Supporting children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide

Content type
Event date

13 September 2023, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Eva Alisic, Kathryn Joy, Joe Tucci, Rachel Carson




Sensitive Content Warning

This webinar discusses instances where one parent has murdered the other and how this impacts children within the family. An adult with lived experience will discuss their childhood. Please take care while listening and if you want some support please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. You can also reach out to Blue Knot Helpline and Redress Support Service on 1300 657 380. 

If you are in immediate danger, call Police on 000.


About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday, 13 September 2023.

The murder of a child’s parent in the context of domestic violence is a traumatic experience that has immediate and long-term effects on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Children and young people may experience ongoing distress, safety concerns and family conflict. Many also face the loss of the perpetrator parent.

Although supporting these children and young people is critical, there are no evidence-based guidelines to determine who is best placed to care for them or how. Decisions about their lives are often made by family, the police, child protection and other professionals with little input from the children themselves.

The voices of these survivors – as children and as adults – are crucial to developing a greater understanding of their experiences in relation to living arrangements, family and peer relationships and wellbeing.

This webinar will help you:

  • understand the prevalence and impact of domestic homicide on children and young people, including their experiences of trauma and bereavement
  • understand the importance of giving children and young people a voice in decisions about their lives
  • develop insight into the key considerations for practitioners and services when working with individuals and families impacted by domestic homicide (including navigating short- and long-term impacts)
  • develop insight into how to better support individuals and families impacted by domestic homicide.

The webinar will interest those working in child and family services, child protection, family law, health and education.

Audio transcipt (edited)

DR RACHEL CARSON: Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to today’s webinar.  My name is Rachel Carson and I am a Senior Research Fellow and Executive Manager of the Family Law, Family Violence and Elder Abuse Research Team here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.  I would like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation who are the traditional owners of the lands here in Naarm, Melbourne, where we are speaking to you from today.  I also pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to Elders and First Australians online with us today.  Today’s topic is supporting children and young people bereaved by domestic homicide.  I would like to acknowledge people with lived experience of family violence. 

This can be a very difficult topic to talk and hear about.  Please everyone take care while listening, and if you or someone you know needs support there is a list of services and contact information in the handouts tab in the GoTo webinar platform.  Domestic homicide is a traumatic experience that has immediate and long term effects on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development.  Although supporting these children is critical, there is limited evidence-based guidelines to determine who is best-placed to care for them.  Decisions about their lives fall to decision-makers who may have little or no input from the children themselves.  In today’s discussion we won’t be sharing any graphic descriptions of violence or homicide.  We will be focusing on what is known about the prevalence of domestic homicides, understanding people’s experiences and the impacts of bereavement from domestic homicide, and what practitioners can do in their roles to support these children and families. 

While preventing domestic homicides is a critically important topic, today’s discussion will largely focus on understanding the effects.  Before we begin our discussion and introduce our panellists I have a little bit of housekeeping.  There will be a live Q&A session at the end of our discussion today.  Questions can be submitted by the questions box in the GoTo webinar dashboard.  This webinar is being recorded.  It will be available in two weeks from this webinar, and it will be available on the AIFS website under the webinar banner.  And you can subscribe to AIFS News for more information also.  In relation to the reading and resources related to this topic, the references that are made to resource in this webinar will be also available in the handout section of the GoTo webinar dashboard.  Also, if you have time, please complete the short feedback survey at the end of the webinar. 

Now I would like to introduce our panellists.  Professor Eva Alisic is based at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, and studies how people and families deal with traumatic experiences.  Since 2010 she has led a program of research looking at the impact of domestic homicide.  Kathryn Joy, whose pronouns are they/them, lost their mother at the hands of their father when they were a few months old.  They have been a coinvestigator in Eva’s research for several years.  They are also involved in a documentary, ‘Kill Joy’, which will be released next year.  And finally Dr Joe Tucci who is CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation and the Inaugural Chairperson of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse.  He is a registered psychologist and social worker with over 30 years’ experience in the field of child abuse. 

Now we may begin our discussion.  Eva, I wonder if you could provide an overview of the nature and prevalence of children and young people who are bereaved by domestic homicide based on your research, and how this may be considered in the Australian context. 

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: A big question to start with Rachel.  With regard to prevalence, the issue is that we actually don’t have reliable, centrally-collected information in Australia.  We do have information from research that we, among others, did in the Netherlands where we looked at a period of 10 years and 256 children had lost a biological parent due to homicide, domestic homicide.  Now the Netherlands is a smaller country than Australia, literally and population wise obviously, and our definition was relatively narrow I would say. So if you think of children who lose a step-parent, children who lose a parent who has gone missing without it being recorded as a domestic violence related death or missing, children who lose a parent due to violence but through suicide of that parent. 

