The National Study

The third study in the Addressing Filicide Research Series aimed to explore further the findings of the second study, the Victorian filicide study, 2000-2009, by investigating if the Victorian findings held true for Australia as a whole, and if and where any differences might be found.  The study also aimed to include children over 18 as victims because they were not included in other studies internationally and little was known of them.

The study was carried out in collaboration with staff from the Institute of Criminology which houses the data source for the study, the National Monitoring Homicide Program (NHMP).  That program keeps data on all homicides, including filicides, and its data comprises data sent by the police in every state or territory, data from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS), and sources such as newspaper accounts of deaths.

The NHMP creates data for each victim using a set of pre-determined questions and categories designed by the NHMP.  The parameters for the inclusion of a victim are a little different from the parameters set by the Victorian Coroner; a death is registered only if someone is charged subsequently. Thus, thus some deaths are missing in the NHMP that are in the state data base.  Similarly, some criteria are different; the definition of mental illness is narrower in the NHMP than the research team used in the Victorian study.  As the state files were not in a data base format when the Victorian study was carried out, the research team had more freedom to investigate some issues.  At the same time, the NHMP had information that the state data base did not, such as the perpetrator’s criminal history, and it chose to highlight collaborative perpetrators and collect more detail on them.

Filicide in Australia, 2000 – 2012

In collaboration with the Australian Institute of Criminology

The study found that 274 children under 18, and 10 over 18, were killed by a parent, step- parent or equivalent guardian in the twelve- year period covered by the study.  This number was probably an under-estimate as the Victorian and NSW studies showed more children killed in each of the same years in their respective states than the national study did – a difference of 10%.  One child was killed per fortnight in the study period and the rate remained stable over the twelve years in contrast to the overall homicide and family homicide rate in Australia, both of which were declining.

There were 260 offenders and 83% committed the crime alone, but 22% committed the crime with another person.  In this group half of the collaborators were mothers and fathers acting together and half were mothers and stepfathers acting together.  The data base did not identify any of the dynamics of the collaborative perpetrator’s actions.  The rate of deaths varied according to the state or territory, with Victoria having the lowest rate and Queensland the highest.  The Northern Territory rate was excluded as the numbers were too low to be reliable.   No research has previously had the data to investigate each state in relation to the others as this is first study to produce both state and national state.  Some unusual patterns discovered in some states, like the high incidence in South Australia of mothers as perpetrators, suggest the need for comparative studies of the patterns of each state.

The age range of the children killed was the same as in the Victorian study, with children under one year of age being the most vulnerable, followed by children aged one to three.  As children aged, they became less vulnerable, but remained always vulnerable as the ten children killed over seventeen, ranging in age from eighteen to thirty- three, showed.  Stepfathers killed children under four, mothers were the most common perpetrators of the very young children, but also killed children in primary school ages, and fathers killed in older age ranges including the over eighteen group.

As was the case in the Victorian study, there were five parental perpetrators groups, mothers acting alone, fathers acting alone, mothers and fathers acting together, step-fathers acting alone, and step-fathers and mothers acting together.  Mothers killed more frequently than fathers, but males (52%) more frequently than females (48%), due to the presence of step-fathers, present in greater numbers than in the parenting population.  The national study gave more information on step-fathers than had the Victorian study, and highlighted their role in collaborative killings.

The parental group to which the perpetrator belonged affected which children were killed, how they were killed and the risk or causal factors surrounding the child’s death.  The constellation of factors found in the Victorian study, parental separation, mental illness, being a victim, or a perpetrator, of domestic violence, and substance abuse were found again, but with a different frequency. Parental separation and mental illness were found less frequently, but it was suspected that this was due to the data collection tool used in the NHMP. The NHMP identified a new factor, past criminal convictions, often with violence.  Once again, the constellation differed according to the parental role perpetrator group.  While fathers and mothers had similar profiles, step-fathers were markedly different with very high rates of being perpetrators of domestic violence, of abusing alcohol and drugs and of having criminal convictions. The NHMP did not have data on the involvement of any services with the families.

This was the first national picture of filicide in Australia and it showed that filicide deaths are of great concern.  They are not a rare occurrence as is often thought but are a regular one and they are not diminishing and are other homicides in Australia.  The constellation of risk or causal factors found in the Victorian study were confirmed in other states and territories but more understanding is needed to learn of the burden these factors are for all perpetrators and for each of the parental role perpetrator groups.  The study highlighted the role of stepfathers although it could provide little information about the dynamics of their role, either when acting alone, or in collaboration with mothers.  There are very few studies which provide long term national studies of filicide and the study provides a knowledge basis for prevention policy development in Australia and overseas.