A Victorian Retrospective Study

This study, published as two articles, was built on the review of international and Australian filicide research that had investigated the issue of parental separation and divorce as a possible factor in filicide deaths.  That review had shown the fragmentary and uncoordinated state of past research with many poorly designed, unreliable, and unrelated studies.

The second filicide study instigated by the Hub sought to discover the numbers of children killed by a parent or stepparent or an equivalent legal guardian in Victoria in the period 2000 to 2009, the identities of the parental perpetrators and the circumstances around the deaths, including what possible risk and causal factors were involved.   As Victoria is the second most populous state in Victoria and one with considerable ethnic diversity, it was envisaged that the findings would be reliable.

Data was collected from the files held in the Victorian Coroner’s Office and covered all aspect of the children’s deaths.  At that time, there was no data base of these deaths and data was extracted from each file.  While the study began in 2012, the end date of deaths of 2009 was chosen because it could take some years after a death before a file was finally closed.

A retrospective study of all filicide deaths
of children ages 0 – 17

Some 57 children were killed in that period.  Two deaths were neonaticide deaths and most of the other deaths were in the 0-4 age range.  Male children were killed in larger numbers than female children, higher again than the rates found in overseas research.  The circumstances around the neonaticide deaths did not allow for parental perpetrators to be identified conclusively.

However, in the other deaths parental perpetrators where identified came from four groups:

  • mothers,
  • fathers,
  • mothers and fathers acting together, and,
  • stepfathers
Parent Child Relationships and Gender and Number of Victims

The table to the left shows the relationship of the major perpetrators to victims according to victim’s age and gender.

Thus, from the table it can be seen that mothers and fathers killed almost equal numbers of victims and were equally likely to kill male or female children but stepfathers while killing the least number of victims killed a number disproportionately larger than their presence in the population.

The risk or potential causal factors were found to be a constellation of factors that varied according to the perpetrator group. These factors were mental illness (mostly depression), parental separation, domestic violence, substance abuse and past or concurrent child abuse.  Mothers were found to suffer more often from mental illness than either fathers or stepfathers, but fathers did suffer mental illness, from being a victim of domestic violence, from parental separation and to a lesser extent from substance abuse.  Fathers were characterised by being a perpetrator of domestic violence, suffering from mental illness (again mostly depression), parental separation and from substance abuse.  Stepfathers did not suffer from mental illness, nor parental separation but had high rates of inflicting domestic violence and child abuse (present and past children) and of substance abuse. Mothers killed more very young children but also children across all age groups, fathers killed children a little older but across all age groups and stepfathers killed very young children.

Perpetrators were found to be in contact with services. Mothers contacted GPs and mental health and counselling services and fathers contacted GPs. Fathers and stepfathers were contacted by child protection, substance abuse services and criminal justice services.   Accounts of perpetrators contacts with services showed much misunderstanding by professionals of the perpetrators and the dangers they presented to their children.  At the same time services were a protective factor because the study showed that one Victorian local government area with few health and welfare services and a concentration of young families had an extremely high rate of filicide deaths.