So our guestimate has been that we’re talking about 1,000 children and young people in Australia for a period of 20 years.  Hopefully that’s an overestimate, that it’s – if we want to address support for children and young people in their environment we obviously need to know who we need to look at and after.  In terms of the impact we know a bit more, and as you already introduced, it’s obviously across all aspects of life.  Saying that somebody’s life is disrupted is clearly an -


PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: - it never captures the extent of that disruption well enough.  But to indicate a few things; so in most cases the homicide happens at home.  Many children are either witnesses or witness the crime scene afterwards.  Because home is the crime scene they have to move, and of course the loss of their parents is already there, but then also the loss of home.  If you have to move home you might need to move schools, if you move schools, and with all the media attention in many of these cases it also means that your whole social life is incredibly disrupted.  So apart from what we all might think of in terms of mental health impact of such a horrible experience, many of these children have experienced domestic violence in the leadup to the homicide as well, so there is a history before this major event. 

And the actual direct loss of parents in that time, there’s this whole impact on all the other domains of their life throughout their life.  It’s not that one event and then it’s the way up afterwards and a story of recovery.  What we hear from the people we’ve spoken with is it’s nonlinear, and it’s some of the moments when it’s extra difficult again, maybe predictable.  There are some moments, like for example when people have their own children, it might make a lot of sense that there’s a clear milestone.  But there may also be unpredictable moments when it comes up, and I’m sure Kathryn may have examples of that. 

DR RACHEL CARSON:  Yes.  And Eva, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what your research shows us about what caregivers need in this context?

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: Yeah, sure.  Support, just as much as the children and young people – a number of caregivers, as you can imagine, are relatives of the victim and of the children, so a substantial number are grandparents from the victim’s side.  In most cases that means they’ve lost their daughter.  So they already are dealing with incredible loss, grief, traumatic experience, guilt feelings that are related to that, plus then looking after children who similarly have been through this horrible experience.  When you’re also no longer an energetic 20 or 30 year old means that – again, it’s an enormous task to do that and to know how to read a child’s needs after trauma and after grief, how to respond to that, and to have that capacity while you’re grieving yourself is really a really big ask that we should be supporting, not only in the direct aftermath but in the longer term. 

And it also applies to caregivers who are not related.  Also for them it’s understanding what the child needs and supporting a child through that is incredibly challenging, even if you are not dealing with your own mental health impact. 

DR RACHEL CARSON:  Yes.  And in your research Eva, are you able to tell us what you found about the inclusion of children’s voices, particularly in the Australian context?

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: Yes.  We’ve come across a real lack of inclusion of children and young people’s voice in the sense that many of the people we’ve spoken with have felt that they haven’t had a say in the decisions that are so fundamental for their life afterwards.  So think of, well, where they would live afterwards, with whom, if the perpetrator is a parent whether they should have any contact with that perpetrator, and if so how much, in what format et cetera.  About the need – the support they need, decisions around that, and also regarding the story that is being told, for example at school, how much of a say, of agency have they had.  We know a traumatic event is characterised by not being in control is –

One of the core elements of a traumatic event is you’re totally out of control of the situation, and that makes it extra important that apart from the whole issue that children have a right to be heard and influence matters that affect them both in terms of recovery post-trauma, you would want to provide them as much agency as possible, and our participants have provided many examples of not having that situation.  And also obviously it’s ironic that we have a panel where we talk about kids again and don’t have a young people on the panel, which is often – there are good reasons, but also it’s problematic that they don’t get sufficient say when they need to.  And similarly I feel awkward talking about this while Kathryn, of course, is a person with their own experience. 

DR RACHEL CARSON:  Yes, and Kathryn, you may wish to join the discussion at this point in terms of this question about children’s voices and the extent to which they’re heard, but also to draw you into the discussion in terms of telling us a little bit about the differences between bereavement from domestic homicide and other types of homicidal parental loss, and I wonder if you do see there to be a difference, and if so what that might be?

KATHRYN JOY: Thanks Rachel, I really appreciate that question I think partly because it gives me an opportunity to talk about grief, and specifically disenfranchised grief, which is something that – it’s kind of a term I guess that I came across in my late-20s when I was studying social work, and I’m so grateful for that understanding and the naming of such a huge part of my experience, and I think a huge part of the experience of a lot of children and young people and adults who have been bereaved in this particular way.  Just for those who aren’t familiar with the term, in a simple way it’s defined as a loss that hasn’t been, or cannot be, openly acknowledged, socially accepted or recognised, or publicly mourned.  So for me I’ve always felt like there was this politicised element to this kind of loss, and to this kind of healing as well, that sometimes doesn’t accompany potentially other kinds of losses. 

