Children bereaved by domestic violence need our support

“I was angry at everything. Angry that my mother was dead, I was sad as well. I was angry that my dad was in prison, I wanted to see him but that wasn’t allowed. That made me angry.”

This is a quote by a young Dutch girl whose father killed her mother. More than a third of female homicides worldwide are perpetrated by an intimate partner. Many of these women are parents. Since I’m back in Australia, I’ve tried to look into the local figures: in total, probably over 1,000 Australian children have been bereaved by fatal domestic violence in the past 20 years.

It is an understatement to say that losing a parent at the hands of the other parent has a major and lasting impact. It turns children’s worlds entirely upside down: at once they lose both parents – one to murder and one to prison or suicide – as well as their home and school environment.

Professionals have to make fundamental decisions for children after a domestic homicide. Where should the children live? Can it be with the family of the victim, or with the family of the perpetrator, or should it be a ‘neutral’ family? Should they have contact with the perpetrating parent? What kind of mental health support do the children and their caregivers need? Continue reading

What children who live with domestic violence say about their dads

“My ‘relationship’ with my Dad? I don’t have one….I feel like I am a pebble at the bottom of a stream and my Dad is this angry stream bashing me against all the other pebbles.”

This is one of the quotes that Stephanie Holt from Trinity College Dublin showed us this week. She presented an overview of her research with children in Ireland.

Domestic violence is a key marker for child abuse and neglect. Stephanie talked about the combination of fathers’ emotional absence on the one hand, and physically abusive presence on the other. She particularly focused on the context of ‘coercive control’, which limits someone’s freedom of movement and expression.

Being different, feeling powerless, and being scared were core themes for the children:

“I felt that I had a neon sign that told everyone what was going on in my family… I felt I wasn’t on the same wavelength as people…I thought that they were all happy families or whatever and I was kind of like the outcast”

“He shouts and curses and calls my Mum really, really mean names. I would say ‘stop Dad’, but he doesn’t listen.”

Stephanie showed that even very young children were able to convey experiences with domestic violence.

The children also talked about the pervasiveness of domestic violence. It was with them Continue reading

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? Continue reading

When a child’s death is not accidental

This week John Devaney gave a CAPRA seminar about best practices in child death reviews. In particular, he talked about deaths (suspected to be) caused by abuse or neglect. According to UNICEF figures, every year 3500 children under the age of fifteen die in industrialized nations as a result of abuse. Surprisingly, more children die from chronic neglect than from physical abuse. And the younger a child, the more he or she is at risk of non-accidental death, with infants having a three times higher risk than those aged 1-4 years, who run twice as much risk as children aged 5-14 years. Another important take home message: when an adult is known to be violent towards one member of the family (e.g., the partner), chances are high that the violence extends to other family members (the children) as well. This means that children are often not ‘only’ witnesses to, but also victims of, domestic violence. Continue reading

The consequences of fatal intimate partner violence

Yesterday, young American football recruit Quan Bray lost his mother because her partner shot her in the head. Such horrific stories are not rare; in 2007 approximately 1,640 women and 700 men in the US lost their lives due to fatal intimate partner violence. Children suffer a triple loss in these cases. Not only one parent dies, the other is imprisoned (or committed suicide in some cases), and often a youngster cannot stay at home, additionally losing friends, school and a familiar environment. How do young people cope after such an experience? How can we best coordinate services for them in the direct aftermath as well as on the long term?

At the National Psychotrauma Center for Children and Youth in the Netherlands, we are currently writing up some of our experiences with these youngsters. One of the most confronting issues is that children are often ‘lost’ in judicial and placement struggles, which makes it difficult to start a ‘normal’ grieving process. Some good tips about understanding and supporting children after fatal intimate partner violence can be found in the book by Harris-Hendriks, Black, and Kaplan. They notably give clear examples of how one can explain to young children what has happened or where the perpetrator is, to give them as much support as possible from the immediate aftermath.

Book When Father Kills Mother