Helping children who have witnessed family homicide

family homicide

Surprisingly little attention is paid to the children of families where one parent is murdered by the other. By Julie Griffiths

There was a time when domestic violence was a taboo subject, even among doctors and social workers. Fortunately, those days have passed. But Diane Yates, domestic abuse trainer and consultant, believes another taboo has taken its place- domestic homicide where one parent is murdered by the other. It can have a devastating effect on children but most receive little, if any, help.

Yates has contacted every safeguarding board in the country and found a universal absence of guidance or policies for social workers on what to do following a domestic homicide.

It may be that, during budget cuts, the numbers of children affected are thought to be too few to warrant such policies, but Yates points out this is guesswork at present.

“The trouble is that there is no recording of it. So we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem.”

She says familial homicide affects about three children each week. This is based on the fact that two women every week are killed by their former or current partner (Home Office homicide statistics, 1998) and the birth rate is 1.5 children per woman.

For the 150 or so children who lose a parent each year at the hands of their other parent, it is a life-changing event.

In a court in Devon last summer, Louis Shorthouse, 21, stood accused of assault. The court was told that as a boy of eight in 1997, Shorthouse had witnessed his father Stephen Eastel stab his mother Tanya Shorthouse up to 50 times in a frenzied attack. As his father served a life sentence for murder, Shorthouse’s upbringing comprised of being passed from grandparents to foster homes.

Research shows that his story is common and children who have experienced domestic homicide suffer problems for many years after the event. Doctors Barbara Parker and Richard Steeves, researchers from the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing, studied adults who lived through the homicide of one parent by the other.

The 86 adults they talked to reported that, as children, they were told to move on from the incident and were discouraged from talking about it. Many of them had problems with relationships as adults. Other studies have shown these children are also more likely to become either victim or perpetrator of domestic violence themselves in adulthood and suffer from substance abuse.

It is familiar territory for Yates who experienced domestic homicide herself as a child. In 1978, when she was 10, her father killed her mother. The impact of the killing in her adult life manifested itself through alcohol, solvent abuse, abusive relationships, and being a victim of domestic violence.

Of course, there are also difficulties facing children in the immediate aftermath of a domestic killing. Yates says she is typical in that she suffered from feelings of guilt and anxiety, nightmares and poor concentration.

She initially stayed with her maternal grandparents but this did not help.

“I didn’t want to burden my grandparents who had lost a daughter and were traumatised. I knew they were drinking and taking Valium. I couldn’t talk abut how worried I was about my dad and my fear that he would commit suicide because they said they would never forgive him for what he had done,” she says.

Yates then went to live with her father’s sister before returning to live with her dad when he was released from prison. She struggled to cope at each stage because each situation brought new difficulties. This experience proves, Yates says, the vital role of social workers in such cases who can act as independent and objective advocates for the child at a time when a family is suffering intense turmoil.

Yet the lack of policies at councils means that frontline practitioners are left to muddle through a complex and sensitive situation even though domestic homicide demands a different approach to many other problems.

For example, while established wisdom dictates that a child should always be placed with a family member where possible or appropriate, studies have shown that in domestic homicide this is not necessarily the best course of action.

“It’s better for children to be placed with people outside the family. A foster carer won’t be traumatised or bitter,” Yates says.

She recommends social workers talk to children, rather than the adults, following domestic homicide. The family are not necessarily going to see the value of social worker involvement but are also too traumatised to be able to deal with a child’s difficulties objectively.

A comprehensive assessment of children following domestic homicide should also take advice from colleagues in domestic violence teams, mental health and bereavement counsellors. Emotional support to ensure children understand that they are not to blame is important as is more practical information on financial rights, such as suing the perpetrator.

Yates warns that children may not behave as one might expect given the complexities of domestic murder and the individual circumstances surrounding it. Children may not feel able to access support immediately but signposting other services that a child might find helpful is useful all the same.

“As I was growing up, I felt different to everyone else because no one had been through what I had”, she says. “That feeling of isolation, that no one understands, is terrible.”


Social workers helping a child after a domestic homicide should remember:

● The family may not want social worker involvement but may still need it.

● Encourage the child to keep mementoes and photos of the parent who has died – these can go missing in the chaos of the aftermath of a homicide.

● Talk to children about how they are feeling rather than asking adults how a child is feeling.

● Get advice from mental health services, domestic violence and bereavement services – although they do not necessarily need to be involved.

● Consider foster care rather than putting a child with immediate family as they can more objectively focus on the child’s needs rather than a family member who is dealing with their own shock, grief and trauma.

Source: Diane Yates, domestic abuse consultant

Warning signs

Signs that may indicate a child is struggling to cope include:

● An insistence that everything is fine – this might suggest that a child is in denial.

● Playing make-believe games where the outcomes are death.

● Going into carer mode for adults who are looking after them.

● Older children may begin smoking or drinking and get involved in petty crime and promiscuity.

● Children may show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially if they witnessed the murder.

● Feelings of guilt: children can feel they have been complicit in the domestic abuse or that they were to blame because they were unable to stop it.

● Feelings of shame and isolation: children are unlikely to know anyone else affected by domestic murder and feel ashamed it has happened to their family.

● Be aware that a child may still feel love and forgiveness for the perpetrator.

● Be aware the child may also feel fear and anxiety they will also lose the surviving parent to a prison sentence.

Source: Diane Yates, domestic abuse consultant

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