I do want to say just before I get into that too much, I feel like I can’t really speak about disenfranchised grief without naming the immeasurable loss and grief that was brought about by colonisation and continues to this day, and just naming the fact that I’m living on stolen land, the lands of the Wiradjuri people of the Kulin Nation, I really would like to pay my respects to elders past and present and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people listening today.  I think that there are so many ongoing injustices, so much loss and grief, and we should all of us feel rage at that, and at the very least be naming that, and trying to find ways to disrupt systems that are silencing the harms being done to First Nations people in this colony, including deaths in custody and missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and gender diversity for, and as Amy McGuire says they are often violently disappear, they’re not just missing. 

So I think that that’s important to speak about in this context as well.  Like when there’s injustice as part of a death or deaths and when there’s violence, there’s so little room to grieve because there’s so many other things to navigate I guess, and so many barriers.  Sometimes I feel like grief can be seen as this afterthought, like when we have time, and there’s never time because there’s all of these other things.  And I think that grief in these circumstances isn’t just what we do when someone dies, or even what physiologically happens to our bodies in the wake of a violent loss, but I see grief and mourning as preventative.  Grieving allows rage and sorrow to fuel us into action to prevent ongoing harm, and it’s a way for communities to revolt in times of injustice. 

So it feels really important to speak about grief both as necessary to life in and of itself to just like part of living and loving and losing people and things that we love, but also in how we heal ourselves and communities.  And I just want to say by heal I don’t mean fix or get better, I mean to come back to ourselves, and to be connected to others and to this land, and to be in solidarity with others in this larger fight for liberation and justice.  So I think that in circumstances like this the kids, for anyone, but for children, one injustice that I feel like I experience and have witnessed is this assumption that children don’t grieve, or that they grieve less, or that the way that they grieve is somehow so different to be seen as less worthy of space or time or care, or just confusing so let’s not go near it.  So in that sense children are disenfranchised grievers. 

And just as an aside, I had a lot of people, really well-meaning extended family as well as virtual strangers, including a therapist that I saw briefly in my early-20s, say to me that I was lucky that I was three months old when I lost my mother because I didn’t know her and I didn’t have anything to lose really, and that I wasn’t aware of all the trauma and the violence.  And I really internalised that for a long time, this sense that I wasn’t even really worthy of grieving her because I didn’t know her.  So I think that’s a way that children are disenfranchised in that sense. And children in this situation are also experiencing a disenfranchised loss and losses, so losses that carry a lot of shame.  For me, my father was in prison, and my mother being a victim of family violence and homicide and there’s this shame surrounding that, and trauma, and that trauma really isolates people. 

And the stigma and silencing, and not knowing others who share this experience and not being witnessed, it’s hugely isolating. And I would say that it’s also an experience that I guess those in power and that systems of oppression would like us to see as an isolated experience as well, and that’s just not true.  We know that women are being killed and are dying weekly, we know children are being killed in their families, we know that queer and trans folks are being killed and killing themselves, we know Aboriginal people are being killed by the state.  We know all of these things, and none of these things are isolated experiences, just happening to individuals here and there, and nor are they unconnected from each other.  So for me part of the importance of naming and making space for grief is that this is where we collectivise, this is where we say, ‘Enough, stop killing us, stop killing our children, stop killing our mothers, stop.’ 

So that feels like a really important part of it all.  There’s a – I just wanted to say this quote because I think it encapsulates this, by Harsha Walia who’s a South Asian activist in Canada who says that, ‘In a time when so many lives are considered ungrievable (as coined by Judith Butler) grieving is a politically necessary act.  Vulnerability and tenderness for each other, and public grievability for life itself are some of the most profound acts of community resistance.’  And I just feel like that’s really moving.  I feel like I’ve been grieving my whole life.  It’s such a dominant experience in my life.  I was so young when my mother was killed, and the loss of her has shaped my life, and the loss of that fragmentation of my family.  My father was in prison, my brothers and I were separated, and then my father was out of prison and I lost the family that I was with in some ways. 

And there’s this kind of loss of trust in family in and of itself.  As something that we see as this stable foundation, it’s not something that I experienced.  And there was so much silence around my mother’s death, and I saw all the ways that the adults around me were denied that right to fully grieve for her and how that left them ill-equipped to hold the grief of her children, for me and my brothers.  And not just the grief but hold the rage and the profound sorrow and despair of losing a parent before you even know them and in such a horrifying way.  So I feel like because there was no room for that grief, no language around that, no justice or accountability, we were left on our own with it, and I think the impact of that is ongoing.  I remember feeling –

DR RACHEL CARSON: And that’s –

KATHRYN JOY: Yeah, sorry, I’m just rambling now –

DR RACHEL CARSON: No, go ahead Kathryn – no, no, I don’t want to interrupt you Kathryn, go ahead. 

