In almost all cases where the mother kills the father, the mother has endured years of abuse at the hands of the father. Unfortunately, the children also suffer. How can psychiatrists help these children heal after such a tragedy?
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.
Children Who Saw the Killing
Interestingly, fewer MKF children witnessed the parent's death, although more seem to have been exposed to previous chronic domestic violence. We found that only 54% (24) of MKF children witnessed the killing, while 79% of FKM children witnessed the killing (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000, 1993). Thus, a mother who kills her partner may try to protect the children from witnessing her actions, even though she had not protected them from seeing their father's previous violence. In many cases, there was also evidence of inadequate and poor parenting in general and reported concerns of neglect. In MKF cases, many of the families reportedly became isolated from their extended family, often due to the father's jealousy.
In over half of the MKF cases, the mother had a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse, or both. This may have contributed to her choice of partner and to her passivity/numbness in the face of his violence toward her and the children. There is no significant difference in the percentage of MKF children who had been physically abused (12%) and FKM children (14%). In 90% (20) of MKF cases studied, there was a reported history of chronic domestic violence where the mother was the victim (Kaplan et al., 2001). In comparison, in earlier studies of FKM children (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000, 1993), only 66% of families had reported previous domestic violence, though this was felt to be an underestimate, as much domestic violence is not reported. Thus, in some cases, it seemed as though it was touch and go as to which parent would kill the other first.
There seemed to be a higher incidence of alcohol and drug abuse by the father in MKF cases. When considering events immediately leading up to the killing, there also seemed to be some important differences between MKF and FKM cases. In FKM cases, sexual jealousy was cited as the most common reason for the killing (36%). However, in 90% of MKF cases, domestic violence was cited as the reason for the killing. The mother had often consumed alcohol or used drugs herself at the time of the killing. Some mothers appeared to have killed after years of abuse, sometimes in self-defense or when their partner had been incapacitated in some way, usually because of alcohol or drugs. The mother often seemed to have been caught up in a world where keeping the peace and avoiding trouble was paramount. In some cases, she was still in love with her violent partner and focused on him, rather than the children. The precipitation for the homicidal act might be fear (sometimes based on actual threat) that the father's violence will escalate and put her and/or her children's lives in danger. In other cases, the killing seemed to have been premeditated.
In the previous study of FKM children (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000), it was found that the children who witness the killing and/or previous domestic violence presented with severe PTSD, attachment disorders and personality disturbances. Their traumatic experiences also prevented them from being able to begin the grieving process. The MKF children presented with many similar symptoms, however, there were some important differences in their psychological reactions.
Children seemed to find it less difficult to accept the death of the father at the mother's hands than the reverse. This may be due to complexities in attachment and identification with the mother as the victim of chronic domestic violence. This identification may lead the children to deny her actions or to deny witnessing them. These children may be more difficult to treat for PTSD and other psychological problems, as their symptoms may be less evident to their caregivers. The clinical data on MKF children in cases with a history of chronic domestic violence suggest that they do not go through the grieving process in the same way as FKM children. Some MKF children may not grieve for the loss of a violent and dangerous father, whom they perceived as a perpetrator. They may even be relieved at his death and instead grieve for the loss (by imprisonment) of their mother. Children who are exposed to chronic domestic violence and their father's murder may have more dissociated responses to the traumatic events altogether because of previous chronic exposure to violence and the identification with the mother as a victim.
The further removed in time the mother's arrest is from the incident, the more shocked and numb the children seemed to be, whether or not they witnessed the killing. In five cases where the mother killed the father, the crime was not immediately detected.
In MKF cases, the courts tended to treat mothers more leniently than fathers in FKM cases. Fathers in earlier FKM studies (Harris Hendriks et al., 2000, 1993) were most often remanded to custody, while mothers who kill fathers were released on bail in most cases. Further, in contrast to the FKM cases where the children's contact with the father often ceased after he was arrested, contact with the mother continued in 19 (95%) of the MKF cases. Evidence from the case histories and the follow-up study does, however, indicate that contact with the mother tended to reduce or cease over time.
In all cases, the number of foster placements was significantly related and inversely proportional to how well the children functioned. Returning the children to the perpetrators or their relatives in FKM cases has not been associated with a positive outcome for the children (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000, 1993). Similarly, FKM children also have poorer outcomes when they have many different foster placements. Although our numbers are too small to generalize, our follow-up study of MKF children suggested that the outcomes for those children who were placed with the mother or her relatives after the killing are poorer in terms of health, schooling, and longer-term social and emotional adaptation than those who were not returned to the care of the mother or her relatives. Thus, it seemed that none of the children where one parent killed the other did well when returned to the care of the perpetrator or their relatives (Harris-Hendriks et al., 2000).
However, FKM children who are placed with the victim's relatives may have a better prognosis for their physical health than MKF children who are similarly placed. This may be related to the very high levels of previous domestic violence in MKF cases and suggested that the children might not feel safe with the father's relatives, as he was also seen as a perpetrator. MKF children may also do less well in therapy, as keeping loyalty to the killer-their mother-makes it difficult to acknowledge angry or sad feelings. We found that those children living with the perpetrator parent of either sex were less likely to be brought for treatment, as it was difficult for the parent to recognize and acknowledge that their children might have been harmed by the homicide (Kaplan et al., 2001).
Only two of the 44 children in this study have reached adulthood. The longer-term adaptation and coping skills of these children are not yet known, and further studies are needed to follow these children into adulthood (Kaplan et al., 2001).
We know only of those cases referred to us, but advocates for parents due for release from prison point out that there may be successful reunions with children of which we do not hear. We doubt, however, that a man or woman who has killed can be an effective parent; deal with unspoken fears, compliance or rebellion; and provide a reliable model for dealing with aggression.
Our observations are that younger children who return to the perpetrator are wary, anxious, over-compliant and placatory. In adolescence, they defiantly repudiate the parent's authority over them. As mental health care professionals, it is our duty to advise civil courts that are asked to return children to a parent who has killed that they must consider not just the debt to society, nor the risk of further homicide, but the need of the children for competent, trustworthy parenting.
Harris-Hendriks J, Black D, Kaplan T (1993), When Father Kills Mother: Guiding Children Through Trauma and Grief, 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Harris-Hendriks J, Black D, Kaplan T (2000) When Father Kills Mother: Guiding Children Through Trauma and Grief, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
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.