Why are women and children being killed at terrifying rates in Western Australia?

The news is difficult to swallow this week.

Three little girls, their mother and their grandmother are dead, making them the third family in Western Australia to be shattered by alleged mass family violence since May.

Two-year-old twin girls, Alice and Beatrix, and their three-year-old sister Charlotte were allegedly ripped from the world by their own 24-year-old father, Anthony Harvey, inside their suburban Perth home.

The Bedford man is also accused of killing his 41-year-old wife Mara and 74-year-old mother-in-law Beverley, before staying with their bodies for several days until he handed himself into police.

Bedford Perth family murder
The bodies of three generations of women and children were found dead in their Bedford home. Image: Facebook.

It was only two months ago that we were grappling with the news that a 19-year-old Perth man, Teancum Petersen-Crofts, allegedly killed his 48-year-old mother Michelle Petersen, 15-year-old sister Bella and eight-year-old brother Rua at home in Ellenbrook.

And in May, a murder-suicide on a sprawling Margaret River property saw seven family members wiped out. Peter Miles, 61, pulled the trigger on his four grandchildren (Kadyen, 8, Ayre, 10, Rylan, 12, and Taye, 13), his daughter Katrina, 35, and wife Cynda, 58, before taking his own life.

That means 14 women and children have died across three suspected domestic mass murders, within just four months.

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Altogether, the state has seen 23 alleged family violence homicides this year - compared to 11 for the whole of 2017.

And the country is now left asking one big question: why?

Could we be witnessing a 'copycat' effect?

Many Australians have been posing this question this week.

We know for a fact reporting on suicide can have a contagion effect, where we see increased rates of suicide deaths following certain types of media coverage. This is why in Australia, journalists are bound by stringent guidelines, in a bid to prevent triggering more deaths.

Researchers have also suggested there is evidence of this 'copycat' effect manifesting itself in public mass killings, such as school shootings and terrorist attacks.

So it only makes sense to think the same could be possible for family violence, particularly after seeing three mass murders in four months.

However, all the experts Mamamia has spoken to have rejected this common theory.

Murdoch University Associate Professor and criminologist Guy Hall said it was a possibility, but unlikely.

"We know there is a copycat phenomenon in suicide. But is there a possibility here? I don't know, it's something I wouldn't dismiss," he said.

"(But) human beings do see patterns where they do not exist. There may or may not be a pattern here.

"I think overall we are probably seeing a pattern that isn't there.

"There appears to me to be a substantially different set of circumstances in these three incidents."

Just last May, the nation was grieving over the deaths of Margaret River family murder-suicide. Image: Facebook.

Associate Prof Hall stressed that as a general rule, rare events such as these "have no or limited impact on the presence of the next rare event".

Kedy Kristal, policy officer at WA's Women's Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services, outright rejected the idea.

"There's certainly no copycat behaviour going on," Ms Kristal said.

"(In public mass killings), their motives are often about self-aggrandising and grandstanding themselves, whereas family violence is about power and control.

"The reason stems back deeper. These incidents are at the end of a long pattern of abuse and violence that would have been going on throughout those relationships."

Family violence, it is argued, occurs on a continuum, and these murders happen to be on the end of the continuum, albeit an extreme one.

Relationships Australia executive director Michael Sheehan agreed - this has nothing to do with a perpetrator "snapping" in reaction to current events.

"The killings we see of partners are the culmination of years of domestic violence," Mr Sheehan said.

"There's a history of violence in these cases and it's culminated in these deaths. It happens to be a cluster that's come together that's shocked everyone."

So why are the stats so high in WA?

WA's Minister for the Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence, Simone McGurk, said the state had the second highest-rate of reported physical and sexual violence perpetrated against women in Australia, second only to the Northern Territory.

What's more, WA Police crime statistics show that over a 10-year period, the number of family violence offences recorded has risen by 116 per cent (from 14,800 in 2008-09 to 32,093 in 2017-18).

White Ribbon's executive manager of research and policy Christina Jarron described the "phenomenal increase" in family violence offences recorded in WA as "remarkable".

"There hasn't been that significant an increase in NSW," Dr Jarron said.

