“More burdened than expected”: The children bereaved by intimate partner violence

“More burdened than expected”: The children bereaved by intimate partner violence

Over 50,000 children worldwide are thought to lose a parent to domestic homicide each year. Dr Eva Alisic, who leads the Trauma Recovery Lab at the Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia, is establishing a better understanding of the circumstances, needs and perspectives of children affected by domestic homicide. Along with colleagues from the Netherlands, she is publishing research in PLOS ONE regarding 256 Dutch children who lost a parent to intimate partner homicide between 2003 and 2012.

Dr Alisic and colleagues found that at least two-thirds of these children had experienced violence at home before the homicide incident, but over 40 percent were not previously known to mental health and social services. Insights into their experiences suggest that they face a heavy psychological and social burden. To learn more about these findings and their implications, I interviewed Dr Alisic via email.

Eva Alisic

How did you come to study trauma, and specifically intimate partner violence?

EA: I volunteered at the Dutch Child Helpline for several years while studying for my PhD. I received calls from children about being bullied or living with violence at home, and was moved by their stories and by how resourceful they were. I wanted to support these children, whose worlds had turned upside down.

What do we know about the lives of children who lose a parent in this way, both before and after the incident?

EA: We found that many children had been living with domestic violence before the homicide, although this was not always known to social services. Even non-fatal domestic violence has been shown to have a strong and pervasive impact on children’s lives. When children then lose one of their parents – often their mother – through homicide, they additionally face a long, chaotic period of grief, uncertainty with regard to legal procedures, and often a move to a new home. These children frequently experience attachment difficulties and post-traumatic stress symptoms, including sleep problems and reliving of the homicide incident.

How did you investigate the impact of intimate partner violence for the children you studied?

EA: For this study, we combined information from eight different sources. We looked for example at legal verdicts, child protection reports, newspaper articles, and criminology data. We had also learned a lot from our previous clinical work and from a literature review.

How did these children experience the homicide incident itself?

EA: The majority of children were in the same house as their parent when the homicide happened, and at least one in three children actually saw the homicide or the crime scene. Considering that many of these killings took place with a cutting weapon or firearm, these children were probably exposed to shocking scenes, reinforcing the importance of involving mental health professionals after a homicide.

Which finding impacted you most?

EA: We found that children from immigrant families were over-represented compared to the general population. However, in our clinical services the proportions of immigrant children are comparatively lower; we don’t seem to reach all of them. Our findings are an important motivation to do better in that area.

What more could society be doing to support children affected by intimate partner violence?

EA: In the Netherlands, the government and various child protection and youth services have made great strides in developing protocols for supporting children affected by domestic homicide. For example, these concern what to do in the first few hours after the incident. Fortunately, domestic homicides are rare, so such guidance is helpful. Other countries may wish to follow suit.

What are the next steps for your research? 

EA: In our research project, we have also conducted interviews with bereaved children and young people, and with their caregivers. I’m looking forward to taking a more in-depth look at these personal perspectives and to ensuring that those stories are heard.


Research Article: Alisic E, Groot A, Snetselaar H, Stroeken T, van de Putte E (2017) Children bereaved by fatal intimate partner violence: A population-based study into demographics, family characteristics and homicide exposure. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0183466. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183466

Images Credits: Ralf Steinberger, Flickr; Eva Alisic


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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