Familicide in the United States
The stresses of an economic downturn often lead to increases in domestic violence, and the current recession is no exception. Since October 2008, there has been a spike in familicides, or cases where a husband murders his entire family and commits suicide. The horrific nature of such crimes tends to generate a great deal of media attention and speculation about motives and reasons behind these acts. While it may be easy to blame the economy, underlying family problems often could be the key.
Cases where people kill their families and then commit suicide are mercifully rare. Less extreme forms of domestic violence and child abuse are more common. Acts of partner conflict can fall on a broad spectrum, ranging from verbal criticisms to cases of a family homicide followed by suicide.
David Adams and Jacqueline Campbell argue that there are differing definitions of familicide:
- Deliberate killing of a current or former partner and one or more children within a 24 hour period. (Wilson & Daly; Websdale)
- Killing of four or more family members within a 24 hour period by another family member.
- (Less prominent view) Killing or a current or past partner, one or more children, followed by suicide of the perpetrator.
Fortunately, familicide is a rare, isolated event. Unfortunately, this rarity makes finding trends difficult. The biggest risk factor for familicide to occur is a prior history of domestic violence. This has been the situation in 70 percent of cases in a 12-city study by Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell. Seventy-eight percent of the perpetrators in a survey by Dr. Adams fit the “Possessively Jealous” archetype and 30 percent fit the “Depressed/Suicidal” archetype. Some of these men do not fit any stereotype associated with abusers and do not have histories or records. In most instances, there is a gradual buildup of tensions and conflicts after which one event may lead the man to action—either a sense of a loss of control over finances, unemployment, or, more frequently, when the wife announces that she is leaving. In other instances, however, threats of violence become more frequent and more specific over time until the man acts on his threats.
The access to a gun is another major risk factor in familicide. It is easier to be impulsive when a gun is nearby. The same gun that may have been used to threaten an intimate partner previously can be used to kill that intimate partner. According to Dr. Adams, 92 percent of 591 murder-suicide cases examined in a study were committed with a gun. Furthermore, states with least restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws.
Again, the relative rarity and specificity of familicide mean that simple blanket strategies will not prevent these tragedies from occurring; however, the panelists identified actions that may mitigate risks.
Greater collaboration between police and social welfare agencies, such as child welfare, suicide prevention, or substance abuse treatment, could reduce frequency of familicides. Since social welfare agencies do not generally have access to arrest records, they may not know if there are other risk factors to check into or follow up on. Eighty-three percent of the victims and perpetrators in homicide-suicides were known in some system prior to that crime. Suicide-prevention groups can make sure to ask people who are in treatment about intimate partner relationships and identify possible familicide risks. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence against Women increases collaboration between these agencies through family justice centers, but so far their impact is limited to a few locations.
More important is building a sense of bystander responsibility and increasing community accountability. Many people are not sure what questions to ask or to whom to report something if they suspect domestic abuse. Here, a public information campaign could be beneficial in educating a community. Women, especially, need to know where and how they can obtain assistance in dealing with an abusive partner, including reporting abuse so that partners are flagged for treatment and strategies are established for ending the relationship. A woman leaving her husband can trigger violence, including familicide, so social welfare, police agencies, and the woman herself should be informed about how she can more safely leave an abusive situation.
As the economy tightens, funding for social services may decrease and specialized domestic services could get harder to find. Community policing and involvement become even more important. Increasing rapport with victims will increase the likelihood that they will seek help in future.
In its paper “Familicide: a comparison with spousal and child homicide by mentally disordered perpetrators”, Liem and Koenraadt argue that familicide is the killings of multiple family members, and are believed to constitute an overlap between child homicide (filicide) and intimate partner homicide (uxoricide). In the paper, they concluded that familicide perpetrators are more likely than filicide perpetrators to be male, to be older, to be more educated and to commit the offence with physical violence. They are more likely than uxoricide perpetrators to be married, less likely to have committed a previous violent offence but more likely to suffer from a personality disorder and more likely to attempt suicide following the homicide.
The authors also concluded that, although similarities exist between the three groups under study, those accused of familicide cannot be equated with those accused of filicide or uxoricide. The finding that a large majority of the perpetrators were mentally ill at the time and that many killed when faced with divorce and/or custody over the child(ren) may suggest that increased monitoring of this group might have preventative value.
