Flashpoints in Family Law: When current models of risk assessment fail.

On the 13th of September, Dr. Jennifer Neoh presented ‘Flashpoints in Family Law: When current models of risk assessments fail’. The event began at 5:15pm with a 7pm finish and was styled as a small-intimate gathering with 29 people in attendance.

The presentation examined current risk assessment models and presented case studies to suggest that risk assessment in family law matters need to take a more nuanced approach. Dr. Neoh argued that risk assessment models often focus on coercive violence relationship whereas other factors need to be incorporated to cover situations of increased risk of homicide and filicide. She asserted that it is often personality disorders and convergence of stress factors that can add to better prediction of flashpoints.

Dr. Neoh began the presentation by acknowledging that often, when filicide occurs the statement commonly heard is that predicting dangerousness is notoriously difficult. This statement, she indicated, was not acceptable and is no excuse. She raised the concern that the profession will not be able to fine tune risk assessments in the future unless we try to seek understanding, especially where filicide occurs and when risk was not predicted within current risk assessment frameworks.

Filicide, she defined as:

- Murder of current or former spouse and children

- Murder / suicide -murder of family members and suicide of perpetrator

- Murder of spouse and/ or children without suicide of perpetrator

- Murder of the perpetrator’s child/ren

- Massacres of family members that can include extended family members.

Filicide in the context of Family Separation is different to neonaticide and maltreatment related homicides. As there are so few cases it can be difficult to ascertain accurate conclusions although factors, reasons and risks are heterogeneous. Investigations into filicide have come from a variety of sources, i.e. government inquiries, case analyses and summaries, statistical patterns, typographies of violence, and Family Court reviews etc. but all have been retrospective and not always focusing on preventative measures.

Dr. Neoh went on to review a number of studies discussing filicide:

The AIC National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP) data indicates that younger children are at a higher risk of filicide than older children with 90% being under the age of 10, 77% aged 5 and under and about 30% under 1 year old. The most common cause of death for child victims was beating by father and stepfathers at 35%. Various reports indicate very similar results and that Fathers tend to be main perpetrators with 82% responsible for killing their children and their spouse within this study. 17% of cases also included the suicide of the perpetrator. (Mouzos & Rushworth, 2003).

Websdale (1999) listed common Perpetrator factors related to child filicide:

- a history of child abuse

- a history of domestic violence]

- contact with various agencies.

- Poverty and/ or unemployment,

- criminal history

- substance abuse

- access to weapons

Jaffe, Campbell, Olszowy & Hamilton (2014) focused on the relationship between domestic violence and death of spouse/child with the following observations made:

- Filicide in parental separation hard to predict

- Often about revenge towards mother

- History of family violence prevalent

- Prior threats to harm often present

- Many service providers have prior involvement with the family (with few documented risk assessments completed!)

- That if risk assessments found high risk to mother then child is also likely at risk

- And earlier study suggested children were likely to be killed within the context of domestic violence if

--> the child was attempting to protect a parent during a violent event,

--> the victim of the perpetrators plans to kill the entire family or

--> as revenge against their former spouse (Jaffe and Juodis, 2006)

In her own observations Dr. Neoh indicated that these were the easy cases to predict.

A more recent study by Brown, Tyson and Fernandez Arias (2014) a 10 year study of case files involving filicide from the Victorian coroner’s office between 2000-09 identified that mental illness (particularly depression) is the most prevalent factor in filicide, then separation, domestic violence and substance abuse thereafter.

Johnson, C. (2006) reviewed 7 WA cases where fathers had killed their children (n= 15) after parental separation. The report utilised information from Court, police records and interviews with relatives (n= 5 mothers and n =1 maternal aunt). Most fathers were seeing their children at the time of the filicide/suicide so it could not be claimed that the court process denying them access to their children was a motivation for the filicide/ suicide nor were there any disagreement about parenting arrangements. There was, however, histories of economic, social, emotional, and/or verbal abuse, and some acts of violence. Some mothers had had numerous contact with police and there reports were not taken seriously, but other mothers suggested the violence was unrecognised or underreported. The Father perpetrators had a number of common features between them, namely:

- Mental health problems – frequently depressive symptoms

- Obsessive behaviour and preoccupation with the separation

- Egocentricity

- Pathological jealousy

- A proprietorial view of their former partner and children

Dr. Neoh noted that she believed that the above factors should be looked at and implemented within risk assessment frameworks.

