Survivors, Not Victims: Children of Murdered Parents
By Mary Liepold
Illustration by James Melvin
Of the many remarkable things about Darline, the most striking is that she is at the same time both phenomenally calm and phenomenally energetic. What she brings to her job as Director of Finance and Operations for a national nonprofit, beyond her solid business and accounting background, is the rare ability to chart a clear path through a maze of tangled systems.
In her spare time, she is a volunteer firefighter with up-to-date training in disaster preparedness, and she coaches a young women's boxing team preparing for the 2008 Olympics. Besides the Olympics, her dreams for the future include adopting lots of older children and managing a bed and breakfast for international visitors in the nation's capital. Her daughter, who wants to be a chef, would operate the restaurant on the first floor. It's easy to see Darline presiding over an orderly hubbub of challenging young people and cosmopolitan guests, because everything she does comes from a core of inner certainty.
But this serene adult grew up in a violent and chaotic household. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, and her parents battled constantly. Her mother lost a leg in a car accident as a result of his drunken driving. On Christmas Eve of the year Darline was 7, her mother shot and killed her father. The ruling was justifiable homicide.
When Children Witness
Since 2002, Barbara Parker and Richard Steeves at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Nursing have been studying survivors of uxoricide--children with a parent who murdered the other parent. 1 By a conservative estimate, parental homicide affects more than 3,000 U.S. children annually. Exact numbers are hard to come by--police records don't always mention children, and they may not mention the adults' relationship unless they are married--but Parker and Steeves calculate that children in the United States are more likely to see a parent murdered in any given year than to contract leukemia.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates that during the 1990s, more than 20,000 people died at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. According to DOJ's Office of Justice Programs (OJP), between 1993 and 2003, 49% of all violent incidents in the United States were crimes against a spouse, and spouse murders comprised 9% of all homicides.
Nonetheless, OJP also reports that the rate of family violence nationwide has fallen sharply, from an estimated 5.4 incidents per 1,000 individuals older than 12 in 1993, down to 2.1 per 1,000 in 2003. This is in keeping with a decline over the last decade in violent crimes of all types for which we have national statistics. Domestic violence programs, shelters for battered spouses, and services that strengthen families can share the credit with economics and other factors for preventing some lethal incidents.
Still, even a single such incident is a catastrophe. Searching for a statistical handhold, Parker and Steeves have found research showing that children were in the home in 63% of uxoricides, and they either witnessed the murder or found the body in 43%. In Parker and Steeves' home state of Virginia, that would involve roughly 108 children in one year alone.
A book-length British study, When Father Kills Mother (2000), described what happened to a group of 95 such children in the short term: 52% went to relatives, 30% to foster homes, and 10% to institutions. Almost 75% of them moved from one placement to another in the first year, and 13 moved three or more times.
The UVA researchers wanted to find out what becomes of these children over the long term. Once they secured funding from the National Institutes of Health for a study, they began looking for adult survivors who could tell them how they coped and what was helpful and unhelpful in their own experiences. The youngest of the first seven volunteers were in their late 20s, and most were considerably older. The team conducted unstructured interviews, inviting participants to tell their stories, then used content analysis to organize what they heard.
Three findings emerged from these first seven interviews, and all three held constant in a larger study as well. First, and most surprising to the researchers, was that most of the children had wanted to reconnect with the assailant. They forgave abusive fathers who had killed their mothers, as well as abused mothers who had finally taken enough and struck back. Three beliefs seemed to shape their thinking, though not all were present in each case:
The Virginia authors cite earlier studies, which posit that bereaved children have to negotiate three tasks:
- Their religion called for forgiveness.
- The parents' alcoholism or mental illness reduced their culpability.
- Families should stay together no matter what.
All three tasks are particularly difficult when a parent is murdered. Maintaining a bond with the assailant parent was how these children had chosen to accomplish the second, a way to soften the pain of separation.
- Accept the reality of what happened.
- Find ways to tolerate the pain.
- Loosen the affective bonds with the deceased and make the energy available for other relationships.
Parker and Steeves' second finding was closely related. They observed that children's efforts to suppress anger, to rationalize the violence and normalize it so they could go on with their lives, created a double-edged sword. It allowed the young people to hold on to precious family connections, but it also seemed to predispose them to a tolerance for violence. Domestic violence researchers Murray Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz concluded in 1980 that sons who observe violent fathers have a 1,000% greater chance of becoming violent with their own partners than do boys from nonviolent homes.
Six of the original seven in the UVA study either became abusive themselves or entered abusive relationships, although all later freed themselves to some extent.
One man came from a large family in rural Virginia. His mother had taken the children and returned to her parents' home to get away from an abusive partner. One Sunday morning, returning from church, they saw a strange car in front of the house. The mother went to investigate, and the father opened fire from the car, killing her. The grandparents raised the children.
The son who participated in the study later shot his own wife--but he did not kill her. He served his time, he found his faith, and he is now a strong member of his church, as well as a valued employee. He looks out for the young people in the workplace, and he was very proud when a young woman introduced him to her father as "my dad at work." Like others who participated in the study, he is aware of his own propensity for violence. He manages it by enjoying social relationships, but keeping people at a safe distance.
Parker and Steeves' third research finding: "Some of the children of uxoricide prosper," Parker says. "The well-adjusted are telling us how they are well-adjusted."
Darline is extraordinary, but she is not unique. Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron is still close to her mother, but when she was 15 in her native South Africa, her mother killed her father in self-defense. The director who cast Theron in Monster sensed the survivor's grit that made this former model more than just another pretty face.
One of the male participants in the UVA study, whose mother was murdered by an ex-boyfriend 25 years ago, now works as an advocate for abused women and their children. Another survivor, Jeff, spent years feeling angry, isolated, and even suicidal. As he tells his story, a flash of insight came to him one day when he was able to walk away from a fight with his girlfriend and sit down to reflect.
I could see my life from the outside, and I could see the ways in which I was blinded by being inside who I was...And within 10 minutes I asked Mary to marry me...Now all the things that weren't working before started to work, and I have three great kids and I [have] had a great time being a father...
Jeff's insight may have been possible because he had one dependable adult in his life as he was growing up. An aunt came back from missionary work in rural South America when she learned of the homicide and stayed with the children while their mother was in jail, then in a mental hospital. Although she returned to South America after a year, the aunt continued to be an important presence in their lives.
Parker and Steeves' current full-scale study aims to interview 90 adults, and with a year to go, it's well past the halfway mark. It's among the first to draw domestic violence and bereavement together, and it should yield useful information for people who serve children and families. The team is preparing a second study focusing directly on young children--but because of the difficulties involved in interviewing children, they will base their research on interviews with caregivers.
What Adults Can Do
Although little solid information is available currently, suggestions for adults who want to promote healing come from Parker and Steeves, from published research, and from survivors themselves.
Agencies, Social Workers, and Family Members
- Help family members who are caring for the children to let go of their own anger. This can be anger at the victim as well as the killer. Parker describes an interview with one young man who visited his father in prison until his father died there. The father insisted until the end the mother had deserved to die. The aunt who was raising the boy defended the mother and strongly blamed the father, but the boy would not join her in assigning blame. He told Parker, "Whenever she starts, I think, 'That's half of my gene pool you're talking about.'"
- Reassure children that what happened is not their fault. Boys, in particular, may have fallen into a pattern of protecting the mother, and they may blame themselves for not preventing the crime. Younger children, who frequently engage in magical thinking, may also be likely to blame themselves for the tragic outcome.
- Give them opportunities to talk. This is what survivors overwhelmingly report they needed. Yet many family systems deal with trauma by papering it over and making the subject taboo. A 1988 British study of 28 child witnesses from 14 families found delays in providing therapy, or any emotional support at all, ranging from two weeks to 11 years. 2
- Try to find (or be) at least one person who can serve as a constant for the child. Families are often bitterly divided. Adults may be too focused on their own pain to offer much help to the children. A helper may need to locate extended family members and notify them. Every child needs a rock.
- Be alert to the possibility of suicidal thoughts in the child, both short- and long-term. A child in pain has not had the life experience to know that bad times get better. This risk is especially high in the not-uncommon scenario of a parental murder-suicide. Children of suicides are at higher risk than the general population at every age.
- Encourage survivors and family members to participate in the UVA studies so more knowledge can be gained for the benefit of all. Call toll-free, 866/834-9564; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the website.
