Family Homicide: Debunking Two Persistent Myths

Family Homicide: Debunking Two Persistent Myths

The present-day low rate in family homcides demonstrates that we have been doing something right in bringing it down to the level it is today. But we're not there yet.

A new overview by Dutch magazine Elsevier documents all 137 homicides committed in The Netherlands in 2014. A quick analysis of these homicides shows that 35 of these homicides involved family members, the majority of which (ex) intimate partners. Six cases involved children killing their parents, and seven cases involved parents killing their children. Four cases involved homicides of other family members. These figures debunk at least two persistent myths: One, that family murders are on the rise. And two, that children are the most common victim.

To start off with the first myth: Family murders are not on the rise. As opposed to gang-related homicides or homicides resulting from fights between men, lethal violence in the domestic sphere has remained relatively constant over the last decades. It has not always been like this. In earlier times, when marital ties could not easily be broken, episodes in which intimate partner violence turned deadly were much more frequent. Now that divorce laws have been liberalized, the stigma associated with being an abused spouse has been lifted, and women gained economic independence, women have been less likely to stay in an abusive relationship. In addition, interventions such as restraining orders, shelters for battered women and mandatory ‘cooling off’ periods for abusive men have contributed to an overall low incidence of intimate partner homicide.

In spite of these positive changes, the good news is tempered when considering the eighteen people who lost their lives in 2014 at the hands of their current or former intimate partner. In such cases, people naively wonder whether the victim could not get a divorce, or simply walk away? Contemporary studies, however, consistently show that the risk of being killed by an intimate partner is highest in face of restraining orders, impeding divorce or other initiatives by wives or girlfriends to escape or end the relationship. Further, in many instances, there are simply no previous warning signs to the outside world to intervene – there was no previous abuse and there were no previous threats to kill.

In terms of the second myth: In domestic homicides, children are not the most common victim. Intimate partners are. Similar to intimate partner homicides, the child homicide rate has also remained fairly constant over the last years. This is oftentimes attributed to the fact that child homicides are ‘abnormal homicides’: They go against our innate biological drive to procreate – destroying what you have created defies all natural laws. Therefore, scholars typically point to the overwhelming influence of ‘abnormal factors’, such as the role of mental disorder in these types of crimes. As the prevalence of severe mental disorder remains relatively constant over time, so do homicides associated with it. Again, similar to intimate partner homicides, such child homicides are very difficult to rule out completely. That is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t keep trying. The present-day low rate demonstrates that we have been doing something right in bringing it down to the level it is today.