It has been one year since Hannah Clarke and her three young children, Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3, were murdered by their estranged husband and father on a residential Brisbane street.
To the outside world, Rowan Baxter was a loving and attentive father, who despite being separated from his wife, was a devoted dad to his children.
On the morning of 19 February 2020, Mr Baxter ambushed his wife and children, and while holding a knife to his wife’s throat, he doused his family in fuel and set fire to their vehicle. They were headed for school drop-off. Mr Baxter exited the burning car, knife in hand, and screamed at horrified neighbours and onlookers to “get away and let her burn”. Ms Clarke managed to escape the burning wreckage and rolled on the ground while a neighbour hosed her down. Mr Baxter then stabbed himself to death while his screaming children were trapped inside the burning vehicle.
Mr Baxter did not live to witness his wife’s brave actions, who despite life threatening burns to her entire body, was able to provide police with a detailed account of the events that had just taken place before she passed away in hospital a short time later.
The murder of Ms Clarke and her three children made international headlines. Her story of intimidation, stalking and threats at the hands of her former partner took place over several years dating back to the time that she met Mr Baxter and began raising a family with him.
Mr Baxter did not lay a hand on his wife or children prior to their murders. A lack of bruises and marks on Ms Clarke’s body meant that his abuse was not visible to the outside world. He watched and followed his wife’s movements, he controlled her social media accounts and restricted her finances. He controlled who she was allowed to see, what she wore and where she went. Ms Clarke reported to friends and family members that her husband would obsess over how long it took her to get to and from work and would verbally abuse her at every opportunity.
Following several failed attempts to leave her marriage, Ms Clarke finally fled with the children to her parents’ home in December 2019, where she fearfully awaited her husband’s next move. The children were told to keep the front door locked and Ms Clarke and her parents were vigilant in checking the streets before leaving for work.
In mid-February 2020, Ms Clarke disclosed to a close friend that she thought Mr Baxter may try to kill her. Six days later, Ms Clarke and her three children were dead.
While physical abuse and violence can be prosecuted as assault, it is difficult to identify and prosecute emotional, financial and other forms of non-physical abuse unless it is a clear breach of a Family Violence Intervention Order.
Shortly after her death, Ms Clarke’s parents established the Small Steps 4 Hannah Foundation to educate Australians about coercive control and to advocate for law reform. Since then, an alliance of domestic violence groups including Women’s Safety NSW, White Ribbon Australia, Small Steps 4 Hannah, Women’s Legal Service Queensland, Women’s Community Shelters and Doctors Against Violence Towards Women, have lobbied for state and federal governments to make coercive control a criminal offence.
In the week leading up to the one year anniversary of the murder of Ms Clarke and her three children, the Queensland Government announced plans to establish an independent taskforce to consult on legislation addressing coercive control. Similar legislation exists in the United Kingdom which has criminalised controlling or coercive behaviour with penalties of up to five years in jail.
Some elements of coercive control or “intimate terrorism” are currently deemed to be criminal acts in Tasmania.
Coercive control comprises 25 types of behaviours including:
• Demeaning behaviour;
• Threats to harm and or actual harm.
Victims of domestic abuse and coercive control are encouraged to call Victoria Police in the case of an emergency on 000 or a specialist family law practice. They are also encouraged to call the national domestic violence hotline on 1800 RESPECT.