, who was seen on CCTV cameras buying ties, fuel and three Kinder Surprise chocolates – presumably for his children – days before the murder? This was not the case.

Baxter’s friends, who watched him, helped him get back into business, loaned him money, would they have seen this coming? None of them did.

Ms Bentley has recommended a range of changes, particularly in police training – and that is welcome.

Hannah Clarke
The coroner said it was unlikely the Baxter murders could have been avoided.

But she also said this: “I find it unlikely that other actions taken by police officers, service providers, friends or family members could have prevented Baxter from ultimately carrying out its murderous plans.”

This should be the line we focus on, with renewed effort in the future.

Spot those sinister red flags

How to detect small red flags decades before a problem?

Baxter had a violent childhood, an aversion to new immigrants, and a willingness to engage in road rage. But none of that makes him a killer.

And how do we teach our children what to look for in a partner? Hannah Clarke was savvy and “turned on”, and couldn’t quite see Baxter’s manipulative control until she felt it was too late to leave.

Indeed, Hannah had never heard the term “coercive control” until a police officer explained it to her.

Addressing domestic violence during relationships is crucial, but this tragic case – and the coroner’s finding – shows that attention needs to start much earlier.

We teach children how to eat healthy and exercise as soon as they understand what it means.

This case surely highlights the need to teach children – with equal priority – the attributes they should look for in a partner.

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