Neglected Victims of Murder: Children's Witness to Parental Homicide

By Burman, Sondra; Allen-Meares, Paula | Social Work, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Neglected Victims of Murder: Children's Witness to Parental Homicide


Burman, Sondra, Allen-Meares, Paula, Social Work


Of all the traumatic events that children can experience, none can be more horrific than witnessing the murder of one parent by another. The psychological effects are simultaneously numbing and debilitating, creating emotional scars of far-reaching proportions. If treatment is neglected or postponed, adaptations to satisfactory and optimal functioning, both transitory and prolonged, can be severely compromised.

In 1983, the Surgeon General of the United States reported a fivefold increase in family homicides since 1950 (Jaffe, Wilson, & Wolfe, 1986). It is difficult to ascertain how many children are observers of these murders. No specific records are kept nationally that would verify this number. However, Pynoos and Eth (1984) reported that in 1982 the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Homicide Division estimated that about 200 children witnessed the violent death of one parent by another. If that number were extrapolated nationwide, the sum would be dramatically increased, attesting to the urgent need for immediate and intensive care for these children and their families. The symptoms manifested by a violent catastrophe of this magnitude have been likened to those of posttraumatic stress disorder.

These symptoms include recurrent intrusive thoughts, images, and sounds of the incident; nightmares; feelings of emotional detachment coupled with anxious attachment; a wish to avoid all feelings and reminders of the incident; a chronic fear of recurrence; and poor concentration and performance (Pynoos & Eth, 1985). Malmquist (1986) noted, "The disorder is more severe and longer-lasting when the stressor is of human design rather than seen as a misfortune in nature [such as floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes]".

This article reports on the psychic trauma that children experience as observers of a parent's murder and the intervention provided to overcome its potential long-lasting effects. Many studies have described regressive and maladaptive responses that accompany these ghastly events, such as enuresis, sleep disturbances, temper tantrums, flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety and psychosomatic disorders, and passive and aggressive behaviors (Fantuzzo & Lindquist, 1989; Horowitz, 1986; Silvern & Kaersvang, 1989). Shocking images, thoughts, and memories--immediately following the violence and thereafter--may be manifested. Children are haunted by the assailant's loss of impulse control, the mutilation of the victim, and the helplessness and powerlessness of both victim and witnesses (Pynoos & Eth, 1984).

Suddenly and without warning or preparation, these children are faced with coping with a violent trauma with inadequate means; the instantaneous loss of both parents (one from death, the other from incarceration or hospitalization), dislocation and insecurity about where and with whom they will live; the stigma involved with a family murder; and conflicts of loyalty to both parents (Black & Kaplan, 1988). Feelings of depression, anger, and guilt are pervasive and all-encompassing.

Sparse attention has been focused on children who witness homicide or ongoing parental violence. It is startling how few of these children receive much-needed, appropriately focused psychiatric care (Malmquist, 1986; Wilson, Cameron, Jaffe, & Wolfe, 1989). Damaging effects to these children often are overlooked when the violence occurs between the parents but is not physically directed toward the children (Davis, 1988). It is primarily when children themselves are the victims of physical or sexual abuse that they become the concern of child welfare and mental health professionals (Elbow, 1982), thus leaving a serious gap in crisis rehabilitative measures for youthful observers of parental violence and homicide. Black and Kaplan's (1988) study of 28 child witnesses from 14 families (ages 1 1/2 to 14 years) in which the father killed the mother showed delays in referral to treatment ranging from two weeks to 11 years. …

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