Recognizing Risks to Children as Victims of Domestic Homicide

March 1, 2020

Center for Court Innovation

In this podcast, Kathryn Ford, the Center for Court Innovation’s director of Child Witness Initiatives, discusses child homicide in the context of domestic violence with Dr. Peter Jaffe, a psychologist at Western University in Ontario, Canada, and an internationally-renowned expert on children’s exposure to domestic violence. Among the topics they cover are the prevalence of child domestic homicide, the indicators of a high-level of risk to children and how these can be identified, and the implications for justice-system practitioners.

The following is a transcript of the podcast:

KATHRYN FORD: Welcome to the latest episode of the In Practice Podcast where we talk about practitioners about their work, including challenges and how they address them, new tools and trends, best practices, and reforms. I’m Kathryn Ford, Director of Child Witness Initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m talking with Dr. Peter Jaffe from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He’s an internationally renowned expert on domestic violence and children and will be talking with us today about the risk to children in domestic violence situations, specifically the risk of homicide and strategies for reducing that risk. This topic is highly relevant to all practitioners who work on domestic violence cases in any professional role or context, so we thank you for joining us, Dr. Jaffe.

DR. PETER JAFFE: Thank you for inviting me, Kathryn.

FORD: So let’s start out with some common language. Can you tell us what is child domestic homicide, and how often does it happen?

DR. JAFFE: Well, there’s a number of different figures for child domestic homicide across the world. First and foremost it’s important to recognize that child homicide usually happens as an extension of child abuse in children’s lives. We know for example, according to the latest United Nations reports, that up to a billion children between ages two to 17 have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence and neglect. And we also know of those children a smaller number, over 200,000 between ages birth and 14 years, have lost their lives due to child homicide. So we know that this is a significant problem across the world and also a significant problem in the U.S. It’s estimated that in the U.S. over the last 10 years on average, there’s about 450 children who are victims of homicide.

FORD: And can you tell us a little bit about the ways in which these homicides of children take place, or can take place within the context of intimate partner violence as well?

DR. JAFFE: Most children under age 14 are killed by parents. And we know that this happens both with mothers and fathers, and we also know that within this context, one of the most significant warning signs is a history of family violence or domestic violence in the family and also a recent separation. So when we talk about children killed in the context of domestic violence, we’re obviously referring to children who are killed within a family system where there’s been a history of prior violence.

FORD: I know that this is a topic that you’ve done a lot of work around, including some research projects and your recent work on the Domestic Violence Fatality Review in Canada. Can you tell us about your work regarding child domestic homicide?

DR. JAFFE: Since 2002, we’ve had a Domestic Violence Death Review Committee within our jurisdiction, the province of Ontario. It’s a multi disciplinary committee that’s run through the office of the chief coroner, where we have a chance to review background information with families where there’s been a domestic homicide. The information comes from interviews with surviving family members, friends, family, co-workers, and front line professionals such as police or child protection, family physicians who may have been involved in the past. So over the years we’ve accumulated data particularly focused on child homicides and we’ve looked at the extent to which there are warning signs that precede the homicides. And what we’ve seen repeatedly that in over 3/4 of the cases we reviewed, there’s seven or more well known risk markers associated with domestic homicide. And so obviously this has been a major focus of our work.

We’ve also expanded nationally over the last five years. We’ve been working on a national grant that involves 12 partners in different universities across the country as well as over 60 community partners, trying to understand more about this vulnerable population and the risk factors associated with child homicide.

FORD: And can you tell us about what some of those risk factors are that you’ve identified?

DR. JAFFE: One of our overarching findings is that the same risk factors that are associated with domestic homicide are associated with children killed in the context of domestic homicide. So some of those factors may include a prior history of domestic violence, actual or pending separation between the parents, a partner stalking the other partner, the victim, depression in the male perpetrator or potentially other mental health problems, prior threats by the perpetrator to commit suicide or attempt suicide, escalation of the violence over time, as well as perpetrators’ attempt to isolate the victim. In many of the cases, victims had an intuitive sense of fear about the situation, was worried about the escalation of violence. It’s important to recognize that these child domestic homicides don’t happen out of the blue. Usually there’s information known to family, friends, police, family lawyers, co-workers and child protection or medical personnel who had previous experience with the family.

