How Lismore father James Harrison slipped through the cracks.

Content warning: this article discusses domestic violence.

"The father has created a system where both he and the child have passed away as a result of the system he set up."

This is how Deputy Commissioner Peter Thurtell described the calculated murder of a two-year-old child by his father during an unsupervised access visit. 

James Harrison took the time to create a 'system', designed to kill his son, Rowan, and then himself. 

Harrison was due to return Rowan to his mother—Dr Sophie Roome—at 4.30pm. Unable to contact Harrison, it took less than an hour for Dr Roome to call the police. When they arrived at Harrison’s apartment, they found the pair dead

Dr Roome’s response was swift. She knew her ex husband was dangerous. That’s why she took out an Apprehended Violence Order against him, which was current at the time of the murder. 

Harrison was known to the police too, for previous domestic violence matters. Nothing "significant" though, Thurtell said. 

They were less swift. While they did attend Harrison’s home after receiving Dr Roome’s call, when no one came to the door, they left. It took hours, and desperate pleas from Dr Roome and her family, before police returned to the apartment and forced entry. 

But neither the AVO nor Harrison’s known history of domestic violence changed the outcome. Little Rowan is dead. Killed by a man whose rights trumped everyone else’s. A man whose desire for power, control and vengeance was so strong, he was willing to murder his own child. 


He planned it. And he did it. 

And yet, this man was permitted unsupervised access to his child. Dr Roome was forced to hand over her son to a known abuser. And now he is gone. His life taken during one of the unsupervised visits the family court deemed so important. 

This isn’t the first time a man considered 'safe' has murdered his children, despite a history of domestic abuse. 

Less than a month before Rowan Baxter murdered his former wife, Hannah Clarke, and their three children — Aaliyah, six, Laianah, four, and Trey, three — by setting them on fire, a psychologist wrote a reference deeming him fit to regain contact with them. 

The reference came despite Baxter being the subject of a temporary protection order, following Hannah’s frequent visits to both police and domestic violence shelters to report his frightening behaviour, that including stalking, threats, intimidation, even failing to return the children. 

Hannah Clarke with her kids Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey. Image: Supplied.


"Where men kill their children in the context of DFV (whether this is part of a murder-suicide event or solely a homicide event), this disproportionately occurs around the time of or post separation," says Leneen Forde Chair in Child & Family Research Professor Silke Meyer.

"The child is often the 'collateral' damage that fathers are willing to accept in their ongoing tactics of coercive control against mothers. The primary target of his coercive control is the adult victim-survivor who is being punished for having dared to break out of the abusive relationship. Children become another tool in the perpetrator's toolbox of coercive control."

In 2009, Arthur Freeman, pulled his car into the left lane of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge, and threw his daughter, Darcey, over the edge. His two sons watched on from the car. The Supreme Court concluded Freeman’s only motive could have been to hurt his former wife, Peta Barnes. 


Robert Farquharson had spent Father's Day with his three children — Jai, 10, Tyler, seven, and Bailey, two — and was supposed to be dropping them home to their mother when he steered his car off the Princes Highway into a dam. He swam to safety, leaving all three boys to drown. 

Ramazan Kerem Acar was supposed to be taking his two-year-old daughter, Yazmina to the milk bar. Instead, he called her mother — his ex partner — Rachelle D'Argent and asked her how he should kill their daughter. "Payback's a bitch. How does it feel?'' he said, before stabbing their daughter to death. 

Raymond Langfield shot dead his 13-year-old son, Patrick Langfield. A coroner said Langfield had been left "devastated by the breakdown of his marriage."

The list goes on.

A father's right to their child vs a child's right to safety. 

"We really need to see a shift from parents 'rights' to involvement in their children's lives to children's rights to safety and wellbeing," says Professor Meyer. 

"And we need a system that is taking children's experiences of DFV seriously and makes and/ or informs protective decisions in children's best interests across all parts of the service system, not just at the pointy end where a judge determines a contested parenting order application."

While it's difficult to predict alternative outcomes in hindsight for this particular case, Professor Meyer says most domestic homicides are preventable because "victims had clearly articulated their fear of further harm". 


But those in a position to protect the child often underestimate the risk, Professor Meyer says, especially when the perpetrator has not previously physically harmed the child. 