Judges and Court Personnel
- Try not to call children as witnesses. When children or family members have to testify, they are usually instructed not to talk about the case before the trial. This runs counter to both children's and adults' needs to process the experience in words. It also prevents adults from understanding children's misperceptions and correcting them. Judges seldom bend down after the trial to tell families it is now okay to talk about the crime. Even if one does, by that time the family may have settled into a pattern of not talking.
- When children must tell their story in court, respect their rights and work to minimize the number of repetitions. Although telling is therapeutic, wounds can be deepened when a child is forced to retell the story in a hostile setting. The Children's Advocacy Center (CAC) model, which protects abused children nationwide, has been effective in many family murder cases. [See "Child Advocacy Centers: Where Kids Come First," opposite.] CAC staff members tell of cases where a videotape of the initial interview was used in court, and others in which the record of a child's first interview led to a confession.
- If at all possible, protect young children from hearing graphic details about the murder or previous family violence. When children must be present in court during painful testimony, provide an opportunity for them to talk about what they have heard with a trusted adult soon afterward.
- Include information about child survivors of uxoricide in training for judges and guardians ad litem. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges said in a recent statement that "the number one barrier to effective representation [for children] is inadequate training."
Healing takes time. Sometimes it takes decades. If child survivors can come to terms with what has happened, at whatever age, and if they can forgive the perpetrator without excusing the violence, survivors can thrive.
- In the immediate aftermath, focus on the children instead of procedures. One brother and sister, in two separate schools, were both called out of class, brought to the principal's office, told there was a family emergency, and then made to sit for what seemed like forever before family members arrived. The school was probably following guidelines, but the procedure was hugely insensitive.
- Make sure children receive age-appropriate therapy. Immediate treatment is best, but even if too much time has gone by without treatment, play therapy, art therapy, family and peer therapy groups, and one-on-one counseling can help children confront the loss and move beyond it.
- Furnish the children's classmates with skills to help, and monitor interactions carefully. A positive peer culture can promote healing. Conversely, allowing the traumatized child to become either a scapegoat or a bully will exacerbate the existing injury.
One man in the Virginia study admired a brother who visited their father in prison, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Finally he made up his mind to visit--as it turned out, just a year before the father's death. He told his brother, "Tie me up, throw me off the porch if you need to, but don't let me hit him. I may try to, but I don't want to do that." Later he told the researchers:
I think had I not seen him all this time he might still have had a hold on me. But when I went back, and physically and every other way it was like I was larger than him...that released me a lot...You say, 'Well, I don't have to forgive him.' Because what he did was of course unforgivable. However, you don't have to always carry all this hatred and fear, and so I was working on myself as well.
As for Darline, her mother's boyfriend moved in after her father's death, but the boyfriend turned out to be a convicted child molester, much more interested in Darline and her sisters than in their mother, who was in a wheelchair and suffering from a brain tumor that eventually paralyzed her remaining limbs. The abuse lasted six years, until the mother's death. The children went to live in the country with their father's mother, whom they had not seen since his funeral. There was no running water, and the girls had to chop wood for heat. The farm chores were endless, and relationships were strained.
Darline rebelled and ran away several times, but she never stopped going to school. Her chemistry teacher's family offered encouragement and a refuge in the toughest times. She went to live with them permanently when she was 17. When it looked like high school might be the end of the road, they and her caring social worker found a program that sent her on a European tour, while they worked at finding the right college.
Theirs was the home she returned to during college breaks. Mom and Dad, as she came to call them, cheered her academic and personal accomplishments and encouraged her to reconcile with her grandmother. When they formally adopted her in 1998, at the age of 37, the announcement cards showed a stork delivering a cheerful young woman in hat and heels, carrying a briefcase. Her gifts included a silver spoon engraved with her initials, which incorporate the name of her adoptive family as a new middle name.
Formerly Director of Individual Giving for CWLA and Editor of Children's Voice, Mary Liepold is Director of Development for Peace x Peace, Vienna, Virginia.
- Although the Latin term denotes the killing of a wife, uxoricide is commonly used for partners of either gender.
- Black, D. & Kaplan, T. (1988). Father Kills Mother: Issues and Problems Encountered by a Child Psychiatric Team. British Journal of Psychiatry, 153: 624-630.
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