The consequences of fatal domestic violence for children

A man kills his wife in a moment of rage and flees the house while the children are still with their mother. A mother stabs her husband to death after years of domestic violence. These stories are barely imaginable but too often they happen in reality.

In the Netherlands, estimations are that 40 people are killed by their (ex) partners every year. Many of them leave children behind. In the United States, about 2000 to 3000 children are thought to be affected yearly

In order to get a better understanding of children’s situation after fatal violence, our team at the Dutch National Psychotrauma Center for Children and Youth studied the cases of 38 children (from 25 families) of whom one biological parent killed the other biological parent. We set out to answer four exploratory questions:

1) What did the children experience?

In most cases (84% of the families) the children lost their mother. Many children may have seen or heard the struggle between their parents: for only 17% of the families, it was confirmed that the children were not present during the killing. In two thirds of the murders, the weapon was a knife, which means that many children were confronted with (lots of) blood. Some children tried to intervene. Their unsuccessful intervention led to strong guilt feelings in a number of cases.

2) Who took the children under their wings?

The children were spread almost evenly across three placement options: 32 % lived with caregivers related to the victim, 27% went to live with caregivers related to the perpetrator, and 36% of the children lived in unrelated, ‘neutral’, families. Many children had several subsequent placements and there were frequent struggles between families from the victim and the perpetrator, especially when children were not housed with neutral families.

3) How did the children react?

A huge majority of the children (90%) had developed posttraumatic stress reactions. Their main symptoms varied, including sleeping problems, intrusive recollections, feelings of guilt, posttraumatic play, numbing, etc. In 57% of the cases, the clinicians recommended trauma- and grief-focused therapies, often combined with interventions for caregivers. In cases where the event was very recent or the child was very young, other recommendations such as monitoring of symptoms were made.

4) What can we learn?

The case reports contained several learning points for mental health care:

  • It is often assumed (and wished) that children have not witnessed the event. Taking into account that only a few children were certainly not present during the killing and that many children had recollections of the event, this may be a false belief.
  • Loss is often multiple: the children not only lose both their parents (one parent is killed and the perpetrating parent is incarcerated or sometimes commits suicide) but also their home, school, and friends. We should be aware of this multiple loss and provide as much stability  as possible.
  • When a home is the crime scene, it is essential to secure some of the child’s toys and items of the deceased parent before the house is sealed. These can help children’s recovery. When a home is sealed it may take a long time before these items can be retrieved, even if they don’t play a role in the crime scene.
  • It is important to have explicit attention for the child’s needs when families fight about judicial aspects of the case. Children are sometimes overlooked in these struggles while they need care and assistance with working through the traumatic loss as well as adapting to a new living environment.

Over ten years ago, Jean Harris-Hendriks and her colleagues in the UK published a helpful book on helping children after fatal domestic violence. Since then, we have gained much more knowledge on trauma treatment but not specifically for children who lost one parent at the hands of the other. Hopefully, the future brings more guidance, both for the professionals and the children involved.

Reference:
Alisic, E., Van Schaijk, M., Groot, A., & Strijker-Kersten, H.A (2012). Gevolgen van partnerdoding voor kinderen Kind en Adolescent Praktijk (3), 142-144

7 thoughts on “The consequences of fatal domestic violence for children

  1. Hello,…
    To say the least,…I greatly value and appreciate the work / research that you’re conducting.

    I as a survivor of childhood domestic violence,…having witnessed both my parents [attempt] to kill each other with gun-play & knife-play on numerous occassions from age 8 until age 21,..without intervention from other family or legal authorities,…eventhough there was full knowledge concerning the home environment in which I was raised.
    This is a “grey area” that I found / find myself in,…in terms of your article.
    I was a 41 year old Man in a therapy session and struggling in every aspect of my life,…when I finally admitted that I got hurt badly,…one could even say that I was psychologically “killed” in that grey area. There was no actual [external] blood and gore created,…yet,…both of my parents’ behavior ripped and shredded my mind beyond comprehension to some degree. The “blood” was spilled within me (the child),…that’s where the blood, gore and horror existed and could have been seen back then,…and is where,…I as an adult found the “bloody” mess,…that I’ve had to clean-up for myself as best I could / can. That’s forty years of dried and fresh “mental bloody mess”.

    Please consider including this “grey” area in your research….???
    You may potentially be suprised to find many children in the the “grey” area,…internally & mentally “bleeding-out”.

    Howard Lovely, Jr.
    HowardLovelyJr.wordpress.com

    • Hi Howard,

      Thank you for commenting and sharing. As Geert Smid replied on an earlier occasion, it’s absolutely very courageous. I think you are already very active with regard to your mental health, but if you feel you need additional services please take care and contact your GP or someone else who has an overview of what’s available.
      Thanks for your compliments! We’ll definitely continue our work and help children, including those in more grey areas, by providing care and building knowledge. And fortunately many colleagues do the same, so we are hopeful with regard to the future.

      Take care,
      Eva

  2. Hello,
    Thank you for posting this article, although it is obviously a very touchy subject, I feel like it’s important and needs to be explored. If we could find ways to better prepare these traumatized children to lead a semi-normal life, maybe the next article about this topic will be one showing statistics of children who overcame this childhood hell. This article brought a lot of variables involved in this type of situation that I have never really thought about. I think some people get so caught up in the fact that a life was lost that they don’t think of how the life of these children have dramatically changed forever. Everything they have ever known is gone, and any type of moral, value, respect, emotion, and affection is going to be challenged. Of course the things we all can see as observers are going to change such as schools, friends, living arrangements, but the pain and struggle inside of the victim (child) in immeasurable. It may not be easy to place to child’s needs first in a situation like this, but it is so crucial that family members and specialists continue to talk to and include the children in decision making.

    Thank you very much for posting this article!

  3. I may be providing therapy for a numbef of children whose father killed their mother and attempted suicide. He is now stable. The older children are caring for younger children in the home of a member of their church. For those who have done such therapy how did you appoach this?

    • That sounds like a very sad and complicated story. On a blog, it won’t be possible to provide specific tips so I would recommend finding someone in/through your network who has experience with these type of circumstances.

      On a general note, this book has some great tips about communication with children after fatal domestic violence: http://amzn.to/XUOqYL.

      All the best,
      Eva

  4. Thank you for posting about this. The stigma and trauma associated with such awful events does not often allow an open and supportive environment to be created in which children can explore their feelings in the aftermath. My experience is that people shut down, they become silent, they think that if they don’t mention it, the kids will be fine and they will put it behind them. This is usually a coping mechanism for them, though, too. Everybody just wants everybody else to be okay. My father killed my mother when i was 3 months old. My brothers were 4 and 8. We were all in the house (i was a baby, and in the room). My father called the police. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter (provocation defence – probably the most archaic and misogynistic legal defence around). He served 3 years of an 8 year sentence, and then we all went back to live with him in the house where it happened. My father wasn’t physically violent with us (aside from disciplinary violence, which i’m against), but i was terrified of him my entire childhood. He was abusive in other ways, and had not received sufficient help/support after he was released, in my opinion. After i moved out of home i began experiencing severe insomnia, depression, anxiety, nightmares and sometimes even flashbacks. Perhaps due to pre-verbal trauma combined with the knowledge of my father’s extreme actions when angry, the environment (house), the emotional and psychological abuse, the silence around the issue and the feelings of shame and grief, my complex trauma reactions later in life make sense…but there is so little research and information on the effects of intimate partner homicide on the children involved, that it’s easy to think that my responses, both physiologically and psychologically, are unreasonable and unwarranted. The truth is, this is bigger than individual cases; this is a systemic issue. In Australia, almost one woman a week (on average) is killed my a partner or ex-partner. I cannot imagine how many children that leaves behind, broken and grief-stricken, confused and angry. It is time there was more research, more support, more outrage and more preventative measures taken, so that children are not left in these kinds of intolerable and horrific positions. Thank you for being a part of the change. It helps for people like me, who have experienced the immense loss and trauma of these actions, to know that other people are out there, who care and who can see that more needs to be done.

    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks so much for telling your story, I’m very humbled that you wrote it down here. We hope to start a large scale project in Australia this year to systematically build knowledge and give the children a voice. If you want me to keep you posted on it, feel free to send me an email at eva dot alisic at monash dot edu. For now, all the best and thanks again for sharing.

      Eva

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