Campbell, Anna D. Wolf Chair and professor at JHU’s School of Nursing, discussed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System. Of the 408 homicide-suicide cases, most perpetrators were men (91 percent) and most used a gun (88 percent). A 12-city study that Campbell conducted of these cases found that intimate-partner violence had previously occurred in 70 percent of them. Interestingly, only 25 percent of prior domestic violence appeared in the arrest records, according to Campbell. Researchers uncovered much of the prior domestic violence through interviews with family and friends of the homicide victims. “Prior domestic violence is by far the number-one risk factor in these cases,” Campbell said.
She also explained that most people who commit murder-suicide are non-Hispanic white males who kill their mates or former mates. Prior domestic violence is the greatest risk factor in these cases. Access to a gun is a significant risk factor, as are threats with a weapon, a stepchild in the home or estrangement. However, a past criminal history is not a reliable or significant predictor in murder-suicide.
In the aftermath of a family murder followed by a suicide, communities, police, researchers and others search for explanations. In difficult financial times, it may be natural to look for economic influences, especially when the killer has recently lost a job or has enormous financial problems. Campbell found that unemployment was a significant risk factor for murder-suicide but only when combined with a history of domestic violence. In other words, it was not a risk factor in and of itself but was something that tipped the scale following previous abuse.
Adams, author of Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners, offered his perspective based on years of research and experience working with domestic violence cases. His comments focused mostly on guns and jealousy in these violent crimes. When we consider prevention, guns are essentially the “low-hanging fruit,” he suggested. He cited research, similar to Campbell’s data, showing that 92 percent of murder-suicides involved a gun in a sample of 591 cases.
Adams compared high rates of intimate-partner homicide in the United States with the considerably lower rates in other wealthy countries. He noted that America has the most permissive gun laws of any industrialized nation. He made a similar comparison among U.S. states that have restrictive versus permissive gun laws and lower versus higher homicide and suicide rates. Three reasons guns are used frequently is that they are more efficient than other weapons, can be used impulsively, and can be used to terrorize and threaten.
In the research for his book, Adams asked those who killed with guns if they would have used another weapon if a gun were not available; most said no.
“The most common type of killer was a possessively jealous type, and I found that many of the men who … commit murder-suicide, as well as those who kill their children, also seem to fit that profile,” Adams said. “A jealous substance abuser with a gun poses a particularly deadly combination of factors; one that was present in about 40 percent of the killers I interviewed,” he added.
Gelles, professor and dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, said that 90 percent of the time the best predictor of domestic violence is past behavior. He said the proximate social and demographic factors that are related to all forms of family violence except sexual abuse are poverty, unemployment and family stressors, which include disagreements over money, sex and children. The economy always is a distal factor that is translated into family relations through poverty or employment or self-image or stressors.
Recent economic problems may produce increases in child abuse and neglect and domestic violence. In the subset of men who kill their entire families, there is a small increase in atypical familicide. These atypical cases are not the possessive, controlling husbands with guns. The familicides that are represented by men who kill their wives, their children and themselves are what the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “anomic suicides.” These occur when there are radical and significant changes in the person’s social and economic environment.
The United States experienced economic disruptions in 2001 and in the recession of 1990. However, they did not produce huge waves of violence, either in child abuse or domestic violence, Gelles said. Anomic suicide “is not suicide because you’ve lost all your money but suicide because the rules of the game have changed — because what you thought would be true about your life and your family and your 401(k) and the loyalty of your company has suddenly been disrupted,” he said. Gelles suggested that this difficult disruption mixed with an “overenmeshment” in one’s family could underlie these familicides.
Overenmeshment is a condition in which perpetrators either view “their family members as possessions that they control or [they] don’t see any boundaries between their identity, their wife and their children. And so these are suicides of the entire family, where the anomic, overly enmeshed individual can’t bear to leave the pain behind and so takes his wife and children with him,” he said.
If the familicide cases signal a more general increase in domestic violence, one result could be a dramatic increase in child abuse and a subsequent burden on the foster care system, Gelles said.
Source: NIJ Journal No. 266, June 2010
- Domestic Violence
- Partner Violence
- List of Crimes against the Person
- Violence Against Women
- Dating Violence
- Child Sexual Abuse
- Aggravated Felony
Dr. David Adams, Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners