An abominable crime

This study, published in Children Australia, followed the findings of the first large scale study on filicide in Australia (Mouzos and Rushworth, 2003) where the researchers used the National Homicide Monitoring Program to explore all filicide deaths in Australia over a set period.  In that study they found some 23-25 children on average died at the hands of their parents every year and that the largest single group among these deaths was the group where deaths were associated with parental separation and or divorce. 

Noting the association between filicide and parental separation and divorce, this study set out to explore the issue further by reviewing the research literature internationally, and any that could be located in Australia, to discover whether other research had investigated this link between filicide and parental separation and divorce and what the findings might be.

Research on filicide internationally was found to be sparse.  Studies were scattered across many countries with no one central or focal point.  The studies that existed had been carried out from many different disciplinary perspectives, used many different definitions of major terms, and studied only one type of perpetrator, such as maternal filicide or paternal filicide perpetrators, thereby omitting others.  Some covered just one category of filicide, such as neonaticide, infanticide, or familicide.  The studies were mostly exploratory and qualitative in design; they did not build on each other and their conclusions, often contradictory from one study to another, did not establish any comprehensive theory of causation.   

Filicide in the context of parental separation and divorce  

The killing of a child by a parent or stepparent or other legal guardian arouses strong feelings in the community, feelings of horror, disgust, disbelief, and a strong desire to prevent further filicide deaths.  The earliest researchers, who were based overseas, sought information for prevention strategies by looking at perpetrators motives to better understand and so prevent these events.  In the long term this approach did not lead to understanding.  Motives did not seem a sufficient explanation and later research showed that most perpetrators did not have a clear explanation for their behaviour or, indeed, any explanation at all.   

Other factors became of interest and a series of these were considered.   One was mental illness and a link between filicide and mental illness had long been identified.  However, as the selection of respondents for the studies investigating this link were made from perpetrators confined to mental hospitals, the findings were not reliable or generalisable.  This work illustrated several of the problems of filicide research.  Firstly, that numbers of deaths are small annually and it is hard to assemble the numbers required for reliability and, secondly, that access to data is difficult and the obstacles to access lead researchers to biased sources as the only ones available.

Domestic violence was also investigated, and links were noted, but again the research sources were not reliable being associated with studies of child abuse and neglect that culminated over time in filicide.  Parental separation, the focus of this literature study slowly emerged as a factor but not as one that was followed by any research study, but as one that was identified in broader studies like Johnson’s studies on familicide.

Some larger studies were carried out and these included far greater numbers of perpetrators and their findings changed understandings.  They showed that many factors were implicated, most of which had already been identified as single factors, but which had not been seen as linked together.  Bourget and Whitehurst’s work (2007) typified this development; they used a total population of deaths in their own region, aggregated them over some years and described a multi-factor causation.

Stroud (2008) and Johnson went further and described a constellation of factors and how the factors interacted and caused escalating stress.

The review showed that there was almost no research in Australia on filicide despite the numbers of children who died each year as identified in the Mouzos and Rushworth (2003) study.  Moreover, despite some state child death review committees, no research was planned.  The review showed the need for Australian research on all aspects of filicide and the need for large scale research drawing on a large total population with numbers large enough to reflect the many facets of filicide.   Furthermore, any study should collect data over a long period of time, such as for ten years at a minimum, to achieve optimum reliability.   Finally, the review showed that any new research planned should incorporate an exploration of all the factors  previously identified, as well as being open to new ones, including the family’s use of services preceding the child’s death.

For the full text refer to:

Brown, T., & Tyson, D. (2012). An Abominable Crime: Filicide in the Context of Parental Separation and Divorce. Children Australia, 37(4), 151–160.


Bourget,D.,Grace, J.,& Whitehurst, L. (2007). A Review of maternal and paternal filicide. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 35(1), 74–82.
Mouzos, J., & Rushworth, C. (2003). Family homicide in Australia. Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 255,
1–6. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
Stroud, J. (2008). A psychosocial analysis of child homicide. Critical Social Policy, 28(4), 482–505.