"Risk to mothers equals risk to children. Children are harmed by experiencing mothers' victimisation and are at risk of being further victimised themselves. Until we fully recognise that, children will continue to be harmed in the context of DFV."

So, should all fathers subject to an AVO be denied unsupervised access to children? Professor Meyer says not necessarily, but it should carry significant weight. 

"It would help if AVOs were more specific around the protection of children, including clearly stating whether the respondent is allowed to have contact with the children and if yes, what that can look like, rather than AVOs just stating that the respondent can't have context with the adult survivor and the children shall not be 'exposed' to DFV."

Professor Meyer also believes if court reports were written by DFV informed practitioners, we would see fewer reports that deem highly dangerous fathers safe to be around their children. 

"These reports are written by professionals who lack the understanding of DFV, especially coercive control and its impact on and risk to children," Professor Meyer says. 

"We know that skilled perpetrators will exploit and manipulate the system wherever possible and that includes carefully selecting a private psychologist who has no DFV-informed lens and is easier to manipulate than one who does. If the system held practitioners accountable to undertake regular DFV training, perpetrators would be far less likely to be successful with the system manipulation and exploitation."


James Harrison. Image: Facebook.

Not "black and white". 

But family therapist, Susan De Campo, says the decision to allow a parent unsupervised access to children isn’t "black and white", and involves input from numerous parties, including report writers, solicitors, independent children’s lawyers, judicial registrars, and judges, all of whom must consider "risk". 


"Part of this assessment involves looking at patterns of behaviour, history, childhood, adverse events, any mental health concerns and any lethality flags, such as, has there been an allegation of strangulation, ready access to weapons, gang association, persistent breaches of DVOs," says De Campo. 

"The intersection between the family and criminal law sectors is so complex. In spite of people wishing it was black and white, it is not."

"There are sociopaths and psychopaths walking among us. You need highly trained and experienced professionals across all the domains—police, court personnel, clinicians, judiciary—to come to the same conclusion—in a timely manner."

From a family court perspective, report writers are compelled to consider the rights of the child to have a relationship with both parents. 

"So the courts have to be pretty convinced that the risk is very high in order to deny that right," explains De Campo.   

"It’s sad that so many of the planets need to align in order for people like Baxter (and Harrison) to be prevented (from murdering their children)."

De Campo says every professional she knows who is directly or indirectly touched by events like this is committed to ensuring they do their piece of work to the best of their ability, "with the resources available, the information available and the system and laws that we are required to work within".

"Sometimes the most tragic events occur and no one could have predicted it. I think the current focus on teaching how to have respectful relationships—at a primary school level—is fantastic. And it will take a long time."


It's time to put children first.

Time and time again, a father's right to access his child are prioritised at seemingly any cost. Mothers continue to feel pressured to agree to parenting orders they're uncomfortable with, due to — quite rational — fear of losing their children.

Several inquests have revealed women are frequently advised by legal practitioners to facilitate contact because if the matter goes to court, the court may not only grant the abusive father unsupervised access, but may further grant him primary or sole parental responsibility after declaring her an uncooperative, hostile parent who is alienating the children. 

"I think we've had a longstanding problem of women making allegations of DFV or sexual abuse being viewed as lying to get an advantage in custody matters — nationally and internationally. Until we shift that attitude within the service system and the community more broadly, mothers affected by DFV will continue to be pressured into agreeing to unsafe shared parenting arrangements."

Where parenting orders and AVOs intersect and/or contradict each other, Professor Meyer says magistrates do have the judicial powers to issue a temporary parenting order or vary an existing one to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the adult and child victim-survivors named on an AVO — but this is rarely done.

"So parents in the early stages of having been issued with an AVO, navigate shared parenting and related risks on their own. This is where we need some system accountability."


In 2006, family law reforms were brought in by then-Prime Minister John Howard to ensure both parents had equal rights and responsibilities post separation, unless there was clear evidence of harm to children, which is often interpreted as physical harm. 

This month, new laws passed that removed the presumption of shared equal parental responsibility — a step in the right direction towards child protection. 

"Whether the change in legislative wording and guidance will translate into a change in court decision making remains to be seen. This will require a shift in practitioners — including legal practitioners, mediators, court report writers and judicial officers — understanding and attitudes around DFV, coercive control and the impact on children."

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here

Feature image: Daily Telegraph.