FORD: What I hear you saying, Dr. Jaffe, is that the risk factors that have been identified as indicators of greater risk of lethality for adult survivors of intimate partner violence are similar to the indicators of high risk to children in domestic violence situations. Is that correct?

DR. JAFFE: Yes, that’s correct. And obviously, our concern in the field is often these risk factors are ignored and often children aren’t seen as being at risk of homicide in the context of domestic violence. In the U.S. over the last number of years on average there’s about 2,000 domestic homicides. About a third of them might be domestic homicides and suicides. What’s often overlooked is that in about 20% of the cases, children are also the victims of the homicides. So there’s cases where only the children are killed, and there’s cases where the children and their mother is killed, and there’s also cases where the whole family is killed and the perpetrator kills himself. So when I talk about child homicide, I’m particularly focused on children who were killed in the context of this history, and they’re often overlooked as being at risk of this violence.

FORD: Certainly. And one thing I saw in your research was some discussion about perpetrators or specifically men who cause harm making threats to harm the children, and that has been found to be a significant indicator of risk to the children but is something that practitioners are rarely asking about or documenting. And there have been many situations in which survivor mothers in fact brought these concerns and documentation of these threats to the attention of the family court for example, and the threats were not taken seriously. Is that something you could speak to?

DR. JAFFE: That’s a very important point because there’s a tendency to ignore and minimize the potential risk to children, and it often gets played out within the context of the family court. Maybe just come back to a word in the terms of definitions. When we talk about child homicides we recognize it’s often parents who are the perpetrators, and we use the term paternal filicide to refer to fathers killing the children, and maternal filicide to refer to mothers killing the children. When fathers kill the children, it’s more likely to be an act of revenge or retaliation because they’re angry at their partner leaving the relationship and if they can’t get back at her, they try to get even by harming the children. And this is a pattern that we’ve seen repeatedly both in the U.S. and in Canada, and that certainly raises alarms that we have to do a better job to identify these risks within the family court.
Often this can be extremely challenging because with domestic violence sometimes there are not eyewitnesses or medical reports, or sometimes there’s no police report, so it’s really the credibility of the victim versus the credibility of the alleged perpetrator as to what happened in the past and what the safety concerns are. So there needs to be certainly increased education for all those involved in the family court, obviously judges, lawyers, advocates, professionals like psychologists and social workers who may be involved in doing child custody evaluations, need to identify these potential risks and then develop appropriate parenting plans that recognize the risks.

FORD: Speaking more about the risk factors, I know you’ve mentioned that the indicators of a high level of risk to adult survivors are very similar statistically to the indicators of a high level of risk to children in these situations. And I know you did a research study looking at the existing domestic violence risk assessment tools, specifically the Danger Assessment and the Be Safer, and you had that finding about the similar risk factors but there were two things that stood out as indicative of additional harm to the children, which were threats to harm the children and the abuser’s history of intimate relationship problems. Is that something that you could speak to?

DR. JAFFE: Certainly. Overall, certainly if the adult victim is at risk, one has to consider that the children may also be at risk. And beyond that when we looked at cases where there was a child homicide and compared them to cases where the children survived, we did find certainly for the Danger Assessment, the additional factor of the perpetrator actually making threats to harm the children. And looking at the Be Safer clearly looking at a history of problems within intimate relationships, was a factor. So again, that factor by itself obviously should be taken seriously, but looking at the overall pattern, I think we always have to be cautious and make sure that we’re doing safety planning both for the adult victim and for the child.

FORD: Dr. Jaffe, could you talk a little bit about the domestic violence risk assessment tools and what you feel needs to happen in order to strengthen them and their ability to predict child domestic homicide?

