An abandoned children's toy.
Children's Commissioner Anne Hollonds says there's an urgent need for a child wellbeing strategy. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

Filicide study finds action needed to keep kids safe

Cheryl Goodenough July 7, 2024

The myth that parents kill their children in random acts of violence has been dismissed by groundbreaking research, highlighting the need for a whole-of-society response.

Filicide – or the killing of one’s child – is the second most common type of domestic homicide, after deaths involving an intimate partner.

While other forms of domestic homicide are declining, Australia’s filicide rate remains at about 20 cases a year.

A woman
 Research has found a strong link between violence against women and abuse of children. Image by Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS 

Those deaths could be prevented, say researchers from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Death Review Network following a recently published study.

ANROWS chief executive Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine said the killing of a child by a parent happens in Australia with alarming frequency and the evidence shows a deep connection between violence against children and violence against women.

“We need urgent, concerted action to ensure every child is safe within the confines of their own home,” she said.

“Otherwise, we are failing those most in need of protection.”

In the eight years from July 2010, there were 113 filicide cases in Australia involving 138 child victims, excluding cases with ongoing criminal or coronial proceedings.

Of those, 76 per cent – or 86 cases involving 106 children – occurred within a domestic and family violence context, meaning there was a history of either child abuse or intimate partner violence or both.

The cases were the subject of the study, which found the killing of children by their father often followed a history of him perpetrating intimate partner violence.

A girl hunched over
 Prior abuse was carried out by parents towards filicide victims or siblings in eight out of 10 cases Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

Cases of mothers killing their children often followed a history of the woman experiencing intimate partner violence.

Researchers accessed briefs of evidence, police reports, inquest findings, autopsy and toxicology reports, sentencing remarks, witness statements and case reviews.

They found child abuse had been perpetrated by parents towards filicide victims or their siblings in eight out of 10 cases. 

But no filicide offenders had prior convictions for crimes against their children.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were disproportionately killed in filicide cases, with the issue being rooted in racism, colonisation and intergenerational trauma, the study found.

A total of 16 per cent of filicide victims were identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, while one in five of those were killed by a non-Indigenous parent.

Researchers found a lack of culturally safe services, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led services that are better placed to provide support are often under-resourced.

“The safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and women needs to be prioritised through urgent investment in Aboriginal-led solutions and services,” the report said.

A file photo of children in the Northern Territory
 The filicide rate in the Indigenous population is disproportionately high, researchers found. Image by Marianna Massey/AAP PHOTOS 

The study highlighted the need for focus on regional and remote parts of Australia, with domestic and family violence being more frequent and severe in such areas.

Major cities are home to 72 per cent of the general population compared to 58 per cent of filicide offenders.

In close-knit communities, it may be hard to discreetly access victim or perpetrator services and reporting violence may be uncomfortable or unsafe due to a lack of anonymity.

The researchers said any risk of intimate partner violence towards women needed to be seen as a risk of violence towards their children.

Fathers and stepfathers need the skills and support in their role as caregivers as they are critical to the safety and wellbeing of children.

At least 120 surviving siblings of the filicide victims in the study were also recognised as under-researched victim-survivors.

The study called for children to be central in responses to domestic and family violence and recognised as victims.

Community-wide education on the effects of family violence on children needs to be promoted and obstacles to families accessing services addressed.

“Business as usual cannot continue,” the study said.

“All governments need to take urgent action to overhaul how they work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

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