Listen: A resource for practitioners supporting children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide

Listen

On January 31st, 1985, Kathryn Joy lost her mother to domestic violence. 35 years later, Kathryn shared her story during the Children as Victims of Crime Round Table, in Melbourne, on 31 January 2020.

Please listen to this audio file before reading on.

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  • Transcript of audio file

    Kathryn: I’m 12 years old and in my first year of high school, and a new friend asks me what my mother does for a living.

    I’m standing in the doorway of a classroom and I can’t move. Everything inside me feels chaotic - a jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings, my brain scrambling for the right words to get me out of the conversation that I know is about to occur. I feel my new friend staring at me, waiting for an answer that I don’t know how to give…

    ‘... she’s dead’, I said quietly.

    My stomach turns as I wait for the follow up question... it always comes. Kids are curious, and not well versed in social cues.

    ‘How did she die?’ he asks, and my face turns red and there is this hollow nauseous ache in my guts that I would later come to recognise as shame.

    I say nothing, because... I don’t really know. I don’t know how to explain it, nobody has ever really explained it to me.

    ‘How did she die?’ He asks again.

    It is an odd feeling, to want so desperately to be understood, to be seen, and, in equal measure - to disappear, become invisible.

    ‘She.… I don’t want to talk about it’, I say.

    And I brace myself for what’s next but all he does is shrug and say ’Ok... sorry’, and he walks away but I still wonder if somehow he just knows, like my face gives something away, and I realise I haven’t taken a breath in a really long time and I want to cry or scream but my class is about to start so I pack up my bag and all of my feelings, and I put them away somewhere... because they’re confusing and I don’t understand them -

    and then, all of a sudden, I feel nothing at all.

    If it’s possible to feel less than nothing, inhuman somehow, I feel that - and I don’t understand that either, I don’t understand what’s wrong with me, but I know something is really wrong with me. In that moment, it’s the only thing I know for sure.

    ~

    In the following years, whenever the question was asked, I would say ‘car accident’ or ‘cancer’. No less tragic, of course – however, I was already keenly aware, far more socially acceptable.

    I got good at lying. Another thing to feel ashamed about, but somehow less shameful than the truth.

    ‘My dad killed her’.

    I never knew how to say that out loud.

    ‘I am afraid of him’.

    I never knew how to say that either.

    ~

    It seems fitting that today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. On January 31st, 1985, my father got a gun and shot my mother, Carolyn, 3 times in our family home. I was 3 months old, my brothers, 4 and 8. My father served 3 years of an 8-year sentence for manslaughter - the provocation defence.

    In what I assume was an effort to keep us out of the system, my brothers and I were informally fostered - looked after by family friends and relatives of my father, while he was in prison. We each lived with separate carers because no one person could take us all.

    I often wonder what that must have been like for us as small humans - a dead mother, a father in prison, and then to be separated from each other. Carers who were suffering through their own complicated trauma and grieving process. Nobody keeping tabs.

    My heart feels heavy for those children.

    It is sometimes easier to feel for them, back there in the past, than for myself, here, in the present.

    Upon my father’s release from prison, my brothers and I went back to live in the family home with him. My attachment to my foster family seemingly irrelevant at this juncture – my father wanted us back.

    So, most of my childhood was spent in that house, with my father as my primary carer.

    It is a lonely feeling - to love someone who you fear. To want to protect someone who has hurt you so much.

    To feel unsafe in a place, a home, but perhaps more unsafe outside of it because the world feels terrifying when the people that are supposed to love you the most, are the ones that hurt you. It feels like, if they can do it, anyone can...

    And... better the devil you know.

    I wasn’t asked at any point if I wanted to live with him (I don’t remember ever being asked anything), though I realised later that part of the reason he served so little of his sentence was because they were keen to get him back to his family, his job, his life. As far as I could tell, everything was in his best interests, and nothing was in ours.

    I don’t really blame people for not advocating for us…. folks had their own trauma to deal with. And they were up against a system and a society that saw my father as a victim – he was a white, well-educated, middle class man, and my mother had betrayed him.

    But I do continue to be amazed that nobody once asked me if I was okay living in that house with him. Or with my brothers, for that matter. They were angry (understandably, justifiably). We all were. Though my fear trumped my anger and my anger manifested quite differently than my brothers. Mine turned inward - theirs, outward.

    I spent a lot of years searching for answers, searching for ways to be okay... I searched for validation, for understanding, for connection, for community, for safety. I searched in places that I probably shouldn’t have - places and people that were far from safe. I found myself in situations that I look back on in sadness and regret and fear.

    I searched for a way out of the life I was born into. I searched for a way into something more meaningful.

