Life After Domestic Homicide, Marilyn Armour

There are approximately 20,000 homicides in the United States annually. In 2002, 8.6% of victims were killed by their spouse, 5.5% were children killed by a parent, 7.4% were killed by a family member, other than their spouse or parent, and 7.3% were killed by their boyfriend or girlfriend. The vast majority of these deaths are related to domestic violence. When children murder parents, for example, most of them have witnessed partner violence or were victims themselves of child abuse. Fathers who kill children and then themselves often meet the criteria for domestic abuse of their partners, including contact with the police. Even many suicides by women are thought to be associated with battering.

Although the problem of domestic violence has received considerable attention, the study of domestic homicide is relatively recent and limited to precipitating conditions or the act itself. Most of the literature on familicide focuses on the personality characteristics of the victim and perpetrator or tries to answer the question, “How did the death happen?” Indeed, 35 states have now developed domestic violence fatality review teams (DVFRT) to uncover possible causes and institute mechanisms to prevent future intimate partner fatalities. Little notice, however, has been given to the members of the victim’s family who, in the midst of their loss and extreme suffering, inherit the fallout from their loved one’s death including massive upheaval, psychiatric disturbance, ill health, financial difficulties and the propensity for future intrafamilial violence. Even determining the numbers of potential survivors is difficult because records on domestic homicide, for example, do not specify if children were involved, agencies such as the child welfare system do not gather information on what happens to these children after their parent dies and studies of survivors do not differentiate between familicide and stranger homicide. This chapter describes what is known about the children and the adults who survive in the wake of a domestic fatality.

Although many of their experiences are similar to the experiences of homicide survivors generally, this chapter will highlight some of their unique circumstances and the paucity of services particular to their needs. Names and circumstances of people in case examples have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

The Children Who Remain

Based on the number of women of childbearing age killed by their partners, U.S Census population data from 2000, and a conservative estimate of the number of children such women are raising, it is calculated that between 3,000 and 4,400 children are affected by a domestic homicide annually.

Many of these children may already have the scars from witnessing the domestic violence that likely precedes the murder. They may observe the actual event, or their exposure may be more indirect, such as hearing violent encounters or later witnessing the results from a violent exchange. Both direct and indirect exposure to domestic violence is negatively associated with children’s emotional, behavioral and developmental well-being.

In recent years an increasing body of evidence describes the deleterious effects exposure to domestic violence can have on the health, cognitive functioning, and emotional well-being of children. Indeed, a child’s age and stage of development can be an important determinant for what those consequences may be. For instance, children who are preschool age and younger should ideally be learning to think in egocentric ways, begin the process of gender identification, develop language skills, and explore a moral schema. For children this age, exposure to violence has been established as a positive correlate of disrupted developmental milestones such as language development, toilet-training, and motor-skills acquisition. In addition to disrupted development, exposure to domestic violence is positively associated with reduced empathy and prosocial behaviors, poorer communication skills, and increased behaviors that undermine the development of a social network.

Older children who are exposed to domestic violence face complex emotional and identity problems. Because they take social, gender, and behavioral cues from their adult role-models, they are at risk, for example, for developing stereo-typed notions of gender, e.g. women are victims and men are perpetrators. Although peer identification is considered a key developmental task of adolescence, exposure to domestic violence may promote behaviors, which inhibit membership in a peer group. For example, several reports link exposure to domestic violence to aggressive behavior, conduct problems, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and impaired social competencies.

In contrast to the amount of research on children up to the time the experience domestic violence, little is known about what happens to these children in the aftermath of the murder. Besides being neglected in the literature, they are often overlooked in the chaos that follows the parent’s death and feel alone, lost, and invisible. Far from being distant spectators, many of these children were actually in the home when the homicide occurred and may have witnessed it or found their parent’s body. Consequently, they not only have to deal with the trauma of death by homicide but may be haunted by the sights and sounds that occurred during the incident including the mutilation of their mother’s body or the “blank, evil, and frightening look in their fathers eye immediately after he committed the homicide”. As bystanders, they may also witness the reactions of family members to the death notification. In one case, a girl worried that the grandma had been shot because of the way she fell down on the floor and started screaming when she learned of the murder. Ironically, these children are often the primary source of information about the homicide because of their proximity to the event.

