A government study into domestic violence has been gathering dust for a year after painting a picture of drained police officers, court delays that leave victims’ lives on hold, collapsed court cases and a system in which the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

The €20,000 government-funded study was finalised a year ago but has so far remained unpublished. It recommends setting up a specialised judiciary team dedicated to hearing domestic violence cases to address year-long backlogs, increasing support for burnt-out police officers manning the domestic violence unit, and exploring the use of electronic tagging of alleged perpetrators.

Titled ‘Perpetrators of Domestic Violence: Statistics and Perceptions of Risk Factors for Harmful Behaviour’, the study was carried out by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing after being commissioned by the Tourism Ministry and supported by the Office of the Wife of the Prime Minister.

Lydia Abela, wife of Robert Abela, had announced the project in December 2020 and Times of Malta has obtained a copy through the Freedom of Information Act. She was asked yesterday why the study remains unpublished but did not reply. On Friday, she announced she would soon be publishing the outcome of a domestic violence study, without being specific.

Lydia Abela, wife of Robert Abela, had announced the project in December 2020

Meanwhile, there have been two reported fatalities of domestic violence this year. On Tuesday, mother-of-two Bernice Cassar was shot dead at 8am while driving to work at Corradino industrial estate, Paola. Her estranged husband Roderick Cassar has been charged with the murder and is pleading not guilty.

Her relatives and friends spoke out after the shooting about a system that had failed Bernice, who had left the matrimonial home in May after her husband allegedly held a knife to her throat. She filed a police report and the case was scheduled for November 17, 2023 – a year from now. The court issued a protection order prohibiting her husband from approaching her. She filed several reports claiming he had breached it – including one on the Sunday before her murder.

In February, Rita Ellul was strangled to death in Għajnsielem, and her partner, Lawrence Abina, has been charged with killing her. She had reported him to the police for domestic violence.

Are we learning from the past?

Following Bernice’s femicide, the government launched an independent inquiry to establish whether any state institutions failed to prevent the killing.

The government also pledged it would assign another magistrate to hear domestic violence cases – currently handled by one magistrate – and is proposing legislation that would allow people to check with the police whether their partner has any history of domestic violence. But there has so far been no mention of the recommendations outlined in the state-funded report that has been gathering dust for a year.

The study was carried out by Andrew Azzopardi, Sandra Scicluna, Christine Spiteri and Jamie Bonnici. It mirrors parts of the picture that emerged through Cassar’s case: court delays and a lack of police resources, among other issues. But it frames them within a situation of under-resourcing, understaffing, burnout and a lack of overall coordination bet­ween entities involved.

Researchers trawled through a lot of data, including 59 publicly available court cases registered and demographic data from 310 cases of individuals sentenced to a probation order for domestic violence.

In-depth interviews with 20 professionals were also carried out: 11 with criminal justice professionals (prosecutors, probation officers and a magistrate), eight with helping professionals (psychologists, social workers, risk assessors) and one with a convicted perpetrator.

Data showed that individuals serving a probation order for domestic violence tend to be married males aged between 30 and 39, and of Maltese nationality.

Burnt-out police

All participants in the research agreed that the police domestic violence unit was going “excellent work” but was under-resourced, the report noted.

The limitation of human resources was described as a limitation of their ability to effectively deal with cases of domestic violence using various professionals.

One officer said: “Drained, we’re literally drained… I became as anti-social as I was social. Even the sound of the TV annoys me. I crave that me time. That alone time.

“You hear so many stories, constantly, constantly, always different… if you have 40 cases of fear of violence and harassment, all 40 would be different… and everyone deserves your undivided attention. It. Is. Draining.”

Court delays

Professionals described court delays as a major stumbling block in dealing with domestic violence, described as a unique crime in which both victim and offender are very often living under the same roof and continue to do so until the offender is arrested or the woman flees to a shelter.

One interviewee said: “So, we file charges, correct? We file them in court… the hearing would be either three months later, four months later… and the victims remain stuck, they’re unable to carry on with their lives… Ideally, domestic vio­lence cases are heard within a month or two months at least.”

Victims’ testimonies

Professionals also questioned why the court case is so heavily reliant on the victim’s testimony. While a domestic violence case may be reported by any onlooker, in most instances the case collapses when the victim chooses not to testify or opts to forgive the perpetrator.

Another interviewee said: “I’ve had a case where I testified that the victim was locked in a room. She was locked in a room and tied to the railing on the stairs with a rope that led to the door of the main bedroom… the victim chose not to testify.

“Was she afraid? Automatically, I’d say yes… The conclusion was: Since the victim didn’t testify, there’s no case.”

Abusing the system

Professionals described certain instances of people abusing the criminal justice system.

“Some ‘victims’ would file a report over petty arguments ‘to get back at him’ or attempt at getting a ‘high risk’ rating on a risk assessment.

“This ‘abuse’ of the system could be considered a procedural limitation as it is also preventing victims who urgently require access to the service from receiving support, while others are making use of it for their own gain,” the study said.

It urged the authorities to revise the assessment tools being used to gauge victims’ risk.

Better coordination needed

The report highlights a lack of coordination between entities. “Findings suggest there needs to be increased synergies bet­ween court, police and related professionals.”

The report highlights a lack of coordination between entities

Project leader Andrew Azzopardi, who heads the faculty, noted that while there might be good work being done by the police force, politicians, NGOs, state welfare services, academics and courts “everyone is so busy doing their bit that the left hand is not aware of what the right hand is doing.

“Our systems are in shambles and we are failing. We have at least four ministries that in some way or another ‘have ownership’ of the domestic violence agenda…

“The commissioner responsible for gender-based violence is hosted and financially and structurally dependent on one of these ministries. This is senseless. This commission needs to be independent, answerable to parliament, so that it can have a transversal role to bring all the bits and pieces together,” he said.

The study's recommendations

•             Judiciary to set up a specialised team dedicated to hearing domestic violence cases.

•             Provide judiciary with ongoing training on the dynamics of domestic violence and attune them to the intervention programmes available.

•             Courts to enforce online archiving of judgments. Reports should be fully digitised, searchable and publicly accessible in a timely manner.

•             Implement sentencing guidelines for domestic violence cases.

•             Separate waiting areas for victims and perpetrators ahead of testimonies.

•             Evidence presented in court should be sought to avoid the high rate of extinguished cases.

•             Explore the use of electronic monitoring of alleged perpetrators and victims through tagging, to safeguard safety of victims.

•             Look into adopting other risk assessment tools besides the currently used DASH (2009) to provide a more objective evaluation and prediction of risk.

•             Consider offering perpetrator programmes within a custodial setting.

•             Police to be encouraged to use free psychological services regularly as part of working hours.

•             Incorporate themes related to gender roles, equality and healthy relationships into the curriculum.

•             Training for primary educators, school counsellors, heads of schools and assistant heads, to help elicit any early signs of domestic violence exposure in young girls and boys, and issue protocols for prevention and intervention.

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