Rachel Simon-Kumar: Glenn inquiry review basically flawed

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There is also no evidence to suggest a review of internationally accepted criteria is part of the evaluation.

Billionaire businessman Owen Glenn set up the inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence. Photo / Dean Purcell
Billionaire businessman Owen Glenn set up the inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence. Photo / Dean Purcell

The Independent Safety Review released its assessment of the processes and procedures followed by the former Glenn Inquiry director Ruth Herbert last week. An executive summary, a TV interview and a few press releases offer the wider public a glimpse into the review's findings.

In essence, the review states that the data systems at the inquiry are fundamentally sound and all participants, past and future, can be reassured of its robustness. There have been limitations, largely because of the failings of the processes of the previous regime, but these have now been fixed.

As a former member of the Think Tank, and especially as a member of the panels that interviewed women in the community, I am concerned by this conclusion, as much as I am by the logic and approach that led to it.

An alternative view is desperately needed to right the misconceptions and omissions in the report.

Centralisation of data

Much has been made of the fact that there wasn't a centralised body to store the data from the participants and this is, no doubt, going to be a strategy to enhance safety in the future.

However, I have to question the logic that centralised systems are the best option for storing research information on domestic violence.

For women who are offering sensitive information about themselves, one of the deepest fears is that they have no control over who sees their information once given.

As research processes and storage become more sophisticated, it is daunting to think that your personal stories are swallowed up in a centralised and faceless morass of files and folders with no personal accountability for the information.

Given also that there is significant turnover in organisations, this information is passed on without care or feeling of who provided it in the first place.

What Ms Herbert was trying to set up was an inquiry process that was woman-centred, not organisation-focused.

The processes Ms Herbert employed aimed to embed personal responsibility between the panel member receiving information and the survivors giving it.

Panel members were required to honour and respect personal data, no matter what happens to the organisational structure or staff movement. To this end, she set up Protocols for Data Collection where every interviewing panel member was given kaitiakitanga or guardianship of the data.

The protocols set out a contract between the interviewer and the interviewee that promised that only the scribe for the interview would have the sole recording of the audio of the interview, and that the recording would be deleted once its purpose was complete, namely, writing up of the reports. This is an innovative methodology for domestic violence, especially in the large scale organisational setting in which the Glenn Inquiry is being undertaken. It also draws on Maori values of kaitiakitanga, rendering it particularly unique.

To date, there have been four members who have participated in the interviews of the 250 women. Regardless of our presence or withdrawal from the Think Tank, we have been committed to our obligations under the protocol and have held the data in our safe keeping, ensuring its safety and that it has only been used for the purpose for which it has been collected.

There is no mention of the protocols in the review document, and it appears that its authors, unfortunately, do not recognise the merits of this approach.

Definition of safety

Nowhere in the executive summary is there an actual definition of the term "safety" that the authors are trying to evaluate. There is also no evidence to suggest a review of internationally accepted criteria has informed their evaluation.

The concern with this lack of rigour is that the report focuses on aspects of personal relationships that are irrelevant to safety (ideal, though, for character assassination) but alongside, misses out on key issues central to understanding it.

Central to women-centred research is the understanding that safety is not merely about data collection, storage or retrieval; it is equally about who interprets the data and draws conclusions from them. The values and the framing of the findings is central to ensuring safety of voices of survivors.

The authors of the review have made no attempt to investigate if there is any concern with who is interpreting the data, and with what intent. The review notes that there is a difference in the community and women-centred values held by Ms Herbert and the business imperative of Owen Glenn, but have not followed it up to comment on the safety of interpretation, and its implication for women's voices, now that a corporate system is clearly in place.

Another aspect of safety that seems to have missed the reviewers totally is that of the personal safety of Ms Herbert and operations director Jessica Trask. What was their everyday work environment like, especially as the relationship started to sour?

A clearer understanding of those circumstances might possibly show that what seemed to be dereliction of obligations could in effect have been an inability to act.

My final concern with the report is in its making. For a report of this nature to be credible, the authors must openly disclose if participants (especially staff) were offered inducements or, alternatively, warnings, that may have influenced their testimony. There is also the question of thoroughness. The authors have not contacted or spoken to the panel members who have safeguarded the data to discuss their view of the panel processes and data storage. This is a major failing of the review.

If they had, we could have explained to them that the data has been destroyed as we had promised the participants - and that this is the safest outcome for them. Only the panel reports have been returned to the inquiry.

Finally, the review's claim to be independent must be taken with some scepticism - can two people who have clearly indicated their interest to remain in the inquiry really provide an objective, unbiased view of processes and events that took place?

In the end, it seems the inquiry would have been served best if a fully objective review had been undertaken by experts who have the skill sets to assess women-centred research. Until such time, it is safe to say that the perils that others have pointed to still persist.

Dr Rachel Simon-Kumar is a senior lecturer at Waikato University, Hamilton. From 2009-2012 she was the recipient of the Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fast-Start Research Fund. Her field of research is in policymaking for women and migrants. She is a former member of the Think Tank and panel member of the Glenn Inquiry.

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