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Ethical safeguards mean the effect of domestic homicide on children is rarely researched. Shutterstock

When mothers are killed by their partners, children often become ‘forgotten’ victims. It’s time they were given a voice

Last month, eight women died as the result of male violence in Australia. Five were within one week. In six of the cases, the alleged perpetrator was a current or former partner.

These figures seem all too familiar. This time last year, seven of the nine women allegedly killed by a male perpetrator were in the context of an intimate relationship. And like this time last year, media coverage, national and political outcry remained relatively limited.

Read more: After a deadly month for domestic violence, the message doesn't appear to be getting through

But there’s another side to the crisis of women being killed by an abusive partner or ex-partner that remains somewhat invisible in national conversations. In most of these cases, the women killed were mothers.

While children remain physically unharmed in many intimate partner homicides, they experience trauma and abandonment. All face the loss of the victim parent who also tends to be their protector and primary carer.

Many children also face the loss of the perpetrator parent. In some cases it’s because the perpetrator takes his own life. In others, because the perpetrator is facing years in prison.

Yet, children become forgotten victims when their protector parent is killed as ethical safeguards stop them from being included in the public narrative. It’s time we better understood their trauma beyond their immediate grief by giving them their own voice.

Children are more often treated as witnesses, not victims

Research has shown for at least two decades that children’s exposure to domestic and family violence, along with other adverse childhood experiences, can have lasting effects on their social, emotional and cognitive development.

Read more: Domestic abuse or genuine relationship? Our welfare system can't tell

More recently, we have begun to understand the negative impact on children’s brain development when growing up with domestic violence.

Negative developmental outcomes can include problems at school, early onset mental health problems, substance misuse, an increased risk of suicidal feelings and an increased risk of using or experiencing domestic family violence in their own future relationships.

And it doesn’t just impact children’s well-being – exposure to domestic violence is costly. A recent Australian study by Deloitte Access Economics highlighted that, if left unaddressed, childhood trauma costs the Australian economy more than A$34 billion each year.

In the homicides that occurred last month, four of the six women killed by an intimate partner or ex-partner (called intimate partner homicide) were identified as mothers. They reportedly left a total of eight children behind.

But we rarely hear about the impact of intimate partner homicide on children. While this is partly to keep children out of media reporting, it fails to acknowledge the wider impact of intimate partner homicide and the need for child-centered support mechanisms.

In research, children are understood as primary victims, but in the public narrative and service responses, children continue to be treated as witnesses whose needs are automatically addressed by addressing the domestic violence of their parents.

Responses to children exposed to domestic violence often end when the exposure is seen as resolved. This may be through parental arrest or the removal of children by child protection.

The availability of ongoing trauma-informed recovery support for children exposed to parental domestic violence remains scarce.

However, evidence derived from studies (such as from Deloitte Access Economics and an Adverse Childhood Experiences study) clearly highlight, if forgotten at the time of initial intervention, children carry the lifelong burden of parental domestic violence and homicide.

Limited research on how domestic homicide affects children

The many studies on non-fatal domestic violence suggests the victim parent also tends to act as a protective parent and counterbalances some of the negative effects of the perpetrator parent.

But little remains known about the outcomes and recovery needs of children when the domestic violence does become fatal and a parent is killed. This is partly due to a lack of research in this area.

One of the few studies conducted on how domestic homicides impact children highlights the excessive trauma they suffer when one parent or carer is killed by another. While many children have been desensitised by repeat prior exposure to non-fatal parental violence, the loss of the protective parent is often beyond comprehension.

Read more: ‘Silent victims’: royal commission recommends better protections for child victims of family violence

Stringent ethical safeguards often restrict the inclusion of children in research. This applies in particular when children fall into highly vulnerable categories, such as “victims of trauma”, and means researchers at times can’t include children in their studies.

As a result, research evidence is primarily based on parent and practitioner voices.

However, a number of researchers in Australia argued in 2012 for the inclusion of children in ethically safe research on domestic family violence.

They write their inclusion can lead to deeper findings about children’s lives that can inform otherwise adult-centric research, policy and practice initiatives.

Giving children a voice

An innovative University of Melbourne research project from 2017 highlighted children are keen to have a say in research that relates to their well-being.

More importantly, it revealed children have expectations of their relationship with the perpetrator parent.

Children’s needs are not simply addressed by responding to parents in their roles as victims or perpetrators through victim support or perpetrator interventions.

Many children will have ongoing contact with the perpetrator parent whether victims separate or not. In some cases, even when the perpetrator kills the other parent and removes the protective parent from the child’s life.

Read more: Another stolen generation looms unless Indigenous women fleeing violence can find safe housing

Children therefore need ongoing support to assist their recovery process. And they should have a say about the type of relationship they are willing to maintain or rebuild with the perpetrator parent and the expectations they have for the remaining parent to make amends.

This seems to be particularly crucial at a time where a member of parliament raised claims mothers make up tales of domestic violence in court proceedings designed to protect their children.

If we continue to ignore children as victims in their own right, we exacerbate the experiences of a forgotten group that grows up to endure the long-term impact of childhood trauma long beyond the immediate grief for their mothers and the prison sentence of their fathers.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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