Domestic violence still an urgent issue, government response still slow

A newly founded team specialising in domestic violence has already dealt with 74 high-risk cases since its launch in June, simultaneously underscoring the ongoing urgency of the issue and the sluggish response by the government.

During a press conference on Monday, the Ministry for Social Policy and Children’s Rights launched the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Meeting (MARAM) system, meant to be set up in 2017, which consists of different entities working directly with survivors of domestic violence and their children.

In its 55 days of operation, MARAM received 74 referrals amounting to 1.35 referrals per day. Of these, 63 reports were filed by women, three by men and eight cases were related to physical abuse perpetrated by adult children on their parents.

Press reports describe the MARAM system being set up following the recommendations by Judge Geoffrey Valenzia, who conducted the inquiry into the death of Bernice Cassar in January. It was not. In his conclusions, Valenzia underscored that it was about time the MARAM system was established, given that it has been in the works since 2017.

Cassar was shot dead in November last year while driving to work at Corradino industrial estate, Paola. Her estranged husband, Roderick Cassar, has been charged with the murder and pleaded not guilty. Cassar had repeatedly sought protection from her husband.

Before Bernice, there was Rita Ellul, who, in February 2022, was strangled to death in Għajnsielem, and her partner, Lawrence Abina, has been charged with killing her. Ellul had also reported him to the police for domestic violence.

In 2020, Chantelle Chetcuti, a 34-year-old mother of two, was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend outside a football club in Żabbar. She had filed a domestic violence case against the man several years earlier, but it was dropped when she chose not to testify.

These are just three of the 44 women who were shot, stabbed and strangled by men in the past 22 years. Many lost their lives at the hands of their partners or spouses. Several of the women had filed domestic violence reports.

Even before Valenzia’s recommendations, the Council of Europe’s first baseline evaluation report by GREVIO, published at the end of 2020, also noted that setting up a MARAM system which was part of the government’s national strategy and action plan, had yet to be fulfilled. However, no clear time frame had been given to the Council of Europe at the time of the report’s publication.

In his conclusions, Judge Valenzia noted, among other things, that the entire system for handling domestic violence cases didn’t work as it was meant to work, as it didn’t protect those repeatedly asking for protection.

The reasons were primarily a lack of resources and an increasing workload. This included delayed processing reports, bad or no risk assessments and inadequate or slow responses by Malta’s police. The courts’ lack of resources and the magistrate’s workload were the reasons behind the delay in cases being assigned and heard.

A study evaluating the DASH – Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour Risk Identification – tool was also presented during Monday’s press conference. DASH is a risk checklist of 27 questions used by the authorities to identify the level of risk of domestic violence on a case-by-case basis.

The DASH tool has consistently faced criticism since it was introduced in Malta in 2018.  A study by the University of Manchester in 2019 established that “officer risk predictions based on DASH are little better than random”.

The system had classified Bernice Cassar as facing ‘medium risk’.

Activists, NGOs and national and international assessments have long highlighted several of the observations and recommendations by the inquiring judge.

“There is as much research as you like, and sermons have been delivered for years, but in practice, nothing is done, although it is known that the system is not working,” Valenzia observed in his concluding remarks.

Valenzia’s recommendations echo those of the Council of Europe’s first baseline evaluation report by GREVIO, which was published at the end of 2020 and had already concluded that there was insufficient training of law-enforcement officials concerning violence against women.

Last November, The Times of Malta reported that a study into domestic violence commissioned by the government and finalised in 2021 remained unpublished even as the number of domestic violence reports continues to rise.

According to data published by the National Statistics Office, in 2021, the rate of women who needed support over domestic violence climbed by 12.9% over 2020. Compared to 2019, the increase is 28.5%, from 2,565 to 3,295. Women formed 78.9% of service users.

In the first four months of 2022, the police received 538 domestic violence reports, figures tabled in parliament on Tuesday revealed. The figure was provided by Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri, who tabled a list of the number of reports filed in the House of Representatives. From January to May this year, the police received 798 reports of domestic violence.

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