Immediate Effects

The impact of the homicide varies, in part, based on the child’s proximity to the event. Although PTSD symptoms, physical health problems including psychosomatic concerns, and sleep disturbances are common, they are more often reported in children who witnessed the murder. Reactions also vary based on the child’s age. Younger children, for example, may start wetting the bed whereas older children may show an obsessive fascination with guns and violence. Many have distressing nightmares and flashbulb memories of their parent’s mutilated body including images and sounds of the incident. The Hennepin County fatality review team (2002) describes the level of terror that some children have endured: Visions of children attempting to intervene to protect their mother from a perpetrator’s assault and in doing so being struck themselves, crawling along the floor with the lights out for fear of being seen through a window by a mother’s ex-boyfriend, leaving bicycles “just so” in front of an entry door in order to detect whether the perpetrator had entered the home while they were gone, all painted an extraordinarily troubling picture of the terror that permeates every aspect of these young lives.

Other short-term effects include fears of being separated from the current caregiver and a tendency to be either overly emotional in response to everyday situations or overly in control of emotions. Indeed, because some children may be in a state of shock or numbness, adults may erroneously assume that their quietness indicates little or no reaction. Uniformly children feel sad, depressed, lonely, preoccupied, guilty, and angry.

Some of their difficulties are related not just to the murder but to the level of disruption that hits their young lives. If their home is sealed off as a crime scene, they cannot get clothes or familiar toys. Even if they remain in the original home, it is now “like an empty shell, filled with haunting reminders and echoes of the person who is now dead.” Moreover, their losses are multiple and sudden. Besides losing both parents simultaneously, they frequently lose their home, neighborhood, school, and friends. Concomitantly, they have to adjust quickly to unfamiliar environments. Studies indicate they usually live with a member of the victim’s family after the murder. However, some live with a member of the perpetrator’s family, in institutional settings, with distant relatives, or with families who adopt them. Rather than remaining in their new home location, however, many of these children move as many as four to five times.

They may even move back with the perpetrator when that person is released from prison. In addition to being relocated to a new home, they also find themselves in different schools with teachers who cannot tend their needs because the caregivers want to give the children a new start and, therefore, withhold information from the school about the murder. In contrast, children may be teased about being the child of a murderer and not be able to escape comments from peers at school or in the neighborhood who make them feel different. Without their usual support network and familiar surroundings, they feel rootless, disoriented, and dislocated.

Loyalty Conflicts and Long Range Effects

In domestic fatalities, children lose either parents or their equivalent at once. They become both a victim-survivor and offspring of a murderer. The conflict inherent in this dual and seemingly irresolvable identity struggle plays out legally and in the family. If children’s testimony, for example, results in an acquittal, they may feel traitorous to their mother. If their testimony results in a conviction, they may feel responsible and guilty for making their father spends years, or even the rest of his life, in prison. This split and the confusion it creates may continue for children as they deal with their relatives who also have strong emotions about what happened. The conflict between the victim and perpetrator may be replicated in ongoing conflict between their extended families. Each side may blame the other, vie over who will raise the children, or differ about the children’s contact with the perpetrator in or out of prison. These wars place children in difficult and untenable positions. If they are placed with the mother’s family, for example, their antagonism with the perpetrator may prevent access to him. If the children are placed with the perpetrator’s family, family members may disparage the mother, even accusing her of provoking her own murder, in an effort to protect the perpetrator and family’s reputation.