Johnson & Sachman (2014) noted that there were warning signs to familicide-suicide following separation. Warning signs are often not recognized or not adequately communicated to decision makers. Risk factors are dynamic and therefore not always able to be assessed in tests that measure static personality characteristics. Assessment needs to involve input from family members and collaboration with other agencies.

Johnson & Sachman noted several conclusions about Perpetrators, such as: borderline personality disorder more prevalent than Anti-social personality disorder in perpetrators of Filicide AND they showed signs of

- sensitivity to rejection and abandonment

- difficulty with affective regulatory dysfunction,

- likely higher levels of high substance abuse issues

- propensity to act out destructively.

Dr. Neoh noted that as a psychologist it can be very difficult to measure factors 1, 2 and 4.

From an attachment theory perspective prediction can be enhanced by assessments that include:

- Comprehensive psychological profiles including childhood abuse history

- Adult attachment assessments

- Measure the level of narcissism

- Degree of symbiosis in the relationship

- history of domestic violence, including threats to kill and/or suicide.

Although she thought it was a very good approach she noted it was difficult to quantify and on a practical level that unless you suspected dangerous in the first place, particular in relation to measures 2 and 3.

Kirkwood- ‘ Just say goodbye: Parents who kill their children in the context of separation’ (2013) discussion paper which:

“was prompted by the death of Darcey Freeman and other young children in Victoria, killed by their fathers. Those of us working in the family violence sector believe these deaths are not inexplicable. Too often they occur in the context of the parents’ separation and are linked to violence against the mother” (p.5)

The discussion paper draws on case examples, mainly from Victoria but also some from other Australian states. Information about the cases were primarily obtained from the media and trial judgments (when available). Dr. Neoh noted that sources of information about filicides are difficult to obtain – trial transcripts are prohibitively expensive and coronial records difficult to access. She also noted her concern that media distort cases and could not be relied upon as an accurate report.

The Kirkword noted several factors:

Factors in the family

- Recent parental separation

- Past history of family violence

And factors related to the perpetrator with reported . . .

= Life stressors and mental overload

= History of childhood trauma

= Generally negative attitudes towards women

= Fathers typically had attitudes of blaming mothers for their actions

“Th[is] paper argues that intentional filicides that occur in the context of separation differ to other types of filicide and therefore require a different approach to explanation and prevention. It also shows there are gender differences between fathers and mothers who perpetrate these filicides, which also need to be considered. Th[is] paper highlights a distinct type of separation filicide, primarily perpetrated by fathers, in which the children are killed to harm the other parent . . . described . . . as ‘revenge’ or ‘retaliation’ filicides”

Dr. Neoh, having completed her review of literature discussing indicators of risk posed the question, what do some common risk assessments look for? Can they predict flashpoints in families?

In answering the questions, Dr. Neoh briefly discussed common Risk Assessment Frame works such as Avert, DOORS and while noting that she thought they were all good assessment frameworks, she noted the common factors in them were a focus on:

- Parental Separation

- History of family violence –i.e. that past behaviour predicts future behaviour

- Direct threats

- Mental illness

- Substance abuse

But they were hard to quantify or specify direct risk to partners, former partners or children.

Dr. Neoh then discussed a number of case studies with particular focus to the risk being indicated by personality disorders, possessive and obsessive behaviours.

Dr Neoh concluded her presentation by stating that risk assessment models often focus on coercive violent relationships, but case studies suggest that other factors need to be incorporated to cover situations of increased risk of homicide and filicide before it occurs. Dr. Neoh advocated for a more nuanced approach to risk assessment.

She acknowledged that not all factors can be known that might improve risk assessment before any violence occurs although Johnson’s factors are very important to consider:

- Mental health problems – frequently depressive symptoms

- Obsessive behaviour and preoccupation with the separation

- Egocentricity

- Pathological jealousy

- A proprietorial view of their former partner and children

Dr. Neoh urged the audience to consider cases where there may not be history of violence or threats, for example, personality disorders under stress and it is important not to underestimate the added stress of Court events (in that they can be extremely stressful, promote sense of helpless), convergences of practical issues that add to stress or where perpetrators feel backed into a corner.

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