In the aftermath of the tragic murder/suicide of Hannah Clarke and her three children, I am writing this letter as a plea for increased funding for interventions focused on recovery from childhood trauma.
This is in line with research that shows childhood trauma is a predictor of family violence.
The mental health of Rowan Baxter has come under scrutiny by police and the public, however evidence is overwhelming that trauma – not mental illness – is a more specific indicator of domestic violence.
Research is clear: Childhood trauma is a predictor of family violence
Sadly, despite substantial evidence that links trauma to future perpetration of domestic violence, interventions focused on recovery from childhood trauma are not widely funded or utilised.
Given the breadth and quality of studies available on this topic, it is an utter tragedy that the issue of childhood trauma as it relates to family violence – of both the perpetrators and victims – has received almost no media coverage.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies website indicates that studies have consistently linked childhood exposure to domestic and family violence with future perpetration.
It also points to evidence that domestic and family violence is more common among people whose childhoods were characterised by multiple adversities, such as parental mental ill health, unemployment, poverty, family dysfunction, sexual abuse and impaired parental bonding – these are issues we see consistently linked to childhood trauma in the histories of our clients at Heal For Life.
While childhood trauma is not the only indicator of domestic violence, this research certainly indicates trauma recovery should form a part of the government’s integrated plan to prevent this issue which continues to devastate families all over Australia.
Violence happens when people are in a triggered state
It is our organisation’s experience – after providing trauma recovery programs to 8,500 people – that to put an end to violent responses in domestic disputes, interventions must focus on early identification and resolution of trauma, to improve the emotional functioning of the person affected.
This means helping people to heal the emotional triggers that fuel violent responses such as uncontrollable rage and dissociation, which is the mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts and actions.
Emotional triggers overwhelm the senses and cause survivors of trauma to behave in ways that seem inconceivable.
These triggers are linked to traumatic episodes in a person’s life.
When you heal the emotional triggers, you put a stop to dangerous reactions and behaviours.
Trauma-informed approaches to violence are working in other countries
The Heal For Life program has been independently evaluated to achieve significant, long-term improvements to participant mental, emotional and social functioning.
It was due to these results that Heal For Life was invited to the United Kingdom to work with prisoners and prison guards in the high-security Whitemoor Prison to reduce violent reactions from both staff and inmates.
The defining characteristic of participants in this program is the brutality these prisoners experienced as children. Many prisoners on the scheme have been abused by multiple perpetrators as well as being perpetrators themselves.
In the UK, there is a push for the traumatic histories of offenders to be treated as a public health issue to break cycles of re-offending.
The British Government, unlike Australia, is spending millions of pounds on facilities and experts to rehabilitate such men by addressing their childhood trauma as a means of behavioural change.
If we look at the impact of programs like Whitemoor, Heal For Life and others – it would seem that trauma recovery programs are the missing link in Australia’s response to domestic violence.
Heal trauma – end perpetration and re-victimisation
This information is not intended to excuse the behaviour of Rowan Baxter, or of other perpetrators of violence.
It is also important to note that not every person who suffers childhood trauma will become a perpetrator.
However if we are to seriously make an impact on the level of domestic violence in this country, we must understand the precursors of family violence so intervention can start early.
At Heal For Life, those interventions begin as early as 8 years old.
For children in particular, trauma recovery programs are designed to prevent long-term effects on a child’s development and psychosocial outcomes, including the ability to form attachments and healthy, respectful relationships in adulthood.
Research also shows that people who are subject to childhood trauma, such as bearing witness to domestic violence or being abused themselves, are more likely to be re-victimised through more violence and abuse, this is particularly the case for children who have suffered multiple forms of abuse.
This simply means that for perpetrators and victims, a trauma-informed approach to early intervention is critical.
It is only by healing the root cause of this behaviour that sustainable change will occur and devastating tragedies like this will be avoided.
Please Mr Morrison and all other state and territory leaders, consider the research surrounding trauma when planning your response to this tragedy.
The Heal For Life Foundation is willing to provide as much support as we can to victims of childhood trauma, and will gladly share with you our knowledge gained over 20 years of providing effective interventions in this area.
For now, my thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of Hannah Clarke, Rowan Baxter and their children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey.
Liz Mullinar AM
Founder & CEO of Heal for Life Foundation
Free Download: Understanding trauma
Chapter from Heal For Life, by Liz Mullinar AM (B.Th, M. Couns)
‘Heal For Life’ offers practical, neuroscience based strategies that support people to heal painful emotional triggers, and offers health professionals deeper insight into the needs of survivors who seek their help.
Available in eBook and physical copies. Shipped worldwide.