Every year, the 25th of November marks the start of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence – an issue affecting millions of women worldwide.
Sometimes gender-based violence is fatal and at the hands of intimate partners – often known as domestic homicide. In most, but not all, cases it’s women who are killed by men.
And many are parents.
The children who are left behind are often invisible, silenced or stigmatised. While their life is profoundly altered by the homicide, there is little support.
This needs to, and can, change.
AN INSIGHT INTO THE AFTERMATH
To understand the aftermath of a parent’s death due to domestic homicide, our team is undertaking a study with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh to highlight key areas where we, as a society, need to improve (see our new research report).
We need to think about how an experience of domestic homicide affects the identity of these children.
About who they are in the face of such a traumatic event and how mental health care in the aftermath should include a clear focus on identity-based distress.
We need to think about their experiences at home.
Home may not have been a sanctuary in the first place, but after domestic homicide, these children are often moved around – to other family members, caregivers or the foster care system.
And then there’s school, which may provide the only stable and predictable environment in the lives of children affected by the tragedy of fatal domestic violence. That said, there’s a lack of resourcing.
Schools should be recognised as central supportive environments for children bereaved by domestic homicide and similar experiences, then resourced appropriately to provide a trauma-informed environment and ongoing assistance.
We need to think about a child’s right to have a say in the fundamental decisions that affect their lives after losing a parent to homicide – like who they live with or whether they have contact with a perpetrator who is also their remaining parent.
These considerations must be embedded in law and policy consistently, but also in society.
And we also need to think about the narratives that are imposed on the children, young people and even adults who were bereaved as a child.
They are regularly confronted with stigma and people making assumptions about them. By claiming control over their personal stories, these now mostly grown children are gaining a stronger sense of agency and self-acceptance.
These insights come from our in-depth interviews with young people and adults with lived experience, as well as caregivers and professionals, in Australia, the UK and Ireland.
THE TIME FOR CHANGE
An important aspect of this research, funded by the Australian Research Council, has been the involvement of people with lived experience of losing a parent to domestic homicide.
We have worked together in the design of the research, the interviews and the analysis, and continue to collaborate – for example, by developing peer support initiatives.
Now is the time for change – in our policies, practices and society. This change is absolutely possible; the people we interviewed came up with actionable suggestions.
We’ll give you three examples.
Firstly, there is a need for dedicated evidence-based therapeutic support to the children and the adults in their lives.
It should be trauma-and grief-focused, without a limit to the number of sessions and with the possibility to ‘dip in’ and ‘out’ in later stages.
We know that in the direct aftermath, there’s a high need for support – but that this can wax and wane over the years after, well into adulthood.
Secondly, to support child protection, education and other professionals working with children and families after domestic homicide, there must be more concrete guidance. One aspect of this guidance is to ensure there are specialists available for consultation.
Another aspect is guidance materials. Considering the huge variety of scenarios that children and families deal with, these may not be ‘hard rules’ but can be a list of questions and recommendations.
For example, ‘are we creating genuine opportunities for this child to influence decisions about their life?’ would be a key question on this list.
Thirdly, people with lived experience have expressed a strong interest in developing peer support initiatives and opportunities for advisory roles when it comes to practical changes.
This will inform better outcomes and can provide meaningful connections for people with lived experience and others who “get it.”
HELPFUL AND HOPEFUL
Beyond these practical ideas, bigger, more complex changes are needed as well.
Often, these children are silenced or stigmatised. They are told, implicitly or explicitly, that they were too young to be truly affected, and that they should be over it by now. Or, in contrast, that they are damaged beyond repair or doomed to be like their parents.
None of these narratives are helpful.
Rather, as a society, we should aim to engage, even though these situations are incredibly difficult, charged and painful.
We need to de-stigmatise where possible in our daily lives, to make sure that children and young people know and feel that they are welcome to share their stories, in their own words and on their own terms.
One example of this happening is in a documentary. On January 31st, 1985, Kathryn Joy lost their mother to domestic violence. Their story – called KillJoy by Fringe Dweller Films – will premiere in 2024.
Let’s not only improve direct mental health care and services available to children and families, but also how we show that we care, as a society.
Let’s engage, rather than look away.
This article is part of a series on the impact of domestic homicide on children and young people. While there are usually one or two authors mentioned, the whole research team and several people with lived experience have contributed. The illustrations have been hand drawn by Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail). The research report contains further information.
Are you looking for support? In Australia, good places to start are Kids Helpline, Life Line, Beyond Blue and 1800 Respect. These are all free of charge. You can also contact your doctor (GP) to discuss a subsidised Mental Health Treatment Plan, and you may be able to access counselling through your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your TAFE/university’s counselling services. You may also be eligible for support, counselling or financial assistance through your state or territory Victims of Crime service.
Are you keen to connect with peers? If you have lost a parent due to fatal family violence, we can connect you with peers with lived experience. Please send an email.
Banner: Thu Huong Nguyen (Abigail)