Keeping the community informed and dispelling myths around family homicide after separation - so that danger signs may be recognised and crimes prevented - is the aim of a social worker and researcher at The University of Western Australia.
Assistant Professor Carolyn Harris Johnson has worked in the Family Court and in Child Protection. She has also worked in prisons with the perpetrators - most often men - of crimes involving the murder of partners and/or children, and has ongoing contact with the secondary victims. She was featured on the ABC Radio National program Conversations with Richard Fidler at 7.05pm on Tuesday 17 July.
Her experience has led her to undertake research at UWA into these crimes, undertaking a Masters, a PhD and postdoctoral studies with the help of perpetrators, their families and the families of victims.
Her Masters thesis Come with Daddy: Child Murder-Suicide After Family Breakdown was published by UWA Publishing in 2005. It examines the crime of familicide in the context of disputes over custody or access. The trauma of this offence reverberates through families, communities and across generations, causing mental and physical illness and social dysfunction.
Her work has seen her invited to conferences internationally and around Australia. In November 2009, Assistant Professor Johnson was invited by Chief Justice Diana Bryant of the Family Court of Australia, to address judges of the Family Court. She has also presented her research to judicial officers in the Family Court of Western Australia and contributed to Federal and State policy on family and domestic violence, and intra-familial homicide.
"Homicide is rare and familicide - or family homicide - is even rarer," Assistant Professor Johnson said.
"However, in family homicides there may be four, five or six victims, including the perpetrator, who may commit suicide."
Assistant Professor Johnson said she hoped her research, which has been widely reported, had contributed to a better understanding in the community and in the media about such crimes.
"Before my book was published, the media might have reported these crimes with headlines such as Father's love went wrong or He loved too much. Lately, there's been more congruent reporting of these crimes, with headlines like Obsessive father murders his children," she said.
"I hope that my research has helped to dispel some of the myths around familicide. An example of a myth is that men committed these crimes because the court didn't allow them contact with their children. In fact, these crimes are usually committed during the father's contact time. It's also a myth that these crimes come out of the blue when in fact such offences are premeditated, although the warning signs are often missed. Sometimes fathers will threaten to kill their children and even rehearse the killing.
"Another myth in the Family Court was that women fabricate claims of domestic violence when in reality they minimise reporting it, or don't recognise that economic and verbal abuse, stalking and controlling behaviour are forms of violence.
"I hope that my research has made people more aware of the risk factors, one of which is a parent - usually a father - with an obsessive, controlling personality, and a history of threats to kill and/or commit suicide. My research has also shown that in families where intimates are killed by their partners, childhood trauma is a factor with both perpetrators and victims. The experience of such trauma can affect the way an individual relates to other throughout their lifespan and the way they cope with the breakdown of intimate relationships."