Children need a rounded picture of their parents in order to resolve their own inner identity struggles. When a father, for example, has no redeeming qualities, the child’s self image can be damaged because of the conflict inherent in trying to identify with the father. “If daddy is bad, then half of me must be bad because half of me comes from daddy.” These kinds of fears are common. Children worry that they may inherit the badness or sickness of the perpetrator. They may fear that they will end up like the parent who was killed or even that the perpetrator will come back to kill them too. Children’s apprehensions are not without merit. A small study of adult survivors found that the women participants were abused in their later personal lives as adults and the male participants indicated that they had been abusive. Children also have difficulties with attachment. Such difficulties are expected given the nature of the crime itself, the unresolved loss, and the aftermath of disruption. The dimensions of the attachment are also influenced by self image and the ambivalence over children’s post homicide identification with either the victim or perpetrator. Indeed, existing studies show that although many children have no discernible attachment problems, the majority have difficulty attaching at all or may be under-attached to their caregivers and, as adults, have trouble establishing and/or maintaining love relationships.

Not talking about the homicide is a significant characteristic that contributes to loyalty conflicts, fears, and attachment issues. Some children manage the loyalty conflicts by not conversing with others. “You don’t want to hear how terrible your parents are, you don’t really want to hear it when you’re little”. Others are explicitly told not to talk about it, worry that saying something might hurt others. They may also protect themselves from the insensitivity of others by not speaking. Still others describe that no one talked to them about the homicide or their family after the murder or that their adoptive or guardian family did not talk about the murder believing that it was best to just move on. Although this silence seemingly keeps the trauma at bay, it also freezes it in time and may distort children’s development and functioning as adults. Indeed, talking is particularly important for children because it is the mechanism that allows them to readapt to the violent death of their caregiver at each new stage of their development.

Instead of stability, many children confront additional fears and trauma after the death of their loved one. New caregivers who feel overwhelmed by their own grief and the sudden task of caring for young charges, may be emotionally unavailable. In one study, 24% of children were sexually attacked or abused by a member of their new household. Post event illnesses and deaths of caregivers also occur. There may be permanent alienation between the maternal and paternal families which costs the children still more. If adopted or institutionalized at a young age, children may know little about their families of origin. As adolescents, they may end up abusing alcohol or drugs and engage in suicidal behavior, perhaps as a way of reuniting with a lost loved one. They also live haunted by fears. Because they lost one parent, they may fear losing the other one too or losing their new caregiver. They may closely monitor that person or hide their feelings to ensure that the person does not get angry or upset or disappear too. They are scared to be alone yet frightened that getting close to someone new could result in still more loss. They may also worry that they will become violent or psychiatrically ill. This stacking up of never-ending crises or living in the shadow of survival-level fears further complicates recovery.

The Adults Who Remain

Intrafamilial homicide can include partner homicide, child murder, homicide-suicide, and non partner intrafamilial homicide. Consequently, the experiences of adult survivors vary, in part, based on their familial role to the victim and perpetrator. Similar to the children who remain, little is known, however, about adult survivors’ unique needs. Indeed, this subgroup of homicide survivors appears to have been sidestepped in the literature with the explanation that their issues are extremely complex due to previous family history, family dynamics, and the fact that the relationships to the victim and perpetrator, whether by blood or through marriage, endure into the future. For many adult survivors, threats to kill the victim were communicated to family, friends, relatives, and neighbors prior to the homicide. They subsequently struggle with having had some sense of the risk and question whether they could have prevented the murder.

Other adult survivors are stunned to learn that the murderer is a family member. They wrestle with their ignorance while trying to absorb the fact that they were duped by the perpetrator into believing that he was someone other than who he was. They may also recognize that the victim was not fully disclosing about the direness of her circumstances. A mother who lost her only daughter to a former boyfriend did not know that telephone contact had been re-established between them and the perpetrator was again pursuing her daughter. Although the mother did not realize it at the time, her daughter likely stayed late at her mother’s home on the night she was killed in order to evade him. In these cases, parents are left with guilt and a sense of responsibility about what they might have done to stop the murder.