DR. JAFFE: Well, child domestic homicides are relatively rare events, so they’re obviously hard to predict. But having said that, I think what the current research in the field would suggest that it’s important to use a structured approach rather than just using one’s clinical opinion or previous experience. And by using a more structured approach, there’s a number of tools. I think in the literature now according to the most recent reviews, there are probably something like 70 different tools that use different contexts to predict either recidivism or potential lethal violence.
Probably the most important message I would share is it’s important to have a tool, and make sure one is up to date on current data on reliability and validity of the tool. But the most important thing having a tool is use a very structured approach. I certainly think the danger assessment and the Be Safer are both excellent tools. They’re not the only ones. A critical issue is thinking about what sector one is working in, whether one is working for the police or working as an advocate within the justice system or shelters for abuse victims, finding a tool that makes sense for that setting and making sure one can get proper access to information about the history of the relationship and potential risk factors that have to be identified.
So again, it’s important to document the risk factors in a very structured way, and probably one of the most important lessons that we’ve learned from our death review work is that assessment has to lead to safety planning and risk management. Risk assessment should never been seen as an end in itself, it has to be part of an overall process to find safety for victims and children.

FORD: I was wondering if you could talk with us a little bit more about some of the practical implications for the research, and for what we know at this time about child domestic homicide in terms of what practitioners can actually do to identify and reduce the level of risk to children.

DR. JAFFE: The first important step is even acknowledging this is possible, and because in our experience from our death review work and also other death reviews across Canada and the U.S., many professionals are shocked when children are killed and don’t even see that as a possibility. So having general awareness about risk is important. Beyond awareness of the risk is actually taking a very structured approach to identifying the history and the relationship and the various risk factors that are present, which is I think another practical implication, and then doing something with the information in terms of developing a safety plan. For example, ensuring that if there’s any visitation that takes place that it’s appropriately supervised if there are visits at all, to make sure that there’s counseling in place for children who may have been traumatized by the exposure to violence, making sure there’s counseling for the victim, making sure there’s counseling for the perpetrator, that they get referred to an appropriate batterer intervention program. I think it’s critical.
And one of the other emerging areas that’s developing is getting specialized counseling for the perpetrator as a parent. So there’s a number of new programs that focus on the perpetrator getting help not just for their role of being an abusive intimate partner, but also being an abusive parent and exposing their children to this violence.

FORD: Can you tell us a little bit more about what safety planning around the risks to children might include, or how that might look?

DR. JAFFE: Well, I think one of the starting points is making sure there’s only contact if it’s safe, that clearly if an individual has a history of domestic violence, one has to recognize that they may not be an appropriate role model for children. Children may not be safe in their presence. They may be drawn in to undermine the non-abusive parent. Even new relationships they have may be potentially violent. So clearly one of the first steps is to make sure any contact is supervised, and before there’s any consideration of unsupervised contact, to make sure that there’s appropriate counseling programs in place.
For example, one of the challenges we often see is that individuals with histories of domestic violence are given unsupervised contact, and they’ve never even acknowledged the history of violence. They’ve never acknowledged the impact of the violence on their partner and on their children. And without those foundational steps, it’s hard to think about having a healthy and safe parenting relationship between the abuser and the child.

FORD: I know from our previous conversations that one of the additional practical implications that’s come out of the death review process that you’ve been a part of in Canada, is regarding cross agency collaboration and information sharing. What do you think are some of the practices that you recommend regarding that issue?

DR. JAFFE: I think an important starting point in collaboration is to do joint training across different agencies and different systems so individuals are sharing a common language about risk and also remedies to risk. Particularly when we’re talking about child homicide, there’s obviously prior history with the victim, with victim’s services, more focused on adults. There may be contact with child protection services that had been focused on safety of the children, and often those systems have failed to coordinate their efforts both in terms of assessment and intervention, so I think cross training is really essential.
And then there’s also the important element of working across community agencies and professionals, but also working within the justice system. So for example, domestic violence cases may end up either in the criminal court involved in criminal proceedings and professionals who may be involved in that system such as probation officers and police officers, but those cases are also involved in the family court, which may involve either family lawyers or advocates who are working with the victim. So clearly there’s a need to coordinate efforts between community agencies and the justice system to make sure whatever parenting plans are put into effect are safe ones for the children and also the adult victims.