    I searched for information, for education, for mental health support, for similar stories, for peace of mind.

    Some of those things I have found - others I still search for. Perhaps I always will.

    Somewhat ironically, the thing that protected my father from his crimes, from taking responsibility, is the same thing that has protected me, kept me relatively safe, helped me be a somewhat functioning human being in the world - privilege. I have quite a lot of it. Many people in my situation, do not.

    And I also fought hard to be okay. I fought *for* myself and *by* myself for a very long time. I fought for professional help, for a support network, for my freedom and for my sanity. I fought for access to information about my own life, I fought to have a voice. And it is exhausting to fight for these things. And it is expensive. And it has taken up a lot of space and time in my life. It has taken a lot *out* of me, and *from* me.

    And there were so many things I had to do alone, that I wish I could have done with the help of others.

    And I have others now...

    But there are still days that feel impossibly hard.

    Living with childhood trauma is complicated, to say the least. Traumatic grief - Disenfranchised grief, is complicated. It is both personal and political, and healing becomes somewhat dependent on both your own understanding of what has occurred, and society’s understanding and acknowledgement of what has occurred.

    It is a difficult road, and nobody should have to travel it alone.

  • Introduction

    In the past two decades, approximately 1,000 Australian children and young people have lost a parent due to domestic homicide.

    In the aftermath, police, family courts, child protection, family members and others make far-reaching decisions about children and young people’s futures.

    In this context, practitioners face critical questions like:

    • How can we ensure that children and young people’s perspectives and experiences are considered in these decisions?
    • What are the best options for children based on current evidence and best-practice?
    These are difficult questions for any practitioner or policy maker. Instead of providing straightforward answers, our resource is an invitation to reflect and provide a starting point for conversations.

    ‘Listen’ focuses primarily on Kathryn’s story of being a person with lived experience of being bereaved by domestic homicide. However, we acknowledge that this is one story from one person. Every child or young person affected by domestic homicide has a unique experience, which in turn is shaped by their social, economic and cultural contexts and their intersections.

  • Why Listen

    Domestic homicide disrupts all aspects of children and young people’s lives. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) stipulates that children and young people have the right to express their views freely in all matters of their lives, and for their views to be considered in decisions that affect them.

    Listening to children and young people involves paying attention to what they tell us but also what they express in non-verbal ways. Also, listening to children and young people’s voices may require practitioners, family and friends to take the first step and invite them to share with them what are their views and experiences. This can be a difficult thing to do, and practitioners are rightfully concerned about making sure that children are feeling safe when sharing their experiences.

    Research and practical experience show that children and young people’s voices are currently not always heard in the context of domestic violence and domestic homicide. It makes us wonder:

    • How can we create more opportunities for children and young people to participate in decisions that shape their lives?
    • When we do, are they truly free to express themselves? Or are they experiencing pressure from their families, services or society in general?
    • What are our own feelings and assumptions about children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide, and how do these affect how we communicate with them?
  • One size doesn’t fit all

    Each child and young person has unique and fluid experiences and points of view, as well as expansive inner worlds that are shaped by the social, cultural, and environmental context in which they live and interact. Children and young people may have vastly different thoughts and feelings towards their parents, family and living arrangements, and there may even be contrasting perspectives between siblings in the same family.

    The ways in which children and young people choose to express themselves may vary considerably; therefore, questions arise around how to create opportunities for children and young people to safely voice their perspectives. A range of methods may be needed depending on age, cultural background, and individual characteristics. Close observation of behaviour and non-verbal responses may be helpful, particularly with younger children. For example, young children may react in different ways when in contact with the perpetrating parent that can reflect their specific needs (e.g. sleep problems, physical illness, being able to stay calm).

    Building on the question at the end of the video, we wonder:

    • Where do we have opportunity to adapt our work more effectively to children and young people’s cultural background and specific context? Where may we be able to bring in cultural brokers?
    • How do we promote each child and young person’s individual voice across developmental stages?
  • As a practitioner, your role is crucial

    Children and young people – including those who have experienced domestic homicide – are experts in their own lives, and a critical source of insight and wisdom. Given the opportunity, children and young people have great capacity to contribute to decisions that impact their lives.

    However, while many children and young people deeply value the opportunity to be heard, and rely on genuine support and advocacy from practitioners, they can also feel overwhelmed when too many different organisations are involved, and when there is a lack of continuity in terms of multiple changes in guardians, youth services, or placement workers. Also, when children are frequently asked their preferences, but those preferences are not upheld.