One family reflected on how they had misjudged the perpetrator’s potential for violence because they erroneously believed that they could control his moodiness: “He’d never done anything physical to anyone but he still acted like he was about to explode. I felt like I was walking on eggshells with him the last five to ten years. The slightest criticism would just send him off the roof. Everything was personal to him.” Because family members know the perpetrator, are aware of the domestic violence that often precedes the lethality of the act, or assume that the victim is not withholding information, they frequently expect themselves to have known better. They wrestle, therefore, with guilt either over the murder, given what they knew, or guilt for what they should have known, which might have allowed them to rescue the victim. This guilt along with other feelings can hold adult survivors hostage. They can also feel bound by their responsibility for the children who are left, loyalty binds to both victim and perpetrator, and chronic conditions that emerge as a result of the homicide.

Parenting Stress

Although there are no definitive statistics, many adult survivors become instant parents because the actual caregivers are now imprisoned or dead because of murder or murder-suicide. In a study of 146 children, 59% moved into the homes of their maternal or paternal kin. Another study found that 37 out of 47 children lived with either the victim’s or perpetrator’s family after their parent was killed. These relatives not only manage their own grief reactions but also deal with their reluctance to become parents and the stress of not knowing to parent severely traumatized children.

Taking on the responsibility of parenting by default creates additional problems. Adult survivors commonly report health problems as they put their own needs secondary to caring for the children. In interviews with 10 participants selected from a 10-city study, two caregivers had suffered heart attacks, two underwent major surgeries, and one was hospitalized with a heart condition. These health and adjustment challenges are compounded by other harsh realities including the fact that caregivers may already have limited financial resources, have to quit jobs to care for children, and lack ongoing external support.

Adult survivors feel particularly challenged by the fact that children in the same household respond differently to the homicide, in part, because they have diverse needs and are at different ages and stages of development. In one family, the caregiver describes how four grandchildren have varied needs and responses four years after the intimate partner homicide: “The five-year-old grandson (who was 11 months old at the time of the IPF) does not remember his mother and father from before the murder. He has developed a relationship with his father through phone calls and visits to the prison. [The] seven-year-old granddaughter (three years old at the time) believes that another man killed her mother, not her father. [The] nine-year-old grandson (five years old at the time),unlike his siblings, refuses to visit his mother’s grave or visit his father in prison. In contrast, [the] 10-year-old grandson (6 years old at the time) is angry that his father is in prison and believes that he should not have been sentenced to prison.”

Indeed, it may be common for parenting stress to reflect the reality of having to confront unusual and complicated situations. A mother described some of the challenges she faced raising her son and two-month old granddaughter after her daughter’s boyfriend killed her daughter and tried to kill her son when he attempted to protect his sister: “My son had about a 10% chance of living but he made it through. He thought I was angry at him because he didn’t protect his sister….One day he blew up and said, ‘I did the best I could. I promise you I did.’ I said, ‘Well Donald, it’s not your fault. It’s Jaime’s fault. You did better than what most men would have done. Cause you were only 17 at the time. Most men when they see a domestic abuse, they turn their head. To me you’re a hero even though she didn’t live. To me you’re her hero. You’re a treasured hero.’ He could have killed my granddaughter too.”

In an unsolved murder, a woman described her response to her grandson when his mother who allegedly killed the woman’s son sent the grandson to spend time with his grandmother: “The little boy came to visit us for about a month when he was about six and [his mother] would say, ‘If you don’t act right, I’m going to send you to stay with relatives.’ He said that his mother told him that his dad died in a car accident. That was number one. She wouldn’t even tell him the truth. We didn’t talk about [his father’s death] while he was here. I figured he’ll find out if he want to. He’ll find out when he gets older. I haven’t seen or heard from her in over five years. You wonder about the little boy but not much you can do.”

Parenting stress is also extreme for the remaining parent when a family member kills one or more children as part of a murder-suicide. These domestic homicides are often associated with a perpetrator’s separation from a partner and/or mental illness. Besides physical problems such insomnia, hair falling out, high blood pressure, and losing considerable weight, caregivers have long-term mental illness and substance abuse problems, which frequently develop in response to the homicide. Mothers find that involvement in later relationships, if possible, and the birth of additional children do not lessen their suffering. In some instances, their extended families fight to keep them from killing themselves. One mother reported that, “[S]he had no interest in surviving without her children.” Another mother reported, “I never went outside to shop for three years. I was on tranquilizers.”

