National report paints a sad picture of child vulnerability
A “damning” national report from the Australian Institute of Criminology into child deaths at the hands of a parent or caregiver (known legally as filicide) has shown that one child is killed by a parental figure in Australia each fortnight, prompting calls for more support, early intervention and collaborative practice.
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The 12-year study was carried out by the Monash University and Deakin University Filicide Research Hub in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Criminology. This is the first report to give reliable data on the incidence of filicide in Australia.
The report found that between 2000–01 and 2011–12, there were 238 incidents of filicide identified in the National Homicide Monitoring Program, which involved 284 victims and 260 offenders. Filicides accounted for 18 per cent of domestic homicide incidents and 7 per cent of all homicide incidents within the same time period.
The highest number of incidents occured in New South Wales, followed by Queensland and Victoria. The lowest number of incidents were recorded in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania. In Queensland, the proportion of filicides relative to other homicides was higher by 4 per cent, meaning children in Queensland were disproportionately represented in the statistics.
There was no apparent motive for the majority of incidents. But when a motive was known, report authors said, 66 per cent of filicide incidents were motivated by a domestic argument. Of those cases, 25 per cent were related to the upbringing of the child/children and 18 per cent were related to custodial arrangements, highlighting the need to support parents and families who are undergoing separation and divorce, or experiencing domestic violence incidents.
“Our report found that the main perpetrators in Australia were fathers, mothers and step-fathers, as well as parents and step-parents acting in unison,” Lead Researcher and Emeritus Professor Thea Brown from Monash University’s Department of Social Work said.
“The major risk factors for children are age – the youngest children are the most vulnerable, especially from step-fathers – and gender – boys are more commonly killed than girls, especially by fathers and mothers.
“Many of the perpetrators were found to have suffered from a mental illness (especially among young mothers), domestic violence (inflicted by fathers and step-fathers), parental separation, past child abuse, substance abuse, and previous criminal history.”
Emeritus Professor Brown said by intervening early and effectively, the risk of harm to a child can be reduced, parent and family wellbeing can be improved, and the risk of child maltreatment and filicide can drop substantially.
Calling for a collaborative response, Emeritus Professor Brown recommended that early childhood education and care services support parents to access mental health services, general health services, Family Law Courts, criminal justice services, post-separation services and domestic violence services and that those services “should consider adopting interventions that incorporate greater consideration for the safety of the children of their clientele”.
“Taking a co-ordinated, long-term support approach with the much larger number of families in the broader ‘serious harm’ and ‘at risk’ populations will require significantly increased investment if risk is to be reduced for these families and, concomitantly, the event of filicide.”
“It also requires further investment by adult-focused mental health, substance abuse rehabilitation and domestic violence services on their clients as parents, and a focus on the children of their clients,” Emeritus Professor Brown said.
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