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Assessing Children’s Risk for Homicide in the Context of Domestic Violence

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Abstract

Increasing evidence indicates that children are at risk of homicide in the context of domestic violence. Using a retrospective case analysis of 84 domestic homicide cases, this study sought to identify the unique factors that place a child at risk of homicide. Three groups of domestic homicide cases in which there were no children in the home (No Child in the Home, n = 44), a child was targeted (Child Target, n = 13), and a child was present, but not targeted (No Child Target, n = 27) were compared. Overall, there were no significant differences amongst cases involving children (targeted or not) on major factors except for the higher number of agencies involved with couples with children. Few cases had risk assessment or safety plans completed. Despite the study limitations, the findings speak to the need for professionals to assess child risk and include children in safety planning in all cases of domestic violence.

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Correspondence to Peter G. Jaffe.

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We acknowledge the support of the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.

Appendix

Appendix

Definitions of 12 Most Common DVDRC Risk Factors

SEPARATION:

The partner wanted to end the relationship or the perpetrator was separated from the victim but wanted to renew the relationship, or there was a sudden and/or recent separation, or the victim had contacted a lawyer and was seeking a separation and/or divorce.

HISTORY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE:

Any actual, attempted, or threatened abuse/maltreatment (physical, emotional, psychological, financial, sexual, etc.) toward a person who has been in, or is in, an intimate relationship with the perpetrator. This incident did not have to necessarily result in charges or convictions and can be verified by any record (e.g., police reports, medical records) or witness (e.g., family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, counselors, medical personnel, etc.). It could be as simple as a neighbor hearing the perpetrator screaming at the victim or include a co-worker noticing bruises consistent with physical abuse on the victim while at work.

OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOR:

Any actions or behaviors by the perpetrator that indicate an intense preoccupation with the victim. For example, stalking behaviors, such as following the victim, spying on the victim, making repeated phone calls to the victim, or excessive gift giving, etc.

DEPRESSION—OPINION:

In the opinion of any family, friends, or acquaintances, and regardless of whether or not the perpetrator received treatment, the perpetrator displayed symptoms characteristic of depression.

DEPRESSION—DIAGNOSIS:

A diagnosis of depression by any health professional (e.g., family doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, nurse practitioner) with symptoms recognized by the DSM-IV-TR, regardless of whether or not the perpetrator received treatment.

ESCALATION OF VIOLENCE:

The abuse/maltreatment (physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, etc.) inflicted upon the victim by the perpetrator was increasing in frequency and/or severity. For example, this can be evidenced by more regular trips for medical attention or include an increase in complaints of abuse to/by family, friends, or other acquaintances.

THREATS TO KILL:

Any comment made to the victim, or others, that was intended to instill fear for the safety of the victim’s life. These comments could have been delivered verbally, in the form of a letter, or left on an answering machine. Threats can range in degree of explicitness from “I’m going to kill you” to “You’re going to pay for what you did” or “If I can’t have you, then nobody can” or “I’m going to get you.”

THREATS TO COMMIT SUICIDE:

Any recent (past 6 months) act or comment made by the perpetrator that was intended to convey the perpetrator’s idea or intent of committing suicide, even if the act or comment was not taken seriously. These comments could have been made verbally, or delivered in letter format, or left on an answering machine. These comments can range from explicit (e.g., “If you ever leave me, then I’m going to kill myself” or “I can’t live without you”) to implicit (“The world would be better off without me”). Acts can include, for example, giving away prized possessions.

PRIOR SUICIDE ATTEMPTS:

Any recent (past 6 months) suicidal behavior (e.g., swallowing pills, holding a knife to one’s throat, etc.), even if the behavior was not taken seriously or did not require arrest, medical attention, or psychiatric committal. Behavior can range in severity from superficially cutting the wrists to actually shooting or hanging oneself.

VIOLENCE OUTSIDE FAMILY:

Any actual or attempted assault on any person who is not, or has not been, in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator. This could include friends, acquaintances, or strangers. This incident did not have to necessarily result in charges or convictions and can be verified by any record (e.g., police reports, medical records) or witness (e.g., family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, counselors, medical personnel, etc.).

ATTEMPTS TO ISOLATE VICTIM:

Any non-physical behavior, whether successful or not, that was intended to keep the victim from associating with others. The perpetrator could have used various psychological tactics (e.g., guilt trips) to discourage the victim from associating with family, friends, or other acquaintances in the community (e.g., “If you leave, then don’t even think about coming back,” “I never like it when your parents come over,” or “I’m leaving if you invite your friends here”).

SENSE OF FEAR:

The victim is one that knows the perpetrator best and can accurately gauge his level of risk. If the woman discloses to anyone her fear of the perpetrator harming herself or her children, for example statements such as, “I fear for my life,” “I think he will hurt me,” or “I need to protect my children.”

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Hamilton, L.H.A., Jaffe, P.G. & Campbell, M. Assessing Children’s Risk for Homicide in the Context of Domestic Violence. J Fam Viol 28, 179–189 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-012-9473-x

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