"This police data from WA shows quite a serious problem and that's only the tip of the iceberg. We know the majority of cases wouldn't be reported to the police, so this is just a glimpse."

But experts say explaining these statistics is near impossible.

Ms Kristal said some might opine that pressure was being placed on relationships in the aftermath of WA's mining boom, leading to a rise in family violence. However this is something she strongly doesn't believe to be an explanation.

She also said while there was significant methamphetamine use in WA, this also couldn't be put down as a reason.

"Certainly drugs and alcohol can make family violence more extreme, but it doesn't cause it."

Ellenbrook perth family murder
Michelle Petersen and her 8yo son, Rua and her 15yo daughter Bella were found by police in their Ellenbrook home. Image: Facebook.

Professor Donna Chung, a domestic violence researcher at Curtin University, believes WA's family violence figures might in part be attributed to the remoteness of many of the state's communities, as the lack of access to services and to police can pose a severe risk to safety.

But more than anything, Prof Chung suspects these three consecutive mass killings are "a horrible statistical blip in time", more linked to the under-reporting of family violence than to copycat killings.

"It reflects that people feel they can't get help."

Dr Jarron said the figures firmly pointed to a "serious social issue" which was not just WA's problem, and she could not find anything to suggest that would make WA particularly worse hit.

In short, this is not a state crisis, it is a national one. And the data shows this. According to Destroy The Joint's figures, 46 women alone have been killed violently in Australia so far in 2018.

"There's an inexcusable level of violence against women in every Australian state and territory and we really need to see a change," Dr Jarron said.

"The key to this is to better fund and better resource responses to domestic violence perpetrators and victims."

What can we do about this?

On average, across the country, one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every single week. This is a statistic that domestic violence workers are desperate for us not to forget, and Ms Kristal said it was important for us to not get too caught up in the horror surrounding the three mass murders.

"I think it's an opportunity to talk about this subject on a much deeper level," Ms Kristal said.

"All these tragedies should never have happened, whether it's one person dying or whether it's five in a family. We need to put that in context because only last week we had the death of a mother (Fahima Yusuf) who was buried in her backyard.

"We pick up on these multiple fatalities at one time because it's horrific, but we need to recognise that up until the end of last week, we had single fatalities in family violence across WA."

Fahima Yusuf
Police discovered Perth woman, Fahima Yusuf buried in the backyard of her family home just earlier last week. Image: Facebook.

Ms Kristal said "we need a commitment at state and federal level" to properly campaign against family violence in the same way we saw unfurl with smoking, road deaths and HIV.

This required proper funding, proper evaluation and bipartisan support over a 15-20 year period for attitudes to effectively change for good, she said.

Dr Jarron said prevention was multi-pronged: at the tertiary level, there are are the direct front-line crisis services, refuges, and the criminal justice system; secondary prevention involves home visits for at-risk new mothers and behavioural change programs; and primary prevention is about tackling deep-rooted social norms and combating violence before it even starts, through education.

"Every response is important. We can't fund one at the expense of another," Dr Jarron said.

"On the tertiary side you have shelters and legal services supporting women experiencing violence... (while) primary prevention really enables us to focus on all aspects of men's behaviour towards women and the power imbalance we see in some relationships."

As for individuals who are saddened and outraged, she urged us to "stand up, speak out and act" whenever they witness violence.

"Everybody has a role to play in showing violence isn't tolerated... and communities can band together to demand more funding for domestic violence services and primary prevention."

It's an important message we should all heed. Including our own Prime Minister, who only last week said Victoria's respectful relationships program in schools - a long-term strategy to fight family violence - made his "skin curl".

Because until we have leaders who are wise enough to see that Perth's mass killings are part of a widespread and deep-seated national problem that needs a whole-of-government, country-wide coordinated response, we will only see more of these tragedies.

And the repetition will not be attributed to the "copycat" phenomenon, but to leaders too gutless to make the change we need.

If this post brings up 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. 

Anyone struggling with mental health is urged to contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

How do you feel about the spate of family violence in Western Australia and what can we do about it? Join the conversation in the comments below.

You can follow Sophie Aubrey on Twitter.

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