Professional Voice 14.3.4

Intimate Partner Homicide (IPH), the needs of bereaved children and support at school

 John Frederick and Eva Alisic

 In the tragic circumstance where one parent kills the other, the children in the family find themselves facing complex losses. As well having one parent who has died, the other parent is either in custody, has absconded, or may have suicided (Steeves & Parker, 2007). Invariably, the children can no longer live at home, losing not only their familiar surroundings, but often having to leave their school and friends and relocate to a new caregiver’s home (Lewandowski et al., 2004). In such difficult circumstances, children need stability, continuity, and trusted people they can rely on for support (Alisic et al., 2017a). Schools, through caring teachers and wellbeing support staff, can help provide this needed support.

Teachers have an important place in children’s lives. Not only do they teach academic skills, but they also act as role models, regulate children’s interactions, and offer emotional support (Alisic et al., 2012). In addition, teachers can also provide a valuable linkage between children and mental health services, as they are in a strategic position to identify the effects of trauma in their students’ lives (Baweja et al., 2016).

Traumatic incidents, such as these tragedies, are a particular area where teachers can be of assistance by being able to monitor and support children’s recovery (Alisic et al., 2012). The extensive time that teachers spend with children enables them to identify any behaviour change, either positive or concerning, and they can also help provide children with relevant everyday coping skills (Baweja et al., 2016).

Sadly, more children than might initially be thought are affected by these tragic events. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (Bricknell & Doherty, 2021), IPH is the most prevalent type of homicide in Australia, comprising 21% of all homicide incidents, with victims predominantly women. The distressing reality is that one in three female homicides worldwide are a result of intimate partner violence, with many of these women having children (Stockl et al., 2013). Nonetheless, we know very little regarding the circumstances and support needs of the children affected (Mertin, 2019).

A recent Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network Data Report (ADFVDRN & ANROWS, 2022), for the period 2010-2018, has found that both homicide offenders and victims were joint parents of at least 172 children aged under 18, with no less than 133 cases of children being exposed to violence between the offender and victim (42.8% of all intimate partner homicides). This is actually considerably less than numbers reported in international studies, such as in the Netherlands (see Alisic et al., 2017b), however, the report does note that the number of children affected by these incidents is most likely an undercount.

It is in fact surprising how little empirical evidence is available on children exposed to parental IPH (Alisic et al., 2015). Indeed, the lack of attention given to this issue is reflected in the fact that there are no official figures of how many children in Australia are bereaved by IPH (Alisic & Humphreys, 2019).

There is a compelling requirement to build an evidence base regarding children’s mental health and overall wellbeing following parental IPH, together with guiding principles to inform professionals, such as teachers (Alisic et al., 2015).

Teachers have asked for more knowledge and skills about how they can help children who have been subject to trauma (Alisic et al., 2012), and studies of children impacted by IPH consistently find multiple mental and physical health, behavioural, and learning challenges (Mertin, 2019), that will impact them at school.

Certain mental health and developmental problems have been observed among some of the children who have experienced parental IPH, and can include:

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic grief, intrusive memories, anxiety, sleep disturbances, aggressive and self-destructive behaviour, protracted grief, hyperactivity, and concentration problems (Hardesty et al., 2008).
  • Developmental difficulties involving attachment problems in relation to new caregivers, regression (e.g., language regression), social problems, identity questions, and deteriorating school performance (Kaplan et al., 2001; Eth & Pynoos, 1994).

Some approaches that teachers can consider for helping children affected by trauma at school are available at the following links:

Five approaches for creating trauma-informed classrooms - Monash Education

Trauma-informed practice in schools: an explainer (nsw.gov.au)

https://www.phoenixaustralia.org/your-recovery/helping-children-and-teens/

Providing needed support for children affected by IPH in school settings requires corresponding support for their teachers through specific professional development regarding the effects of trauma on students, together with ongoing communication and collaboration with mental health professionals (Baweja et al., 2016). Research with teachers of traumatically affected students has also found that performing this work alone is highly demanding and can take an emotional toll (Koslouski & Stark, 2021). The use of reflective practice approaches, such as reflective circles, where dedicated time is made available to reflect on such students, as well as obtain the experience and support of colleagues, can help teachers in dealing with this complex and emotionally demanding work (Southall et al., 2020).

