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Who could kill a child?

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As the state ponders how this week’s events in Port Lincoln could have happened, forensic psychologist Luke Broomhall asks an even bigger question: what can be done to prevent such tragedies?

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How could anyone harm or even kill their own child?

This is a question that perplexes even the most experienced professionals.

There have been a number of disturbing stories recently involving the deaths of children at the hands of their own parents. The most recent tragedy occurred in Port Lincoln, with the drowning deaths of the four and one-year-old sons of a man who drove at speed from the end of a jetty into deep water. And in July 2014, David Janzow took the life of his four-year-old son, Luca; last month he was found not guilty of murder by reason of mental incompetence.

The search for answers as to how and why a person would harm or take the life of their own child is not to try to make excuses, nor minimise the impact of their actions. It is solely focused on understanding the factors that cause a person to act in such a violent, final manner, so that we as a community can intervene before such tragedies occur in future.

On average, 27 children die at the hands of their parents each year in Australia. A similar number is reported in Canada.

Between July 1997 and June 2008, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Homicide Monitoring Program, 291 children, in 239 incidents, were victims of filicide – the deliberate act of a parent killing their own child.

Approximately 90 per cent of the 291 children were killed by one parent. Seventeen per cent also involved the suicide of the parent; 24 mothers and 16 fathers killed themselves after the murder of their child.

What do we know about people who perpetrate such crimes?

Filicide is a multifaceted phenomenon with various causes and characteristics. Research has indicated the significance of the association between filicide and parental pre-existing psychiatric disorders. This is compounded by indications that a significant number of homicidal parents come to the attention of psychiatrists or other health professionals before the offence occurs.

…the understanding that mental health problems are normal is still in its early days

A US investigation of coroners’ files pertaining to 20 fathers who had committed filicide-suicide found evidence of a psychiatric history of psychosis in 25 per cent of the fathers. Further research in Canada noted a similar rate of psychiatric illness in its examination of coroners’ files pertaining to 60 filicidal men; the presence of psychosis was established in 30 per cent of the fathers.

Another US study by Phillip Resnick, at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, classified 44 per cent of the filicidal men as psychotic and 33 per cent as depressed with psychotic features. There is a high frequency of completed or attempted suicides by fathers after they have committed homicides. Such was the case in the recent tragedy at Port Lincoln.

In the South Australian case of 2014, David Janzow was assessed by psychiatrists as suffering from a mental illness, such that his ability to know the nature and quality of his actions was significantly impaired. The court subsequently found him not guilty by reason of mental incompetence and ordered he be supervised for life in a mental health facility.

As a means of understanding how a person could commit such an act, it would be convenient for some to conclude that the perpetrator was “mad” and therefore their behaviour explained or mitigated. As a society, we don’t like to think “normal” people (ie those who don’t have a diagnosed psychiatric or psychological condition) are capable of such terrible acts. As the research suggests, around a third of perpetrators suffered psychiatric conditions, such as a departure from reality or severe depression. But what about the other two-thirds?

The following typologies were proposed by Resnick and his colleagues: unwanted child, altruism, spousal revenge and accidental.

In “unwanted child filicide”, the victim was never or is no longer desired by the parents. These filicides are usually committed due to illegitimacy or uncertain paternity.

Altruistic filicide is characterised by the motive of relieving the child of real or imagined suffering, and includes murder associated with suicide. Psychosis can leave an individual convinced that their child has or will suffer in some horrible way, and they believe they are relieving them of that burden. Such was the tragic case of Catherine Pallin, who drowned her two-year-old daughter in a dam in the Adelaide Hills.

Spousal revenge filicide describes children who are killed to retaliate against or punish the parent’s mate. Examples of these motives have been found in recent Australian cases. Robert Farquharson received a life sentence for the murder of his three children on Father’s Day in 2005. Farquharson was found guilty of deliberately drowning his three sons – Jai, 10, Tyler, 7, and Bailey, 2 – by driving his car into a dam. A longtime friend of Farquharson, Greg King, gave evidence about a conversation he had been part of where Farquharson said he planned on making his ex-wife suffer.

Accidental filicide is unintentional death due to child abuse, generally following battered child syndrome or serious neglect. The term accidental filicide is used where death is not pre-meditated, but is an outcome of abuse.

A high proportion of neglectful filicidal parents have low socio-economic status. Many are unemployed and have below-average education levels. Social isolation and/or a lack of social support are also commonly reported in paternal filicide. Motivational factors noted for paternal filicide include attempts to control the child’s behaviour and misinterpretation of the child’s behaviour. A sense of personal inadequacy and a lack of parenting skills and coping mechanisms has also been reported. Several studies show a high incidence of related substance abuse or dependence. The death of Chloe Valentine in 2012 is a tragic example.

Reducing the incidence of parental filicide is clearly a multi-faceted area. It encompasses mental health, child welfare, social services, education, substance abuse and parenting.

The system overseeing these areas is staffed by professionals and volunteers who are often under-resourced to manage the flood of issues that come at them. And the understanding that mental health problems are normal, treatable and nothing to be ashamed of is still in its early days in Australian culture.

Allocation of resources to meaningful early intervention – in mental health, child welfare, parenting and substance abuse – will be the only precipitant to a meaningful reduction in serious harm to children.

If you are suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety, you are not alone and help is available. Call BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or www.beyondblue.org.au

Luke Broomhall is director of Broomhall Young Psychology.

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