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Domestic/family homicide in Australia

Research in practice no. 38

Tracy Cussen & Willow Bryant
ISSN 1836-9111
Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, May 2015

In 2003, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) published a report that drew attention to the characteristics of domestic/family homicide based on the differing family relationships between victims and offenders (Mouzos & Rushforth 2003). Over the 13 years of data examined for that report (ie 1 July 1989 to 30 June 2002), there were, on average, 129 domestic/family homicide victims each year (between 32 and 47 percent of all homicides annually).

In 2001–02, the overall homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000 population. Since then, the homicide rate has declined (1.1 per 100,000 in 2011–12), with a decrease in the number of homicides recorded across all relationship categories. The proportion of homicides that occurred between family members was 38 percent in 2011–12 (range 32%–53%, annually over the last ten years) with an average of 101 deaths in each of the preceding ten years.

This report presents data for the period 1 July 2002 through 30 June 2012 and provides an update to Mouzos and Rushforth (2003) and supplementary data to that disseminated in the AIC’s latest National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) report covering the years 2010–12 (Bryant & Cussen 2015).

Domestic/family homicides—categorising incidents by relationship

The data described in this paper are drawn from the AIC’s NHMP which includes data collected from all state and territory police services regarding murders and manslaughters in each jurisdiction (excluding culpable driving causing death), as well as information collected from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS).

Within the NHMP, domestic/family homicides are sub-classified against five relationship categories. These are:

  1. Intimate partner—victim and offender are current or former partners (married, defacto, boy/girlfriend);
  2. Filicide—victim is the child of the offender;
  3. Parricide—victim is the parent of the offender;
  4. Siblicide—victim and offender are brother/s or sister/s; and
  5. Other family—including nieces, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Categories two through four include biological, adoptive and step relatives.

Each incident may involve more than one victim and/or offender. For incidents involving multiple victims/offenders the closest relationship between any pairing is used to categorise the incident into the hierarchical order noted above. For example, if a person is murdered by their child and nephew, the homicide would be categorised as a parricide.

Prevalence of domestic/family homicides and selected characteristics

Of the 2,631 homicide incidents documented within the NHMP dataset over the ten-year period to 30 June 2012, 1,088 (41%) were classified as domestic/family homicides and involved 1,158 victims and 1,184 offenders (see Table 1).

Table 1: Prevalence of domestic/family homicides by incident, victim and offender number, 2002–03 to 2011–12 (n)
Relationship category Incidents Victims Offenders
Intimate partner 654 654 704
Filicide 186 238 209
Parricide 128 134 132
Siblicide 37 40 40
Other family 83 92 99
Total 1,088 1,158 1,184

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Intimate partners accounted for 23 percent of all homicide victims recorded within the NHMP since 1 July 2003. These victims represented the majority (n=654; 56%) of victims of domestic/family homicides. Children comprised the second most frequent group of victims of domestic/family homicides (n=238; 21%), followed by parents (n=134; 12%), siblings (n=40; 3%) and other family members (who, as an aggregate, accounted for eight percent (n=92) of victims but across several family relationships). The number of victims within each relationship category has declined since 2002–03 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Victims of domestic/family homicide, 2002–03 to 2011–12 (n)

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

On the surface, there was little to distinguish a domestic/family homicide event from other homicides or between the different domestic/family relationship homicides. An examination of general incident characteristics (see Table 2) indicated that:

  • The victim’s home was the most frequently recorded incident location for homicides regardless of relationship category, although the proportion of domestic/family homicides (range 54%–88%) occurring within a home was greater than for non-domestic/family homicides (33%).
  • All homicides were more likely to occur in the evening from six pm to before midnight with the exception of filicides which were more likely to occur in the afternoon from noon to six pm.

In general, males were more likely than females to be both homicide victims and offenders; a finding that has been consistent since the NHMP commenced in 1989. Where females were involved in a homicide, they were more likely to be the victim or offender in a domestic/family, as opposed to non-domestic/family, homicide.