To advance understanding of this significant issue in the Australian context, the University of Melbourne has conducted a new research project - Children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide: Understanding home, relationships and identity.

Its aim is to help improve support for children and families affected by intimate partner homicide and involved individual interviews with people from the following three groups:

  1. young people (aged 12+ years) and adults with lived experience of bereavement due to domestic homicide during childhood,
  2. current or former caregivers of such children (this can also include family members and family friends who have spent considerable time with a child after the homicide) and
  3. professionals working with such children and/or caregivers, including teachers and other professionals in the education sector.

The interviews included, where relevant, questions about experiences with young people’s living arrangements, relationships with family and friends, and evolving self-view. It also provided ample opportunity for participants to share any other topics that they found important.

Initial insights have led to the development of a resource for reflective practice. ‘Listen’ includes a series of short videos, audio, and text to bring forward the voice of an expert with lived experience and support professionals with regard to the topic of domestic homicide and child trauma and grief more broadly. 

Teachers and school support staff who are interested can find more information about the project and the resource at: https://bit.ly/childrenDH 

References

Alisic, E., Bus, M., Dulack, W., Pennings, L. & Splinter, J. (2012) Teachers’ experiences supporting children after traumatic exposure. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25(1), 98–101.

Alisic, E., Krishna, R. N., Groot, A. & Frederick, J. W. (2015). Children’s mental health and well-being after parental intimate partner homicide: A systematic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 18, 328–345.

Alisic, E., Groot, A. Snetselaar, H., Stroeken, T., Hehenkamp L. & van de Putte, E. (2017a) Children’s perspectives on life and well-being after parental intimate partner homicide. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 8:sup6, 1463796.

Alisic E., Groot A., Snetselaar H., Stroeken T. & van de Putte E (2017b) Children bereaved by fatal intimate partner violence: A population-based study into demographics, family characteristics and homicide exposure. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0183466. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183466

Alisic, E. & Humphreys, C. (2019) The children left behind by domestic homicide. Pursuit, University of Melbourne, 30 November 2019. The children left behind by domestic homicide | Pursuit by The University of Melbourne (unimelb.edu.au)

ADFVDRN & ANROWS (Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network & Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety) (2022). Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network Data Report: Intimate partner violence homicides 2010–2018 (2nd ed.; Research report 03/2022). ANROWS.

Baweja, S., Santiago, C. D., Vona, P., Pears, G., Langley, A. & Kataoka, S. (2016) Improving implementation of a school-based program for traumatized students: Identifying factors that promote teacher support and collaboration. School Mental Health, 8, 120–131.

Bricknell, S. & Doherty, L. (2021) AIC reports, Statistical Report 34, Homicide in Australia 2018–19. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Eth S. & Pynoos R. (1994) Children who witness the homicide of a parent. Psychiatry, 57(4), 287-306.

Hardesty, J., Campbell, J., McFarlane, J., & Lewandowski, L. (2008). How children and their caregivers adjust after intimate partner femicide. Journal of Family Issues, 29, 100–124.

Kaplan, T., Black, D., Hyman, P., & Knox, J. (2001). Outcome of children seen after one parent killed the other. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 6, 9–22.

Koslouski, J. B. & Stark, K. (2021) Promoting learning for students experiencing adversity and trauma: The everyday, yet profound, actions of teachers. The Elementary School Journal, 121 (3) Published online February 15, 2021.

Lewandowski, L., McFarlane, J., Campbell, J., Gary, F. & Barenski, C. (2004). “He killed my mommy!” Murder or attempted murder of a child’s mother. Journal of Family Violence, 19, 211-220.

Mertin P (2019). The neglected victims: what (little) we know about child survivors of domestic homicide. Children Australia, 44, 121–125.

Southall, A. E., Gardner, F. & Baxter, L. P. (2020) Educator perspectives on teaching students from traumatic backgrounds and the potential for reflective circles. The Australian Educational Researcher, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-021-00455-7

Steeves, R. & Parker, B. (2007) Adult perspectives on growing up following uxoricide. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(10), 1270-1284.

Stöckl, H., Devries, K., Rotstein, A., Abrahams, N., Campbell, J., Watts, C. Moreno, C. G. (2013) The global prevalence of intimate partner homicide: A systematic review. The Lancet, 382: 859–65.

Dr John Frederick and Professor Eva Alisic are part of the Children and Young People Bereaved by Domestic Homicide research project team at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.