    In this context, relevant questions to ask are:

    • As children and young people’s needs change over time, how can we coordinate different services to provide long-term support?
    • In what ways can we lessen the likelihood of children and young people being asked to repeatedly tell their stories to multiple people (when this is not with therapeutic intent)?
    • What expectations and assumptions might a children or young person have about talking with a practitioner?
  • Supporting children and young people’s wellbeing

    After domestic homicide, children and young people are confronted with a complex combination of trauma, loss, grief, guilt, shame, fear, isolation and hardship. Domestic homicide is often the result of years of domestic violence and has a profound impact on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, resulting in complex and frequently negative outcomes across social, psychological, academic, and physical domains.

    In this context, practitioners may need information in relation to aspects like:

    • Under what circumstances did the child or young person find out about the domestic homicide? What aspects may have made it worse (e.g. level of exposure to the crime scene, distressing media coverage) and what emotional support was immediately available?
    • Did the family have a previous history of domestic violence? Did the child receive any services before the homicide?

    Also, practitioners face the challenging task of working out what support is necessary, when, who should give it and how:

    • What opportunities do we have to learn whether the child or young person is currently going through personal or family difficulties?
    • How do we help the child or young person regain and maintain a sense of self-esteem, safety, stability and trust?
    • Who can be a stable and ongoing source of support for the child or young person (family member, counsellor, teacher)?
    • What other types of support does the child or young person need (therapy, schools, social care, victim support services, friends, support groups)?
  • Grief and loss

    Grief and mourning in children and young people is often dismissed or misunderstood. While children and young people’s grief may present differently to adults, this does not mean they do not experience it. Domestic homicide results in complex losses for children and young people, and their experience of grief and mourning will be multifaceted. In the aftermath of domestic homicide, children and young people may experience profound internal shifts that impact their sense of safety or understanding of the world and their relationships, and their concept of self or identity. Concurrently, there may be dramatic changes in their external worlds in terms of residence, school, neighbourhood and friends.

    Children and young people may have a deep connection and attachment to the parent who was killed and/or the perpetrating parent, with a strong desire for stories, mementos and information that will help them remember and understand. Other children and young people who were very young at the time of the homicide may need additional support to comprehend the meaning of death, and to express and make sense of their experiences as they age.

    Children and young people’s grieving experience may be complicated due to their developmental age, the stigma associated with homicide (and potentially suicide or imprisonment), the traumatic nature of the loss, the caregivers own mourning processes, among other factors.

    In this context, practitioners may reflect on the following questions:

    • In addition to losing the deceased parent, what other losses could the child or young person be grieving?
    • How can we help children and young people remember and learn more about their deceased parent when they need to?
    • How can we help children and young people grieve depending on their personal needs and culture?
  • Living arrangements and guardianship

    For most children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide, the first and main changes are in their living arrangements. Depending on the case, children and young people may be placed under local authority/foster care, different family members or family friends. Often, children and young people have to move several times. Conversely, living arrangements can help promote a sense of stability/continuity for the children and young people when they help maintain access to their school, friends, family and neighbourhood.

    Children’s relationship with their family can vary greatly, and siblings don’t necessarily experience things in the same way. Some children and young people have a positive relationship with both sides of their family, while others may prefer not to contact them. Many may also experience tensions between family members, which can cause loyalty conflicts.  Additionally, the child or young person’s culture and traditions will determine the meaning and role of family in their life.

    In this complex scenario, some questions that practitioners face are:

    • What information is available to help us make decisions about living arrangements and guardianship?
    • What role does the child or young person’s sibling/s play in their life? In what ways are siblings’ views similar and different, and do they want to live together?
    • How can we help prevent or mediate tensions between sides of the family?
  • Contact with the perpetrator

    Children and young people’s views on whether to have contact with the perpetrator (who may be in prison or in the community) are often not considered. Some may miss the perpetrating parent, struggle between wanting and not wanting to stay in contact or plan to do so in the future when they feel ready. In the same family, siblings can have very different opinions.

    Often, children and young people don’t want to build a relationship with the perpetrator. They may be afraid of them, especially if the perpetrator previously tried to control or intimidate them. When children and young people do want contact, it’s often for reasons like obtaining information, seeking an apology, accompanying a sibling, or answering a request from the perpetrator.

    Children and young people should not be forced into having contact with the perpetrator. Practitioners can help them consider a wide range of options – communicating through a postcard, social media or Zoom once in a while can feel very different from a prison visit. If contact is wanted, practitioners can help the child or young person feel safe (e.g. having someone accompany them, mediating between families).

    It is important for practitioners to remain open minded in regard to the feelings that may arise for children and young people towards the perpetrator, as this may be a source of confusion, shame and guilt for them. Thus, practitioners face questions like:

    • How do you maintain a trusting relationship with a child or young person when a decision is made that goes against what they want?
    • How can we help the child or young person feel safe if they contact the perpetrator?