  • The majority (60%; n=690) of victims of domestic/family homicides overall were female, although the proportion of victims that were female varied by relationship category (see Table 3).
    • Females were typically the victims in intimate partner homicides (n=488; 75%) Males were more likely to be the victims in filicides (56% cf 44%) and parricides (54% cf 46%) and were far more likely to be victims of siblicides (80% cf 20%) or homicides involving other family relationships (70% cf 30%).
  • Males accounted for the majority of offenders in both domestic/family and non-domestic/family homicides, except filicides where females accounted for over half (52%; n=96) of offenders for this category of domestic/family homicide. Females were the offender in 23 percent (n=151) of intimate partner homicides (see Table 4).

A consistent finding across 23 years of homicide monitoring by the AIC has been that stab wounds most frequently caused the injuries that led to death. In this analysis, both victims of domestic/family (n=447; 38%) and non-domestic/family homicides (n=551; 34%) were more likely to die as a result of stab wounds (see Table 3). Weapons of any kind were less likely to be used in filicide deaths, whose victims were more frequently recorded as having died as the result of a beating (n=51; 21%) than any other cause.

Table 2: Overview of incident characteristics by homicide type, 2002–03 to 2011–12
Intimate partner Filicide Parricide Siblicide Other family All other homicides
n % n % n % n % n % n %
654 186 128 37 83 1,543
Location
Victim home 445 68 150 81 113 88 22 59 45 54 512 33
Other homea 72 11 11 6 4 3 7 20 11 13 260 17
Health/mental care facilityb 5 1 1 1 4 3 1 3 1 1 16 1
Retail/recreation establishmentc 3 <1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 109 7
Public transportd 6 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 67 4
Workplace/School 5 1 0 0 2 2 0 0 2 2 18 1
Street/road/Highway 40 6 3 2 2 2 3 8 8 10 333 22
Sporting oval/facility 3 <1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 18 1
Open area/waterway 50 8 9 5 1 1 4 11 8 10 115 7
Othere 15 2 10 5 2 2 0 0 3 4 68 4
Unknown 10 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 2 2 27 2
Time
Midnight to before 6am 151 23 39 21 22 17 8 22 20 24 462 30
6am to before noon 96 15 38 20 25 20 6 16 12 14 164 11
Noon to before 6pm 121 19 47 25 23 18 10 27 21 25 218 14
6pm to before midnight 218 33 42 23 46 36 13 35 26 31 567 37
Unknown 68 10 20 11 12 9 0 0 4 5 132 9
Day of the week
Sunday 79 12 20 11 18 14 7 20 8 10 286 19
Monday 102 16 36 19 16 13 4 11 6 7 176 11
Tuesday 103 16 22 12 14 11 4 11 12 14 167 11
Wednesday 81 12 25 13 17 13 2 5 14 17 176 11
Thursday 95 16 28 15 26 20 10 27 16 19 197 13
Friday 88 13 19 10 14 11 4 11 13 16 232 15
Saturday 95 15 32 17 21 16 6 16 13 16 276 18
Unknown 11 2 4 2 2 2 0 0 1 1 33 2
Seasons
Summer 179 27 48 26 27 21 11 30 24 29 464 30
Autumn 157 24 34 18 35 27 4 11 21 25 366 24
Winter 154 24 47 25 33 26 15 41 20 24 331 21
Spring 162 25 57 31 32 25 7 19 18 22 375 24
Unknown 2 <1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 7 <1