Loyalty Binds and Chronic Conditions

Recovery for adult survivors is complicated by estranged family relationships, emotional impasses, and conflict between victim’s and perpetrator’s extended families. Irresolvable binds contribute to chronic conditions including loneliness, anger, and feelings of betrayal. Indeed, intrafamilial homicide divides the loyalties within a person, as well as between family members.

For example, children may both grieve the loss of their father and feel angry at them which can complicate feelings of love and loyalty to both parents. Parents of the perpetrator may feel both protective of their child but also shame for what he did and guilt for trying to protect someone who has also killed their grandchildren.

The Lonaper family had lived with a mentally ill son/brother for years whose frequent hospitalizations were triggered by a refusal to take his medications. Victor killed his sister Brenda after convincing her to let him into the home she shared with her mother Pat. The family lives in fear of another murder because Victor took an insanity plea and will be released at some point from the hospital for the criminally insane. The remaining siblings, Darlene and Tony, are upset with their mother, Pat. She continues to maintain contact with Victor even though she is convinced that Victor really meant to kill her instead of Brenda and will likely do so when he gets out of the hospital. Darlene and Pat describe how their concerns about the future have driven a wedge between them.

Darlene: My mother told me that she intends to keep some contact with Victor after he gets out and trying to monitor him, make sure that he’s taking his medication. And this just threw me for a loop because I have been intensely planning my future of how I am going to get away from here and cut contact and hide from Victor basically, completely hide. And the fact that my mother intends to keep some contact, that makes it very difficult. How am I going to keep the contact with my mother when I am trying to hide? I am looking at total exclusion from my family. It’s my only choice because I feel I need to be safe.

Pat: My first reaction when I heard he murdered Brenda was, “Oh, poor Victor. He must feel so terrible.” And the farther I get from that and the more I see him I just realize that he really doesn’t have a clue as to the impact of her death on so many people. I always had hope that he would get better but now I don’t care. If Victor gets out. I want to be the magnet that he’s drawn to, the one that he comes to first so that the rest of them don’t get it.

In addition to splitting the family, adult survivors struggle with reactions that are likely more intense because the survivors are related to the perpetrator by blood or marriage. Darlene Lonaper continues to feel terror about the murder because the nightmare continues since the she is related to Victor and, therefore, may have possible contact in the future. “If he ever gets out, I’ll be changing my name, moving, cutting virtually all my contacts with my past life in an effort to protect me and my family.”

It is also common for family members to feel betrayed because the person they knew and trusted turned out to be someone else. A couple whose son-in-law, Jeff, murdered their daughter still cannot comprehend the level of his deception. “He’s a person who came inside this house. He slept overnight. He sent me flowers. He was the father’s golfing buddy. How could we be so taken in. How could we be so stupid?” The perpetrators’ legal defense often feeds the betrayal because it now appears duplicitous. “Jeff went into the house and staged a break in and decided he would plead not guilty. He didn’t say he didn’t kill her or he did kill her. He just said ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ ”

Although homicide survivors generally feel unremitting rage, the anger felt by survivors of domestic fatalities can be differentiated because it is often tied not only to their helplessness but also to their profound sense of betrayal, which is made even stronger because people have a history together and are still related to each other even if they have no contact. A father whose daughter was killed by her husband described the size and unrelenting quality of his fury and his efforts to distance himself from the murderer: “For a long time I thought about him a lot and more than I thought about my daughter. That bothered me. And every time I would try to move my daughter forward, I couldn’t seem to get her by him. I can tell you right now how much I hate him. He is like a bad seed. He is like sin and I hate all those things. It borders on rage at times so you see spots in front of your eyes. We go down to the prison and just look at that damn prison. Can you believe that? The betrayal. We even buried our daughter with her maiden instead of her married name. I just can’t even call her __________ so she’s buried under ___________.”

