I’ve never gotten over Deborah’s murder. She’d been my client for over two years when her estranged husband shot her in the back through the living room window. He then shot himself in the head. They were in the middle of a difficult divorce and child custody battle at the time.
Her murder hit me in the gut. It happened two decades ago, but I still feel the ache in my core and am haunted by her face — particularly when I’m working with another woman trying to leave an abusive marriage. These cases leave me on edge and come back to me in the middle of the night. I live perpetually preparing for the worst.
Fortunately, Deborah’s children were in another room and were not injured when she was killed — unless we count the injury from finding their mother’s body and the legacy of violence left to them by their father.
Deborah had a restraining order at the time and had moved several hundred miles away due to fear. It still wasn’t enough to keep her safe.
Nothing scares me more than a certain kind of rageful man who is losing a battle over custody and divorce. It’s impossible to know in advance which ones will make a deadly decision, though there are some red flags.
Obsessive rumination, rage, verbal abuse, and a sense of entitlement are concerning. Add to this revenge fantasies, paranoid or delusional thinking, substance abuse, and a history of violence and the danger escalates dramatically. Social isolation and vocational problems are additional amplifiers, as well as access to firearms.
The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.
I often find myself in the position of having to explain these risks to law enforcement personnel and divorce lawyers as I try to help clients develop a plan to stay safe. Despite our best efforts, we are not always successful.
Awareness of potential danger is part of it, and the danger is not just to the person trying to leave. 20% of the victims were not the intimate partners themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, law enforcement responders, or bystanders. And surprisingly, the children are at risk of murder as well.
Lillian De Bortoli, a researcher at Swinburne University in Australia, has identified three types of fathers who murder their children:
· De Facto Male. This type of child killer is a live-in boyfriend or stepfather. He typically kills only one child and has a history of abusing the child. Murders of this type are usually hands-on and quite violent, with stomping, throwing, beating, strangling, etc., involved.
· Separated Father. The murdered children are his own flesh and blood. Estranged from the mother, a father in this category generally has a history of abusing her, the children, or both. The abuse may have prompted the separation. Revenge against the mother is the motivation, and the killing often occurs during custody disputes.
· Coupled Father. A father who kills his children while the family is still intact, he typically has a criminal history. This type is at high risk of being not just a child killer, but a family annihilator. Most of these murders involve multiple victims, and in the case of family annihilators, may include not only the children’s mother, but also members of the extended family and anyone else who happens to be present when the frenzy begins.
As clinicians, we don’t have terrific options for dealing with this problem. This kind of perpetrator is highly unlikely to seek mental health services for himself and laws don’t allow for incarceration or involuntary commitment unless specific threats are made in advance. Most violent men are savvy enough to avoid doing that.
There is no significant intervention typically available beyond restraining orders or going into hiding. Ironically, the act of getting a restraining order can be the precipitating event to murder.
The reasons for these incidents are multifactorial, and the solutions must be too. Funding for services for survivors of intimate partner violence is critical, though that alone isn’t enough. Anger management classes for offenders are notoriously ineffective. Raising awareness of the risks, and amplifying intervention strategies is also important, but none of it feels like enough.
I struggle with that.
Therapists, social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement personnel often experience vicarious trauma from working with these cases and struggle with secondary PTSD.
When the stories we listen to start showing up in our own nightmares, it’s time for us to go to therapy. I’ve been there myself, too many times.
*name of client and identifying details changed