com Family Safety Current Trends - About Domestic Homicide and Murder-Suicide By Katherine van Wormer, MSSW, PhD Introduction Facts on Domestic Homicide Situations on Domestic Murder Suicide Risk Factors Prevention Helping the Surviving Members Cope How Social Workers Help Introduction Intimate partner violence is all too common throughout the world and takes many forms. The most serious of these is homicide by an intimate partner. The fear of being killed, in fact, is a major dynamic in male-on-female violence and sometimes in motivating women to kill the perpetrator of abuse out of fear or desperation. Facts on Domestic Homicide In the U.S., estimates than three women a day intimate partners more these murders involved from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) are that more are killed by their intimate partners. Women are killed by often than by another acquaintance of stranger. Most of were preceded by physical and psychological abuse.
Outside the domestic realm, males are killed much more often than females; they are killed most often in fights with other men. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 1,055 women and 287 men were murdered by their intimate partners in 2005. These figures are striking, because in the past, in the 1970s and earlier, the numbers of men and women so victimized were about even. In other words, there has been a significant decline in the numbers of men killed by their partners but not for women. The number of men who were murdered by intimates dropped 2005 (BJS). The number of black females murdered in this number of white females murdered has dropped only by 6%. 2005), similarly, reveals a sharp decline in the numbers victims but not of female victims of homicide. by 75% between 1976 and time has declined but the Statistics Canada (1998, of male domestic homicide
The reason that women are resorting less to murder of their partners is most likely because many of these women were battered women who felt trapped in a dangerous situation. Today, the presence of violence prevention programming and the availability of shelters are paving the way to other options. The fact that domestic violence services apparently are saving the lives of more men than women is a positive, though unintended consequence of the women’s shelter movement (see van Wormer and Bartollas, 2007). Situations of Domestic Murder Suicide The National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) is a recently developed statebased surveillance system that includes data from 17 states as of 2007. Now for the first time, a national data base exists that reveals the numbers of homicides that end in suicide. The goal is to collect data on homicide for all 50 states. Results so far reveal that over 90% of the perpetrators of murder-suicide are male. About one third of these male perpetuated homicides end in suicide. (Data
available at www.nvdrs.com.) These results are consistent with those of the Violence Policy Center (VPC). The VPC bases their findings on an Internet search of media accounts of deaths by murder-suicide. VPC reports that a total of 591 murder-suicide deaths took place nationwide in the six months between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2005. As reported by the Violence Policy Center (2005), the pattern of the murdersuicide is predictable: the pattern involves a male perpetrator, female victim, a decision by the woman to leave the man, and a gun. A handgun was used in 92% of the incidents. The offender was 6.3 years older on average than the victim. Texas had the highest number of cases; the typical Florida pattern involved an elderly male caregiver overwhelmed by his inability to care for an infirmed wife. Some researchers argue that murder is the primary motive in such cases; others point to the double and multiple killings as a form of extended suicide (van Wormer and Bartollas, 2007). The urge to kill can be described as an urge toward total self-destruction including the destruction of the person who rejected him. The pattern that emerges in these cases involves intimate partners in the 20 to 35-year-old range: The man is abusive, psychologically and/or physically. Obsessed with the woman to the extent that he feels he can’t live without her, he is fiercely jealous and determined to isolate her. Characteristically, suicidal murderers have little regard for the lives of other people; they would be considered, in mental health jargon, to be antisocial. Yet they are so emotionally dependent on their wives or girlfriends that they would sooner be dead than to live without them. When the girlfriend/wife makes a move to leave, her partner is absolutely distraught in the belief that he can’t live without her. Risk Factors No standard risk assessment of people who are likely to kill their intimate partners is available. However, we can filter out from the literature on domestic homicide certain key variables. Primary among the risk factors are an abuser’s lack of employment compounded by a lack of education. Significant relationship variables are plans by the wife or partner to separate from her abuser and having a child in the home who is not the partner’s biological child. Other factors that can help predict homicide are an abuser’s heavy use of alcohol and illicit drugs, a history of sexual jealousy, growing up in a violent home, violence and verbal abuse, an age disparity with the husband being significantly older, a threat of separation by the woman, and antisocial personality and/or an overly dependent personality, stalking and access to firearms. Threats of use of a weapon were common in these cases. Risks for murder-suicide, specifically, are: the man being white and older than the woman, being married, a pattern of pathological jealousy, a history of battering, depression and suicidal ideation, and a threat of separation. The key distinguishing factor between this and the more usual form of domestic homicide is the presence of depression and suicidal ideation. Guns are by far the most common weapon used in these crimes (Violence Policy Center, 2006). One could speculate that if you shoot someone, it is relatively easy to then turn the gun on yourself. If you stab or strangle someone, however, suicide becomes much more difficult. Florida has a high rate of murder-suicide, most of which involve very elderly
