Understanding the far-reaching impact of familicide

Neil Websdale

by Neil Websdale
Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Familicide refers to the deliberate killing within a relatively short period of time of a current or former spouse or intimate partner and one or more of their children, which is often followed by the suicide of the perpetrator. Fortunately, these kinds of killings are rare and appear to be a product of modern life in the developed world.

Research into this phenomenon strives to understand the relationship between intimate partner violence, control and emotional capital. For instance, an emotional continuum can help us understand the range of perpetrators’ emotional styles, especially in relation to their management of anger, rage, hostility and aggression.

It was often presumed that male-perpetrated spousal homicide was a final exertion of power and control over their wives. But fatality review teams are occasionally finding something else at the heart of familicide in the modern world—perpetrators who suffer an intense sense of shame about their masculinity, much of it unacknowledged or bypassed. This shame functions to isolate, and at times, to ostracize individuals. Like many mass killers and serial killers, they are socially disconnected and display a nominal sense of self.

While most familicide perpetrators have a track record of violence, some have no known history of domestic violence or intimate terrorism. These seemingly civil and often reputable men are frequently quiet, subdued, respectable, upstanding citizens who killed because their lives were spinning out of control. Bankruptcy, unemployment, destitution, familial dissolution or some other calamity profoundly undermined their sense of masculinity. Initial and exploratory research suggests the perpetration of familicide by civil, reputable offenders increases during difficult economic times.

When familicide occurs, it exacts a heavy toll on communities. Because familicide rarely leaves survivors, researchers try to re-create the case through a victim’s eyes by meeting with family members of the victims and gathering expert input from police, judges, social workers, medical personnel, attorneys and advocates.

The review includes analyses of systems, such as law enforcement or victim advocacy, to determine the levels of coordination, collaboration and communication between them in the handling of domestic violence cases.

Researchers are asked why we use resources for review that could be directed to those living under threat of domestic violence and need services. Our hope is to improve ways we support, protect and serve victims by transforming the seeming maze of services to present a clear array of choices and resources.

As we continue to research domestic violence and familicide, researchers hope to develop knowledge to identify possible perpetrators of these atrocities and effective methods of intervention.

Editor’s note: The above blog first appeared on Academic Minute and Inside Higher Ed on Jan. 22.