a: includes offender home and other home

b: includes hospitals and psychiatric facilities

c: includes shopping malls and recreation/food venues

d: includes car parks and public transportation connected facilities

e: includes private motor vehicles and corrective institutions

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Table 3: Overview of victim characteristics by homicide type, 2002–03 to 2011–12
Intimate partner Filicide Parricide Siblicide Other family All other homicides
n % n % n % n % n % n %
654 238 134 40 92 1,634
Sex
Male 166 25 132 56 73 54 32 80 64 70 1,351 83
Female 488 75 105 44 61 46 8 20 28 30 282 17
Unknown 0 0 1 <1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 <1
Age group
Under 1 0 0 76 32 0 0 0 0 0 0 17 1
1–9 0 0 122 51 0 0 2 5 5 5 20 1
10–14 1 <1 27 11 0 0 0 0 2 2 12 1
15–17 12 2 4 2 0 0 4 10 3 3 51 3
18–24 83 13 4 2 0 0 5 13 15 16 262 16
25–34 158 24 5 2 4 3 11 28 12 13 392 24
35–49 258 39 0 0 31 23 14 35 21 23 509 31
50–64 98 15 0 0 48 36 4 10 19 21 248 15
65 and over 37 6 0 0 51 38 0 0 15 16 119 7
Unknown 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 <1
Apparent cause of death
Gunshot wound 70 11 13 5 16 12 5 13 15 16 266 16
Stab wound 276 42 35 15 73 54 20 50 43 47 551 34
Beating 136 21 51 21 26 19 11 28 22 24 487 30
Drug overdose (administered by offender) 10 2 8 3 2 1 0 0 2 2 19 1
Drowning/submersion 0 0 22 9 0 0 0 0 1 1 14 1
Strangulation/suffocation 90 14 33 14 11 8 2 5 4 4 74 5
Poisoning 5 1 17 7 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 <1
Smoke inhalation/Burns 19 3 10 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 38 2
Othera 13 2 38 16 5 4 2 5 5 5 117 7
Unknown 35 5 11 5 1 1 0 0 0 0 67 4

a: includes electrocution and hanging

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Table 4: Overview of offendera characteristics by homicide type, 2002–03 to 2011–12
Intimate partner Filicide Parricide Siblicide Other family All other homicides
n % n % n % n % n % n %
654 186 128 37 83 1,268
Sex
Male 503 77 90 48 103 80 33 89 72 87 1,198 94
Female 151 23 96 52 23 18 4 11 11 13 65 5
Unknown 0 0 0 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
Age group
10–14 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 10 1
15–17 5 1 3 2 13 10 3 8 5 6 62 5
18–24 62 9 43 23 29 23 6 16 22 26 332 26
25–34 159 24 73 39 35 27 14 38 19 23 392 31
35–49 265 41 56 30 34 27 11 30 22 27 352 28
50–64 115 18 6 3 13 10 2 5 9 11 84 7
Over 65 38 6 1 1 1 1 0 0 4 5 21 2
Unknown 10 2 4 2 2 2 1 3 1 1 15 1

a: offender n relates to the primary offender in each incident. For ‘all other homicides’ category only 1268 incidents involved an identified offender

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Conceptualising homicide incidents

Every homicide is different. The contexts of these events vary depending on several factors including the motives of offenders, precipitating events and personal characteristics of the victims and offenders. Understanding the nuances of these differences requires qualitative incident specific analysis beyond the scope of this paper. However, some additional data analysis is presented to indicate the presence, or absence, of some of these factors in domestic/family homicide incidents. The features examined were multiple victim/offender incidents, history of domestic violence between intimate partners, whether the offender was on bail prior to the incident or suicided after the incident, and drug and alcohol use by the victim and offender.

Most domestic/family homicide incidents involved a single victim and offender (n=960; 88%) (see Table 5). Although rare, when additional victims/offenders were involved, they tended to be family members as well. From 2002–03 through 2011–12, a small number of intimate partner homicides (n=54; 8%) involved multiple victims and/or offenders. Of the 27 intimate partner homicides that involved multiple victims (including incidents with multiple victims/offenders), 23 (85%) also involved the death of one or more children and the remaining four included the deaths of other family members.

In each of the twenty-nine filicide incidents which involved multiple victims at least one additional victim was another child. Of the seventeen filicide incidents that involved one child and multiple offenders, the additional offender was a family member and in sixteen of these incidents both parents of the child were involved. Ten parricide incidents resulted in the death of both parents of the offender.