people. Cases of elderly murder-suicide are often defined by ambivalence related to caretaking requirements and a sense of helplessness in dealing with the ravages of old age. These cases can be considered altruistic because of the couple’s belief that the world is better off without them. The typical scenario is that the wife with late stage Alzheimer’s is cared for by a devoted but increasingly frail husband who can no longer handle the situation. So instead of calling on family, or going to a nursing home, he takes their lives in his own hands. Prevention Prevention in the case of elder murder suicide is obvious: the answer lies in strengthening the support systems, whether through family members or extensive home health care. Getting family members to remove guns from the home is a sensible first step. Relevant to cases of battered women at risk, health care workers and social workers must respond quickly to gauge the level of danger. All assessments of the situation should start with an evaluation of the psychological harm and physical injury to the victim. Through interviews with the threatened woman, treatment providers should construct a profile of the batterer to analyze in consideration of the risks described above. It is critical to work with the victim to map out an escape route. The victim needs to know, whatever her decision at present, that an escape route is possible. Relocation to another community may be indicated. It is important to document the duration and intensity of battering histories and, in collaboration with the client, to develop a safety plan. The safety plan might involve memorizing relevant phone numbers of domestic violence and legal services, a coded statement that can be conveyed to trusted relatives in telephone calls or email messages, and the storing of duplicates of personal records and resources that the woman and her children might use later in the event of emergency relocation. At the macro level, tightening gun control laws and restricting the access to firearms by convicted batterers is a serious step in reducing rates of lethal violence. States that carefully limit access to guns by individuals under a restraining order have significantly lower rates of intimate partner homicide than do states without these laws. Helping the Surviving Family Members Cope Horror, intense fear, anxiety, nightmares, and rage are normal responses to the abnormal situation of losing a loved one to homicide. Following the initial shock of discovery, family survivors must also cope with the strained reactions of members of the community, demands from the criminal justice system, and intrusions from the media. Sometimes media reports and speculations of what led up to the homicide (such as drug use) are extremely disturbing. Some survivors, especially children who witnessed the fatal attack, may suffer another psychological effect known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Children may face the instantaneous loss of both parents (one from death, the other from suicide or incarceration). Relatives may fight over who takes them or who has to take them. Divisiveness among relatives from both sides of the family may occur. The parents of the murderer often get no empathy and must grieve alone. For all survivors, this is often a time of much questioning of one’s religious faith. Because these situations are too big for ordinary mortals to handle, the counseling demands are great. Fortunately, victims’ assistance services are generally available to help family members on the murder victim’s side endure the ordeal of trial preparation and the trial itself. Local support groups for the families of murdered victims can provide emotional support and advocacy on behalf
of victims’ rights. The National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, for example, is a grass-roots organization that offers guidance and links to support groups in one’s vicinity (website at www.pomc.com.). How Social Workers Help Social work education provides excellent training to work with children and families in situations such as natural disasters and extreme personal crisis. Using a psychosocial-spiritual approach, social workers are equipped to help clients come to terms emotionally with the challenges they face following trauma. In work with children, social workers often draw on cognitive approaches to help them reframe events in a realistic and healthy way to dispel guilt feelings. These professionals will help small children find ways to express their loss and grief through such techniques as symbolic play, use of hand puppets, art therapy, and storytelling. Today, forensic social workers are becoming familiar with restorative justice strategies. These strategies are relevant years after the event of homicide, usually after the offender has spent several years in prison. This victim-oriented process generally involves meetings at the prison between the survivors and the offender. A skilled mediator is always present. Such meetings take place after extensive counseling sessions with all parties to the interaction. The parent survivors prepare statements to be read. Family members often have as their goal to learn details of the murder and to understand why it happened. The offender may welcome an opportunity to express his sorrow and grief at what he has done (refer to www.restorativejustice.org.). ### Related Articles: * * * * * * * About Family Safety Family Safety Current Trends Family Safety: Your Options Family Safety: How Social Workers Help Family Safety Tip Sheets Resources on Family Safety Family Safety Real Life Stories
Katherine van Wormer is Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa and the co-author of Women and the Criminal Justice System (2007), Allyn and Bacon.