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When a parent is killed: family tragedy is often a mark of our broader failings

The many people who are mourning the loss of Phil Walsh should also reflect on what we as a society can do to help families avoid such tragedies. AAP/Ben Macmahon

When a parent is killed: family tragedy is often a mark of our broader failings

The tragic death of Adelaide AFL coach Phil Walsh has once again brought the issue of family violence to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Family homicides account for 41% of murders in Australia, with the majority of those being intimate partner homicides. Parricide, or an individual killing their parent(s), accounted for 4.8% of homicides in the ten years to June 30, 2012. It is our third-most-common form of family homicide.

Australia’s rate of parricide is comparable to that reported for other Western nations, which range from 2-6% of homicides. Averaging out to around one death a month, parricide causes significant shock and confusion within the community. With a private memorial service for Walsh being held at Adelaide Oval on Wednesday, the question for the community is what can be done to reduce the number of such tragedies.

Current research indicates that offenders tend to fall into one of two basic categories: younger offenders, often in their late teens, who appear to have been victims of ongoing abuse; and older offenders, typically in their mid-20s, who are found to have been suffering from a psychotic episode. As a result of these two issues of abuse and mental illness, many families suffer in silence and shame, but their suffering is often a consequence of a broader failure of society to face up to and act on these social problems.

What we know about parricide

Parricide offences in Australia typically involve adult sons killing fathers (patricide), although sons killing their mother (matricide) does occur. A daughter killing her parent(s) appears to be far less common in Australia than in other Western countries.

In general, offenders tend to be residing with the victim and may have displayed problems with alcohol and/or drug abuse in the preceding months.

Overkill (the use of excessive violence) has been noted by several authors. The most common cause of death is stabbing, even in America where firearms are more readily available. This suggests the incidents tend to be spontaneous rather than planned. Parricide offences most often occur in the home of the victim.

Early explanations for parricide relied on psychodynamic theories and tended to be based on notions of unresolved incestuous desires and conflict. Those explanations have been largely rejected by what little research has been conducted into parricide.

The research that is available is beginning to provide some understanding of these events. The findings indicate that there may be two basic categories of parricide offenders.

Links between young offenders and abuse

Younger offenders, often in their late teens, usually appear to have been victims of ongoing abuse by their parents. Their offences tend to be sudden, unpredictable and without prior indicators.

In June 2012, Horace Jones stabbed his mother multiple times and was found guilty of murder. Jones’ sister later publicly substantiated her brother’s claims of ongoing severe abuse at the hands of his mother. The parricide event is thought to be a final desperate attempt to escape this abuse.

In addition to experiencing direct abuse, a number of adolescent parricide offenders have been found to have witnessed severe domestic violence between their parents. A significant number of adolescent offenders are subsequently diagnosed with personality disorders, often antisocial personality disorder.

Mental health is key to older offenders

Older parricide offenders, often in their mid-twenties, have often been categorised as mentally ill. The majority of offenders in this category were found to be suffering from a psychotic episode at the time of the killing. Most adult parricide offenders suffer from a severe mental illness with a diagnosis of schizophrenia being common, along with paranoid delusions.

Nicolau Soares murdered his mother and step-father in December 2012. He was suffering from schizophrenia with paranoid delusions and was refusing to take his medication at the time of the offence. Soares’ brother later issued a statement criticising the mental health system.

In December last year, Gabe Lang was taken to Fremantle Hospital Mental Health Service but failed to receive adequate treatment because the clinic had no after-hours service. Only hours after returning home, Lange killed his mother and injured other members of his family before inflicting serious wounds on himself.

Between 70% and 75% of parricides by a mentally ill offender occur without prior warning signs. While mental illness may not be apparent prior to the killing in all cases, the individual may have displayed irrational or disorganised behaviour. The relevance of this behaviour becomes apparent only in hindsight.

Symptoms of a broader social pathology

One letter to the media following Walsh’s death claimed that:

… domestic violence is not primarily a social and moral problem.

Phil Walsh’s death may hold broader lessons for us as a society. AAP/Facebook

This view does a clear disservice to families struggling with issues of family violence and/or mental illness. All forms of family violence should be seen as symptoms of social pathology.

At the very least, families struggling with these issues often do so in silence. Matilda Gilbert certainly felt that her family’s struggle against her mother’s violence was ignored by authorities, despite the children’s pleas for help. In much the same way, Soares and Lang’s parents suffered the disastrous consequences of a failing mental health service.

Families are stigmatised by the public, experience discrimination and are even blamed for their child’s mental health problems. Families battling with a drug-addicted child are judged even more and blamed for the onset of their family member’s drug use. The level of shame families experience in these situations causes them to remain silent.

And our society’s broader failure to acknowledge and do more to help families tackle the causes of that shame and silence all too often results in tragedy.


For help or information regarding domestic violence call the 24-hour helpline and counselling service on 1800 737 732, or go to 1800respect.org.au