Parents who kill children in the context of separation

Child homicide Family violence Separated families Australia

Few of us can forget the tragic death of Darcey Freeman, who was thrown from the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne by her father in 2009. Indeed we were very recently reminded, when in another instance, a father threw himself and his two year old son, Brad Lees, from the Story Bridge in Brisbane, killing them both. These are examples of recent cases of parents who have killed their children that have been extensively reported in the media. They are often described as ‘inexplicable’.

DVRCV’s new discussion paper, ‘Just Say Goodbye’, Parents who Kill their Children in the Context of Separation, has sought to develop a better understanding of filicides (the killing of a child by a parent). It highlights the significance of separation (actual or pending) in many filicides and identifies a link between filicides and violence against women. The paper reviews national and international studies on filicide. It then discusses case examples of fathers and mothers who have killed their children during or after separation from their partner. When we commenced doing this research we were surprised at how little research there was to draw on. Much of the previous research focused on fatal child-abuse killings, which are often unintentional and differ markedly to the cases where parents deliberately kill their children in the context of parental separation. In many of these filicides there was no indication of prior violence towards the child. In separation filicides, examining the nature of the relationship between the parents may be more important for understanding motives than the nature of the relationship between the child victim and the perpetrator.

There have also been few studies examining gender differences between parents who kill their children. Most studies rely heavily of psychological theories to explain filicide with much filicide identified as being the result of mental illness. While mental illness may be an important contributing factor, the focus on mental illness alone may obscure the significance of other contributing factors such as gender, separation and family violence.

There is also very little reliable data in Australia to draw on to develop our understanding of filicides that occur in the context of separation. While we know that approximately 27 children are killed each year by a parent, we know very little about the motivations behind these deaths. We do not know how many occur in the context of the parents’ separation or how many involve prior intimate partner violence. It is also therefore difficult to know if there has been an increase in some types of filicide over time. We nonetheless found some key themes emerging from the literature and the cases we examined, which show that mothers and fathers tend to kill children for different reasons and in different circumstances. Mothers are more likely than fathers to kill newborns (‘neonaticide’); to be the primary carer for the children; to kill for ‘altruistic’ reasons - believing that they are saving the child from real or imagined suffering; and to have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

In contrast, fathers are more likely to kill children as the result of fatal child-abuse; to kill their partners as well as their children; to perpetrate ‘retaliatory’ killings (killing children to punish their partners) and to have been violent or controlling towards their intimate partners prior to killing the children.

With regard to separation filicides specifically, cases involving fathers are more likely to involve violent and controlling behaviour towards their partner before and after separation; anger towards their ex-partner and desire for revenge; and an intention to harm the ex-partner by killing the children.

In retaliatory filicides, although the children are the direct victims, this type of filicide can also be seen as a form of violence against women, as the perpetrator’s primary goal is to punish the mother in relation to the separation. This was starkly demonstrated in a recent Victorian case when Ramazan Acar fatally stabbed his two-year-old daughter after announcing to his ex-partner on Facebook that it was "Pay bk u slut".

It is well documented that separation is a time of heightened risk for violence and homicide of women by their intimate partner. DVRCV’s discussion paper shows that separation can also be a dangerous time for children.

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