ADDRESSING FILICIDE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE FOR CROSS NATIONAL DIALOGUE
14-15 November 2019, Deakin Downtown, Melbourne
This was our fourth conference, and the first held in Australia, since we established the series in 2013. Following three very successful conferences held in the beautiful historic town of Prato in Tuscany, Italy, we decided we should bring the knowledge base we had accumulated through these conferences and the many international collaborations we had formed to Australia so we could use the conference to develop a stronger Australian knowledge and evidence base.
The fourth conference was the most successful to date with over 70 delegates who attended, from South Africa, Hong Kong, England, Scotland, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. The Australian delegates came from WA, QLD, VIC, NSW, ACT, and Tasmania. There were a number of professionals present who came from law, psychology, paediatrics, psychiatry, social work, police and criminology and were based in universities, government departments, courts, and advocacy and service organisations.
The conference organisers were very proud to host seven invited Key Note speakers, two of whom were from overseas. On the opening day of the conference Professor Claudia Klier MD, adult and child psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the Medical University of Vienna, presented a paper on her research and clinical experience with neonaticide perpetrators. Neonaticide deaths were raised also in papers from South Africa. On the second day, Dr Russell Wate, a former senior UK homicide investigator and current policy consultant, presented a paper on how England investigates and prosecutes filicide deaths using multi-disciplinary teams.
Four of our Key Note Speakers were from Australia. Dr Adam Tomison, Director of the WA Department of Justice, opened the conference with a presentation on filicide in Australia using material from the National Study on Filicide in Australia released earlier that year (available online). Ms Liana Buchanan, Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People Victoria, spoke on filicide in the child protection system and trends across child death inquiries in Victoria. Professor Cathy Humphries, Social Work, Melbourne University, spoke on the risks to children in families with violence. On day two the conference opened with Professor Jane Fisher, Monash University, speaking on the social and cultural context of filicide: universal lessons from low- and middle-income nations. Megan Mitchell, the first Commonwealth Children’s Human rights Commissioner, presented the Commonwealth policies on the human rights of children. These policies, of which creating child safe organisations is one, are on the Commission’s web site and deserve review. Finally, Angela Lynch, CEO of the Queensland Women’s Legal Service, and Dr Catherine Sansun spoke on state and territory Death Review Committees.
There were twenty-four further papers presented and, reflecting on these papers and comparing them to the papers presented at the previous conferences, it was clear that there was more research on filicide underway in Australia than previously recognised, that the research conducted and underway was more sophisticated, with larger studies and with a more complex interpretation of findings, and that new issues were being uncovered and explored.
Themes from Presentations
One theme was the discovery that filicide is not a rare or random act, but rather a regular occurrence with one child being killed almost every fortnight in Australia. There is no release of the numbers killed each year in Australia or, indeed, in many other countries. The absence of a national data base on filicide deaths, and the obstacle this presents to acknowledging and overcoming the deaths, was referred to in several papers.
Another theme was the impact of the media on the community’s understanding of filicide. Some papers dealt with the gender bias in media reports, the sensationalism in the reports, incorrect information in the reports and the process over time that the reports followed. Also discussed was the way the media can be captured by stakeholders in individual deaths and the way that certain deaths become mythologised to represent aspects of filicide to the community.
As referred to previously, much of the research presented had more rigorous study designs, more had larger populations, more had clear identification of variables; the small-scale studies were equally rigorous. The research recognised the complexity of filicide deaths and the need for nuanced interpretations. Some of the research papers covered international patterns and some national or more local patterns with conclusions that focusing on all levels, on international, national and local patterns, is needed to gain the full picture.
Some new areas were identified and investigated. These included, filicide deaths in military settlements which had been raised in the very first conference but not pursued further, the re-categorisation of child suicide as filicide in the circumstances of domestic violence or when the child is a ward of the state, the over incidence of disability among filicide victims, raised previously in the second conference, poor self-control and intentionality among perpetrators, the historical context of filicide over the last 150 years, the choices the prosecution makes in using or not using the charge of infanticide, views of the community in sentencing perpetrators, the use of experts in giving assessments on mental health to courts, Munchausen by Proxy, risk assessment, intervention and prevention programs and a proposed re-working of the notion of revenge filicide as coercive control filicide. A challenging paper came from Hong Kong by delegates who were from Ghana and echoed a paper given at the first conference about the use of filicide in rural Ghana to overcome disability and other perceived evils in children and adults.
The states and territories have Family Violence, Child Death and Deaths of Children Known to Child Protection Committees and Angela Lynch and Dr Catherine Sansun presented papers on the two committees in their states in a session chaired by Phoebe Marshall from the Victorian Coroner’s Office. Liana Buchanan had spoken on reviews of children known to state the Victorian state child protection service. Subsequent to the conference the Queensland government announced an intention to review the committee there responsible for child death reviews. States and territories do not have the same types of child death reviews; some cover the deaths of children known to child protection and some cover all deaths of children; some single out filicide deaths and some do not. The patchwork of these committees and the absence of much annual reporting from them obstructs recognition of the gravity of the issue of filicide deaths and obstructs the development of a rigorous evidence base to build pathways to intervention and prevention.
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