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