    Additionally, we may also reflect on:

    • Is there a possibility that the perpetrator is in contact with the child or young person without the knowledge of services (in person or using social media platforms)?
    • Who informs the child, young person and their family when the perpetrator is released from jail?
  • Supporting families

    Families are also dealing with the loss of the victim and often do not feel equipped to take up the role of carer after the domestic homicide. They may experience economic hardship and need financial support to care for the child or young person.

    Thus, caregivers can struggle to manage the child or young person’s needs and their own health while being emotionally available. Practitioners can assist by offering ongoing and long-term services that are tailored to the culture and languages of the families involved.

    Conflicts between family members may emerge at different moments. This is a complex situation for any practitioner. While there are no universal solutions, practitioners can actively listen to children, young people, their caregivers, and trusted adults in a child or young person’s life, to help mediate conflicts before or when they arise.

    Some potentially useful questions for practitioners are:

    • What types of loss and other circumstances are affecting the family?
    • How do we tailor our services to families with different languages and cultural backgrounds?
    • How can we continue supporting caregivers and family members in the mid to long-term after domestic homicide?
    • How can we manage conflict or tension when children, young people, caregivers and practitioners have differing views?
  • Final reflections

    We would like to close this resource with some general questions for reflection:

    • How do we move from the process of listening to children and young people, to them being heard by all the necessary/appropriate people and agencies involved, and subsequently to implementation of any decisions made?
    • At times when decisions may need to be made on behalf of children and young people, what information is given to them, how and by whom?
    • How do we go about translating children’s voices into meaningful action?
    • What are the available options of self-care for practitioners?
  • Do you need help?

    Domestic Violence Resource Centre (DVRCV) provides resources and classes to help people understand what family violence is and how to give and get help to people who are experiencing it: https://woah.org.au/

    The following list of helplines and websites for people experiencing domestic violence in Australia:

    1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732 The national sexual assault, domestic and family violence information and support line, 24 hours. https://www.1800respect.org.au/help-and-support

    • If you need translation or interpreting services call: Translating and Interpreting Service National on 13 14 50and ask them to contact 1800 RESPECT.
    • For callers who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impairment call National Relay Service and ask them to contact 1800RESPECT
    • TTY/Voice Calls – phone 133 677
    • Speak and Listen – phone 1300 555 727
    • Internet relay users – visit the National Relay Service website https://www.communications.gov.au/what-we-do/phone/services-people-disability/accesshub

    Lifeline – 13 11 14 Crisis support and suicide prevention, 24 hours. https://www.lifeline.org.au/

    Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800 Kids Helpline listen to kids, teens and young adults for any reason, 24 hours. https://kidshelpline.com.au/

    Bravehearts – 1800 272 831 Provides specialist therapeutic services and support to children and young people, adults and non-offending family members affected by child sexual assault. https://bravehearts.org.au/what-we-do/counselling-and-support/

    Blue Knot Foundation (formerly Adults Surviving Child Abuse) – 1300 657 380 Provides professional phone counselling, information and support for adult survivors of child abuse with referral database of experienced professionals and agencies, 9am-5pm EST, 7 days. https://www.blueknot.org.au/

    Better To Know AMS – Local Aboriginal medical and other health service details Relationships Australia – Online counselling with a professional counsellor using a confidential, text-based chat message service. http://www.bettertoknow.org.au/AMS.html

    QLife –  provides Australia-wide anonymous, LGBTI peer support and referral for people wanting to talk about a range of issues including sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships. Services are free and include telephone and webchat support, delivered by trained LGBTI community members across the country. https://qlife.org.au

    Relationships Australia – Online counselling with a professional counsellor using a confidential, text-based chat message service. https://onlinecounselling.relationshipsvictoria.com.au/

  • About this resource

    Our team is mainly based on the lands of the Kulin Nation. We acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australia's First People and Traditional Custodians. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future.

    The creation and publication of this resource was funded by a one-year grant from the Myer Foundation. We would also like to thank the following collaborators who made key contributions to the development and revision of this resource (in alphabetical order): Anna Barret, John Frederik, Mira Vasileva, Rowena Conroy and Ashwini Sakthiakumaran.

    If you would like to know more about this resource, you can contact  Associate Professor Eva Alisic ealisic@unimelb.edu.au or Katitza Marinkovic  marinkovick@unimelb.edu.au.

    How to cite this resource: Alisic, E., Joy, K., Lamberti, V. & Marinkovic, K. (2021). Listen: A resource for practitioners supporting children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide. The University of Melbourne. http://go.unimelb.edu.au/8zji