Table 5: Multiple victim/offender domestic/family homicide incidents by relationship category, 2002–03 to 2012–12
Intimate partner Filicide Parricide Siblicide Other family
n % n % n % n % n %
Multiple victims 25 4 28 15 10 8 0 0 2 2
Multiple offenders 27 4 17 9 6 5 1 3 8 10
Multiple victims/ offenders 2 <1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1
Single victim/offender 600 92 140 75 112 88 36 97 72 87
Total incidents 654 186 128 37 83

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Data analysed for this report indicated that in one-third (n=366; 34%) of domestic/family homicide incidents there was a recorded history of domestic violence which may have included a current or former protection order between the victim and offender. The proportion of incidents with a domestic violence history varied by the family relationship category from eight percent (n=3) of siblicides to 44 percent (n=289) of intimate partner homicides (see Table 6).

The remaining analyses pertained to offender characteristics and were based on the primary offender (ie the offender with the closest relationship to the victim). It is therefore possible that additional offenders, in the rare incidents involving multiple offenders, may have been on bail, used alcohol and/or other drugs prior to the offence. They may also have suicided following the offence. A smaller proportion of primary offenders of domestic/family homicide (n=56; 5%) than non-domestic/family homicide (n=112; 9%) were on bail, parole or probation at the time of the incidents. Suicide of the offender following the homicide was more frequently recorded in domestic/family homicides, particularly those which involved the deaths of intimate partners (n=75; 11%) or children (n=29; 16%) (see Table 6).

Alcohol and other drug use is frequently discussed in homicide literature as a potential contributing factor, however the relationship remains unclear (for example, see Dearden & Payne 2009). Alcohol and drug use can alter the circumstances of the incident by affecting the judgement of the victim and/or offender or by incapacitating the victim in some way (intentionally, or not). The NHMP data identified the presence of alcohol and other drugs in a homicide incident but not the impact of their use on the victim, offender or situation. It is important to note that victim data are derived from toxicology reports accessed through the NCIS and that offender alcohol and drug use is indicated, or not, by police services during the NHMP data collection process.

Overall, data from 2002–03 through 2011–12 indicated more use of alcohol than illicit drugs in both domestic/family and non-domestic/family homicides (see Table 6). The use of alcohol by both victims and offenders was recorded in 30 percent of non-domestic/family homicide incidents (n= 379) and 22 percent (n=239) of all domestic/family homicides (range: 1%(filicide)–46%(siblicide)).

Table 6: Presence of additional characteristics in homicide incidents, 2002–03 through 2011–12a
Intimate partner Filicide Parricide Siblicide Other family All other homicides
n % n % n % n % n % n %
Prior history of domestic violence 289 44 41 22 23 18 3 8 10 12 n/a
Offender on bail, parole or probation at time of incident 40 6 5 3 6 5 1 3 4 5 112 9
Offender suicided prior to or following arrest 75 11 29 16 5 4 0 0 2 2 25 2
Incident involves presence of alcohol – victim 226 35 2 1 30 23 21 57 25 30 627 41
Incident involves presence of alcohol – offender 235 36 20 11 27 21 17 46 35 42 509 40
Incident involves presence of alcohol – victim & offender 180 28 2 1 17 13 17 46 23 28 379 30
Incident involves presence of drugs – victim 122 19 12 7 10 8 10 27 13 16 405 26
Incident involves presence of drugs – offender 78 12 34 18 16 13 3 8 5 6 213 17
Incident involves presence of drugs – victim & offender 51 8 4 2 1 1 3 8 3 4 102 8

a: offender n relates to the primary offender in each incident. For relationship category ‘all other homicides’ only 1,268 incidents involved an identified offender

Source: AIC NHMP 1989–90 to 2011–12 [computer file]

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper was to update Mouzos and Rushforth’s (2003) findings describing characteristics of domestic/family homicides in Australia from 1 July 2002 to 30 June 2012. In 2003, Mouzos and Rushforth concluded that policy and other strategies targeted at preventing these homicides were warranted and this remains true today. Although homicide is declining, two in five victims are killed by a family member and these victims are most commonly partners, parents and children. It is intended that these data will support and contextualise, at a national level, the findings of jurisdictional child and intimate partner death review teams that have been initiated across Australia as well as other research currently being undertaken.

References