DR. JAFFE: I think one of the challenging things has been the use of the term parent alienation in more recent years to deal with domestic violence allegations. So in general what we see happening in the family courts across the U.S. and Canada is you have a victim, adult victim who comes to court with serious concerns about her safety and the children’s safety, and at the same time you may have the other parent, usually the father, saying that the violence is really just a false allegation and that really the mother’s attempting to ruin the children’s relationship with him, and often that parent or their lawyer will use the term parent alienation. And this has become an increasing concern because there’s no such thing as parental alienation in the face of domestic violence. If a parent has experienced domestic violence, they have every right to have concerns about limiting their children’s contact with the other parent. So it’s not a question of alienation, it’s a question of that parent developing a safety plan and needing support from the community agencies and the court.
So this is a very hot button issue these days in family court, and there’s a lot of cases that are poorly managed because judges, lawyers and mental health professionals have not been able to properly assess what’s going on in the case and really identify the history of domestic violence.

FORD: As you know, one of the audiences for our podcast today is court practitioners. So you’ve already talked about assessing the level of risk to children in domestic violence situations and considering children to be at high risk when their non-offending caregivers are also at a high level of risk, and you’ve talked as well about informed decision making regarding custody and visitation and making sure that families are mandated to agency based supervised visitation or access is prohibited when there’s a high level of risk to the child and/or the parent. Is there anything else that you think courts should be doing regarding this issue?

DR. JAFFE: Well first and foremost, I think there needs to be renewed efforts at public and professional education. I think it’s important that communities recognize how much children are at risk from domestic violence just in terms of their emotional and physical well being, just as a starting place, and I still think that in many communities that reality is not recognized. Beyond that awareness, and I think an essential part of training for lawyers and social workers and police and other professionals involved with either the criminal justice system or the family court system need to recognize that the risks to children may include lethal violence, and doing an appropriate risk assessment is essential.
So I think it’s important to then know that just doing a risk assessment can never be an end itself, so you certainly want the courts to be cautious and vigilant in taking steps to protect children at least on an interim basis while they’re maybe getting more information. So one of the things that is true of many court proceeding is that information may come out over time, so the courts may have to be involved in having a more conservative decision on visitation until they have a more comprehensive assessment and they can understand more deeply the nature, frequency and severity of the violence that’s taken place. So I think that’s critical.
I also think that as we’re learning more about what we need to do to protect children, also protect adult victims and support them in their parenting. I think we also have to do something to help perpetrators. Most perpetrators want to change, but they may require some initial motivation and realization of the harm that the violence has done, and I think it’s important to find ways to engage them in intervention efforts both as a partner and also as a parent. So a critical skill I think for lawyers and judges is really how to motivate perpetrators to get involved in counseling and significant intervention.
I should say as we talk about these issues on this podcast, I realize I often refer to the victim as she and the perpetrator as he, and I just want to be very clear that when we talk about domestic homicide and we talk about children killed in the context of domestic violence, that it tends not to be a gender neutral issue. That when we look at the victims of domestic homicide, the significant ratio of women as victims compared to men across the U.S. and Canada, it’s about a four or five to one ratio of women who are killed. And when children are killed which is about 20% of the cases, often it’s the father who’s killing as an act of revenge after separation, and often after family court proceedings fighting over custody and visitation rights.
So, it’s difficult to be gender neutral when the numbers are so overwhelming. But it’s important to recognize it and also important to recognize that each case is unique, so obviously there are women who kill children, and we have to be aware of the risks of maternal filicide. And there’s also children who may be killed in the context of same sex relationships, so we have to recognize the diversity of parents who may be before the court seeking safety and support.

FORD: Another one of the practitioner roles is supervised visitation. When families do get to supervised visitation providers, what are the practical implications for those providers in terms of identifying and reducing the risk to children?