The trauma from domestic homicide is enduring and causes long-range changes in the way people function. Moreover, recovery has a chronic quality because of the ongoing stressors and conflicting responses following the murder. Some adult survivors increase their alcohol consumption to deal with aftermath. Others keep themselves exceptionally busy. Others succumb to a life-long depression. A man who lost his sister said, “I think the day my Mom heals is probably going to be the day she dies. I don’t think she’ll ever get over it.”

Seeking Help and Available Services

For the children who remain, many of them are left to manage on their own. In the short run, they need help navigating the various agencies they have to deal with. Children interviewed by police may worry that they will be accused of being responsible for the death. Autopsies may be confusing because the child perceives additional violence is being done to the victim. In the long run, they will need help throughout their development because as they grow older and their vocabulary increases, they may have new memories and begin to understand things differently which can add to their stress. The majority of children affected by domestic homicide are under 10 years of age. Studies indicate that many of them never receive therapy, delay getting help, or see a professional only once. Indeed, children may even resist counseling because it feels to them like forced self revelation. Goals of treatment for these children include relief of suffering and resolution of trauma symptoms, clarification of cognitive or emotional distortions about the homicide, provision of a supportive environment in which the child may continue to work through the experience is needed in the future, and minimization of future problems as a result of the trauma. The behavior of adult survivors who were children when the murder happened, also gives some indication of what they needed as children. Specifically adults survivors try to make meaning of their lives by discovering as much as possible about the homicide, assigning a reason for what the perpetrator did, relying on religious prescription for understanding, or finding some way to make peace with the perpetrator.

Studies indicate that the presence of a strong figure in the lives of these children helps bolster them through the turmoil. Other protective factors include effective coping skills, bonding with trusted adults, a safe place to go outside the home, and education regarding interpersonal relationships including healthy and unhealthy behaviors and their consequences, achievements including success at school, and good relationships between siblings.

Adult survivors follow an unusual pattern in obtaining services. A study of help-seeking behavior found that they used services in the initial eight-weeks following the homicide more than adult survivors of non familial homicides. However, their outreach decreased in the subsequent eight weeks. It is possible that their conflicted feelings toward the relationships with the perpetrators and their guilt and shame may result in self isolation, keeping issues in the family, or the avoidance of experiences that can trigger painful and ambivalent emotions. Services for families of the perpetrators may also be limited. Although they too grieve the loss of children in a murder suicide as well as the loss of their son, victim service agencies may not contact them because they are already providing services to members of the mother’s family. It is likely, therefore, that both children and adults need special services because of their unique survivor issues. For example, families may need help determining whether children should have or not have contact with the perpetrator.

Few services exist, however, and survivors often report that the therapist has little understanding of their problems. An observer made the following remarks about survivors: “[They] were obliged to find their own ways to heal, because their suffering was so deep and intense that existing services lacked the experience or capacity to deliver what was needed. The survivors’ families came and went in a haze, and were in no doubt affected by their own grief and the lack of services. Overall, I was left with the feeling that the survivors’ families were all, in some ways, isolated by their own trauma, and the inability of others to meet their needs.”

The vast majority of states have domestic violence fatality review teams (DVFRT) that review the facts and circumstances of all fatal family violence incidents that occur within a designated geographic area. The purpose of these agencies is to utilize a multi-agency and confidential process to identify gaps in the system that can lead to more effective prevention policy and coordinated strategies. Although these teams have been in existence since the mid 1990’s, almost no information has been gathered on either the children or adult survivors. Past and current studies continue to show that family members are in need of considerable help in the aftermath of the homicide. DVFRTs provide avenues for both the gathering of information about survivor’s needs and the recommendation of services.

If DVFRTs could expand their focus of inquiry, survivors of intrafamilial homicide might be given advocates who could speak on their behalf and support them through the tragedy.

Marilyn Peterson Armour, Ph.D., MSW
University of Texas at Austin
1925 San Jacinto Blvd
Austin, TX 78712