Content warning: This article discusses domestic violence in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
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Society still often views domestic violence (DV) as horrific physical attacks. However, safety advocates continue to urge Australians to recognise that non-physical forms of violence, such as coercive control, are forms of DV as well, and are just as devastatingly damaging.
This is the very basis of Hannah's Story, a podcast by 9News Queensland's Melissa Downes and Nine producer Jess Lodge. The six-episode series delves into one of the most well-known Australian domestic violence cases in recent years — the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband, Rowan Baxter.
On February 19, 2020, Clarke was driving her three kids (Trey, three; Laianah, four; and Aaliyah, six) to school in Brisbane, when Baxter jumped in the car, splashed petrol and set it on fire. The children died in the vehicle, Clarke died later in hospital of severe burns, and Baxter took his own life beside the car.
What preceded this tragedy was a pattern of controlling behaviour by Baxter. While he hadn't been physically violent towards Clarke, he had dictated what she could wear and continuously checked where she was, who she was with and what she was doing. This is coercive control, a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviour designed to intimidate, isolate, and control a person.
The crime sparked a nationwide conversation about coercive control, and the need for legislation that criminalises it in Clarke's home state, Queensland, as well as nationwide. In February this year, Queensland moved one step closer to criminalising coercive control when it passed new legislation to strengthen the state's domestic violence laws, including broadening the definition of domestic and family violence to include a "pattern of behaviour". In February, it was reported by the ABC that coercive control could be criminalised in Queensland by 2024. Back in November 2022, NSW passed a bill to make coercive control a standalone offence.
In presenting this podcast that shares details from the months leading up to Clarke's death — with interviews from Hannah’s family, friends, first responders, witnesses, domestic violence experts and political leaders — Downes and Lodge hope it provides an understanding of what needs to change to protect people in abusive relationships.
As well as changes to laws and policing, Downes says everyone's better understanding of what coercive control is will make a significant difference going forward.
"Probably the most important thing of all is for us as a community to change, and for our attitudes around coercive control to change, to understand what it is, and then to be able to act on it," Downes tells Refinery29 Australia.
"So we felt that this [podcast] just gave that topic depth and that side of the story, as well as looking at what happened to Hannah in more detail."
Various behaviours can be a sign of coercive control. Downes says that in this case, Baxter "was a bully" to Clarke in the lead-up to the crime.
"He told her what to wear. He put her down, he would call her stupid and fat. After the birth of their third child, he forced her to have sex every night. It was the controlling elements of coercive control, and a big part of that is what they [experts] call an isolationist tactic."
Downes explains that the perpetrator may often not say that you can't see family or friends, but rather complains later after a victim sees their friends or family, or says, "I don't think that person likes me" and it becomes more difficult for the victim to maintain that relationship with their loved ones.
She says another behaviour is love bombing, where the person bombards another with affectionate gestures and things like "texts, flowers and gifts". The victim feels loved and as though they're the centre of attention, "but then what happens is they just kind of wrap their arms around you mentally, emotionally, and often financially as well, and cut you off from everyone else", says Downes.
"Hannah wasn't allowed to wear pink. She wasn't allowed to wear bike shorts, yet she worked at a gym. We've heard of other cases where the partner will buy all the lingerie."
The most important thing of all is for us as a community to change, and for our attitudes around coercive control to change, to understand what it is, and then to to be able to act on it.
The journalist also emphasises that recognising a pattern in behaviour is very important with coercive control. Sometimes, when mentioning an incident in isolation, you may not think it's very serious. But when you add up all the unsettling instances, it can become clear that it is coercive control.
"The stalking, the trespassing, listening devices, tracking your vehicle, knowing where you are, going through your phone, going through your handbag, checking texts... He [Baxter] would ask other people at the gym to check on Hannah when she would have to lock up, to see who else was there. So, sometimes, when you just talk about one of those things, it doesn't sound so bad, but it's all of them and that pattern of behaviour that all of a sudden becomes something really scary."
Podcast producer Lodge adds that she and Downes speak to various experts throughout the series who have extensive knowledge of "red flags" to look out for when it comes to coercive control.
"In the first few episodes, we hear from the family and friends who really go through Hannah and Rowan's red flags, which is so that people can identify them in their own relationships, or their friends' relationships," says Lodge.
"But then, in later episodes, we do talk to the experts who have spent 30+ years looking at this behaviour, how it works, how dangerous it is and how we can change it. That's why this podcast is so important because you can learn from it."
As journalists themselves, hearing recounts from Clarke's parents Sue and Lloyd Clarke, and other family, friends and experts, was heavy and emotionally draining at times. But knowing that this project can help other people to better identify coercive control behaviours is reassuring.
"It's just comforting for us to know that this project can help," says Lodge.
"You say Hannah's name to anyone, and they are connected to the case and it's almost like you can't really explain how, but so many people felt so connected to Hannah and the kids."
While ratings are the least of their concerns, Lodge highlights that the podcast reaching the number one spot in Australian podcasting ratings "just shows connected people are to this".
"It's just incredible, and we hope that people do listen to the last few episodes where you really can learn."
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.