DR. JAFFE: Well, there’ll be a variety of supervised visitation settings. I think it’s important that everything is done possible to make sure that the victim dropping off the children is clearly separated from the perpetrator’s entry to the supervised visitation center, so clearly being able to create a physically safe place for the exchanges or the visits of children. Also, supervising closely in terms of it’s not always just the acts of perpetrators, it’s also the things they may say or do that may be emotionally abusive or undermining the other parent, so clearly there needs to be some close supervision within that area.
Again, I know that there’s a whole range of supervised visitation centers in terms of their orientation, in terms of how many resources they have available and what kind of counseling they can do beyond the immediate supervised visitation, but I think certainly the extent to which a center can encourage parents to get assistance beyond the visits, because obviously the visit is only one small piece of a longer term parenting relationship, so obviously getting children and parents involved in community counseling, I think is essential. So those are some of the initial thoughts I would have on that.

FORD: The last role I’d like to ask you about is civil legal services. You did mention a bit about what attorneys can do, but is there anything you’d like to add?

DR. JAFFE: I think attorneys and advocates play a particularly critical role. And I think working with victims of domestic violence can be difficult or challenging because part of the process often is engaging the individual to feel safe enough to share what they’ve experienced and what their needs are. we know from the research that at least half of domestic violence victims change their mind on going ahead with the court system. They may be looking for an immediate remedy in terms of safety. But to the extent to which the court process becomes cumbersome and requires repeated contacts, they may at some point feel emotionally and financially drained to continue with the proceedings. So in our research in Canada and also in the U.S., you see at least 50% of victims change their mind and decide that they’ll find some other way to access the support they need.
So a point I want to emphasize, the importance of engagement and also the importance of empowering the victim to recognize the choices that she has and the remedies that may be available. But I also want to emphasize that from the research that Jackie Campbell and others have done, about half of the victims don’t necessarily recognize the fact that there may be lethal violence that they’re facing and their children are facing. They may see their ex-partner as annoying, harassing, but they don’t necessarily see him as dangerous. They may see him as overly committed and interfering with the children, but they don’t see him as dangerous to the children. So I think it’s also important to provide an assessment and feedback for victims in those circumstances who may not fully recognize the risks that are posed by the perpetrator.
We also have many cases certainly across our jurisdiction, where at some point the victims need the perpetrator. They need financial support, they might need child care, and at some point they just want to abandon the process because they no longer want to be engaged in a long term process when they have more immediate needs around the children. So I think it’s important to offer support and feedback about the importance of maintaining safety and finding alternatives to get the support for the victim whether it’s financial support or housing or counseling, just to be able to keep children’s safety first and foremost.

FORD: Can you tell us, Dr. Jaffe, about how your interest in domestic violence and children developed?

DR. JAFFE: 45 years ago I was a young psychologist. I was working on a unique program with the police. Our supervisor developed a crisis service that was five civilians, I was one of them, with mental health backgrounds who worked around the clock with the police responding to domestic violence calls. So this was certainly in the early days of the domestic violence movement. Domestic violence was seen as a crisis in people’s lives, but I think at the time we didn’t really treat it necessarily as a criminal problem, and we didn’t really recognize the long term impact on victims and children. So as a young psychologist, I fell in the deep end of this area and I became overwhelmed with how frequent domestic violence calls were for the police, and how complicated it was to provide support for victims and perpetrators and children traumatized by living with this violence. So that work with the police as part of a crisis team got me actively involved in working with the police and the courts more deeply to assess the needs of family members.
So in our community we developed a local coordinating committee with different service providers. We started developing counseling programs for children exposed to domestic violence and counseling programs for perpetrators, including programs for perpetrators as parents. We developed residential and non-residential services for victims. So I got involved in this issue at the time when many of these services started to develop and I saw how important the research was in raising awareness. And I went from the issue of the harm to children, my earliest research was really looking at the impact of exposure to domestic violence on children’s adjustment problems, their cognitive behavioral emotional problems resulting from this trauma. And I started to recognize that not only were children at risk of these harms, they were also at risk of losing their lives. And so some of our work then took us to the work of the Death Review Committee both in our jurisdiction and elsewhere, where we saw a number of these cases where there seemed to be so many missed opportunities.
I think that’s certainly the issue that keeps me going in the field is sort of repeatedly seeing these horrible tragedies and seeing all of these warning signs and people saying I wish I would have done this, or I wish I would have done that or I wish I knew more about this. So that’s really what inspires this work, and certainly honors the voices of the survivors and the children who’ve been through the experience, or who have lost their lives and they left their voices behind in text messages and emails and interviews with service providers.

