In the United Kingdom, where homicide rates are lower than in the United States, 40 to 50 families each year will be devastated by the death of one parent at the hands of the other (Harris-Hendriks et al., 1993). As a result of intra-familial homicide, children lose not only both parents (one by death and the other by imprisonment) but often their homes, school, friends, possessions and self-esteem. Our interest in the plight of these children began as a result of our work with bereaved children and an increasing awareness of the lack of specialist resources for children suffering a traumatic bereavement. A specialist Children's Traumatic Stress Team was set up at the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London and has been a National Referral Centre for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for some years. Over half the children seen at the clinic are referred as a result of intra-familial homicide. The team has now seen over 500 children where one parent has killed the other.
Among other such resources, When Father Kills Mother: Guiding Children Through Trauma and Grief provides detailed documentation of cases where the father killed the mother (FKM) (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000, 1993). Although there is a chapter within this book on the much less common phenomenon of mother kills father (MKF), a literature search did not reveal any further specific studies of the children in MKF cases.
Women appear to be much less violent than men, as reflected in the families we studied. We found only 22 families, with 44 children altogether, where the mother killed the father (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000). Our study of MKF cases is based on the material drawn from this clinical sample and therefore may not be representative of all cases that occur.
The children in the study were referred to the team at different intervals after bereavement. Some children were referred for medico-legal assessment long after the critical incident and others for immediate post-trauma intervention. To obtain follow-up data, a questionnaire was administered by telephone to a social worker with current knowledge of the child's functioning. Follow-up information included questions about current and past placements, contact with the mother and relatives, contact with other mental health services and present functioning of the child with regard to health, school, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychiatric disorders. Follow-up information was obtained on 21 of the 44 children.
The sample, while too small to enable us to draw any firm conclusions, reflects the total group of mothers who kill fathers in England and Wales. It is also difficult, due to small numbers, to be conclusive about the similarities and differences between FKM children and MKF children, although all the children had suffered significant emotional harm. However, some interesting points are worth highlighting.
1. Harris-Hendriks J, Black D, Kaplan T (1993), When Father Kills Mother: Guiding Children Through Trauma and Grief, 1st ed. London: Routledge.
2. Harris-Hendriks J, Black D, Kaplan T (2000) When Father Kills Mother: Guiding Children Through Trauma and Grief, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
3. Kaplan T, Black D, Hyman P, Knox J (2001), Outcome of children seen after one parent killed the other. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 6(1):9-22.