Survivors, Not Victims: Children of Murdered Parents

By Liepold, Mary | Children's Voice, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Survivors, Not Victims: Children of Murdered Parents


Liepold, Mary, Children's Voice


Of the many remarkable things about Darline, the most striking is that she is at the same time both phenomenally calm and phenomenally energetic. What she brings to her job as Director of Finance and Operations for a national nonprofit, beyond her solid business and accounting background, is the rare ability to chart a clear path through a maze of tangled systems.

In her spare time, she is a volunteer firefighter with up-to-date training in disaster preparedness, and she coaches a young women's boxing team preparing for the 2008 Olympics. Besides the Olympics, her dreams for the future include adopting lots of older children and managing a bed and breakfast for international visitors in the nation's capital. Her daughter, who wants to be a chef, would operate the restaurant on the first floor. It's easy to see Darline presiding over an orderly hubbub of challenging young people and cosmopolitan guests, because everything she does comes from a core of inner certainty.

But this serene adult grew up in a violent and chaotic household. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, and her parents battled constantly. Her mother lost a leg in a car accident as a result of his drunken driving. On Christmas Eve of the year Darline was 7, her mother shot and killed her father. The ruling was justifiable homicide.

When Children Witness

Since 2002, Barbara Parker and Richard Steeves at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Nursing have been studying survivors of uxoricide-children with a parent who murdered the other parent.' By a conservative estimate, parental homicide affects more than 3,000 U.S. children annually. Exact numbers are hard to come by-police records don't always mention children, and they may not mention the adults' relationship unless they are married-but Parker and Steeves calculate that children in the United States are more likely to see a parent murdered in any given year than to contract leukemia.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimates that during the 1990s, more than 20,000 people died at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. According to DOJ's Office of Justice Programs (OJP), between 1993 and 2003, 49% of all violent incidents in the United States were crimes against a spouse, and spouse murders comprised 9% of all homicides.

Nonetheless, OJP also reports that the rate of family violence nationwide has fallen sharply, from an estimated 5.4 incidents per 1,000 individuals older than 12 in 1993, down to 2.1 per 1,000 in 2003. This is in keeping with a decline over the last decade in violent crimes of all types for which we have national statistics. Domestic violence programs, shelters for battered spouses, and services that strengthen families can share the credit with economics and other factors for preventing some lethal incidents.

Still, even a single such incident is a catastrophe. Searching for a statistical handhold, Parker and Sleeves have found research showing that children were in the home in 63% of uxoricides, and they either witnessed the murder or found the body in 43%. In Parker and Steeves' home state of Virginia, that would involve roughly 108 children in one year alone.

A book-length British study, When Father Kills Mother (2000), described what happened to a group of 95 such children in the short term: 52% went to relatives, 30% to foster homes, and 10% to institutions. Almost 75% of them moved from one placement to another in the first year, and 13 moved three or more times.

The UVA researchers wanted to find out what becomes of these children over the long term. Once they secured funding from the National Institutes of Health for a study, they began looking for adult survivors who could tell them how they coped and what was helpful and unhelpful in their own experiences. The youngest of the first seven volunteers were in their late 20s, and most were considerably older. The team conducted unstructured interviews, inviting participants to tell their stories, then used content analysis to organize what they heard. …

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