FORD: Thank you for sharing that. The last question I wanted to ask you Dr. Jaffe, is what do you think are the next steps in terms of moving the field forward to address child domestic homicide? What do you think the research needs to be on this topic? You’ve talked a little bit about training, but anything else you want to share about kind of the next steps?

DR. JAFFE: The next steps in the field involve developing better risk assessment tools that focus on the risks that children face. So as of now, we have a lot of tools focused on adult victims, but there’s really not enough that includes the risk to children. So I think it would be important to do research particularly on those issues, and also looking at interventions that make a difference. When we’re talking about children, we’re often talking about interventions that require collaboration across systems, social services, mental health and courts. And I think we have failed in that area to really look at not only the risks but also the remedies that are needed. So I think there needs to be more research on successful intervention strategies because it can’t be left in the hands of one service provider, one organization. It has to go across multiple service providers and multiple systems who are involved in this issue.
I think the family court is a critical area for research. I think there’s been major strides in the criminal court. I think across the U.S. and Canada now we have many more specialized judges who work in areas around domestic violence. We have specialized police officers and prosecutors, and enhanced victim services. So that has evolved. The problem in family court, it’s still every man and woman for themselves, and children are often forgotten or children are just the spoils of a custody dispute or a parenting dispute. And I think there needs to be much greater focus on what we do to protect children in the family court. This is especially important at this period of time because there’s such a focus on joint parenting, joint custody, shared parenting, that parents being considered equal and having equal time with children, and often a concern about who’s the friendlier parent and a concern about the potential for parent alienation. And I think some of these issues fly in the face of recognizing domestic violence and undermine our ability to see risk and protect children.

FORD: Dr. Jaffe, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

DR. JAFFE: It’s a topic where I think it’s important that people do reading and thinking. There’s no excuse for not knowing. There’s so much information available around the harm to children from domestic violence including lethal violence, and I think everyone in the community owes it to children and also to adult victims to be aware and to be informed. A point that I often raise when people like myself or others do this work, people often wonder about why we just haven’t burned out and gotten depressed by looking at so many homicides because over the last 15 years I’ve looked at over 400 domestic homicides, about a quarter of them involving children either as victims or children who have lost one or both parents and have been traumatized by living with the aftermath of a domestic homicide.
And the analogy I often use in my work is it’s like looking at a plane crash. I feel like one of the investigators who’s desperately looking for a black box after the plane crash because I know I can’t bring back the passengers who have been lost, but I can be sure that whatever errors exist in terms of how the plane was manufactured or the pilot training, that everything will be done to prevent a tragedy in similar circumstances in the future. So that’s what drives me. And actually the motto in the chief coroner’s office is We Speak for the Dead to Protect the Living. And that’s my mission, to make sure we just don’t forget who died, but remember them and remember them the way to prevent the same tragedy happening over and over again.

FORD: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today.

DR. JAFFE: My pleasure. Good luck with your important work.

FORD: And thank you for your work as well. I’m Kathryn Ford of the Center for Court Innovation, and I’ve been speaking with Dr. Peter Jaffe from the University of Western Ontario in Canada about risks to children in domestic violence situations and steps practitioners can take to reduce those risks. To find out more about Dr. Jaffe’s work with the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative, visit their website, To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation and how we’re helping practitioners address domestic violence, visit


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