KATHRYN JOY: I just – I remember that feeling for a lot of my childhood, and a lot of my adulthood, that sort of absence and disconnection from the world and others and myself, and that it cut me off from connecting deeply to people for a really, really long time, because these losses are so relational.  They sever so many attachments all at once, and that’s why I feel so strongly about the need to connect with others, and to grieve collectively for the harms that are done to so many of us in different ways.  I guess I can talk – I don’t know, I can talk a little bit about ritual as well and the healing around choosing to publicly mourn I guess.  Anyway, I could go on for a long time I guess.

DR RACHEL CARSON: Well it’s been very helpful to have you talk to us about this disenfranchised grief that you and your brothers experienced, and you’ve started to talk to those impacts that this has had on you of being bereaved by domestic homicide.  And we’ve gotten a glimpse into that last question that we touched on with Eva about the extent to which her research has shown about the inclusion, or should I say lack of inclusion of children’s voices, in the context of decision making in this space, and I wonder if you could talk to us a little more about the long term impacts into adulthood that you’ve experienced by being bereaved by domestic homicide. 

KATHRYN JOY: Yeah.  There are so many long term impacts I suppose.  I think that part of it – I guess there’s the impact of being bereaved, which would've been awful either way, but there’s also the impact of not being supported in what happened.  And so sometimes I feel like what I experienced and what I’ve been living with is not just the impact of what happened but the impact of all of the ways that I think that we were failed by systems and – a lot of the people around me were also failed, and therefore just because of not having their own support sort of weren’t there in the way that we needed.  So I think that there’s a combination of a feeling of failure of the adults around us to take care of us, and to protect us, and to listen, and offer the kind of support that we needed because they weren’t getting it either.

And then there’s just long term system failure, or the cynic in me is like well a lot of the systems are working as they’re supposed to, which is just that they’re not broken, they’re just functioning as they’re meant to, which means that a lot of people, marginalised people are getting left behind.  But yeah, I feel like I – obviously mental health, that’s something I’ve always had to manage due to the trauma but also the trauma not being seen or supported.  Something that I do feel quite passionate about is the fact that getting support, access to support is so difficult, its expensive, and it’s just inaccessible in so many ways.  And even if there is support available in some ways you have to know about it in the first place, or the people around you have to know about it, and so few people do. 

Especially if you’re a child, you have only the amount of information that people are willing to tell you, but also that the adults in your life know.  So I think that it’s a combination of not knowing what’s out there, but also there being nowhere near enough support out there for children and young people who have experienced this.  And that has long term impacts on so many things: housing, and employment, and just – there’s been many times in my life, and I have a lot of privilege in a lot of ways, but that I’ve just had to choose between mental health support, which I desperately needed, and being able to feed myself.  And that’s’ just such an awful position to be in for anybody.  So there are so many things, but I do think that the fact that it is just so difficult to get the support that you need is a huge one.  It’s so expensive getting therapy.

DR RACHEL CARSON: So given that in the context of inaccessibility of supports and that lack of support for family and carers who are looking after you, what would you like practitioners and service providers to know when they are supporting children who are bereaved by domestic homicide?

KATHRYN JOY: I think that firstly there needs to be more inbuilt support so that it doesn’t fall to one practitioner having to go above and beyond, which is kind of what we’ve heard about in the research and my own experience of, ‘Oh I’m so lucky, I had this one person who just went way above their job description to make sure that I had all of these things.’  I don’t think it should fall to someone to have to do that.  I think that there needs to be support embedded for practitioners and in organisations so that it’s not just like you have to take all of this time outside of your work.  I also think that there’s some real – I mean every case is different, and all children aren’t just a homogenous group, there’s different barriers that different children will face because of their backgrounds and situations, and also just personalities and temperaments and all of the things. 

So really – we talk about it so much that it’s come out of the research, and we just – every case is different so you just have to listen to what – you have to really value children’s voices and listen to them, and try not to make too many assumptions.  I think that there were so many assumptions made about how I would feel about my dad or my mum or the situation that were often really incorrect, or that were just so much more complicated.  A lot of people like to tell me how I should feel, but actually it’s such a complex thing when the person that has harmed your parent is your other parent.  You don’t suddenly stop needing that other parent, or being attached to that other parent, or potentially loving that other parent.  So I guess I think it’s important for people to know that and to not make assumptions about how they think they would feel.  It’s just such – it’s so complicated. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Thank you Kathryn, that’s so – I think I speak for everyone who’s listening today and our panellists as well that it’s been so very valuable to hear your insights and the importance of enfranchising the child, their voice, and their grief in this context. And hearing about the gaps in service provision in the last part of our discussion leads me to move to our final panellist Joe Tucci in relation to these gaps and limitations, and Joe, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the current gaps in the systems and services that are designed to support children who have been bereaved by domestic homicide.

DR JOE TUCCI: Thanks Rachel.  I could probably listen to Kathryn talk for a lot longer because there’s so much that you help us to understand when you just share experiences of your life Kathryn, it’s quite – it’s very powerful and very moving just to always have a conversation with you.  So I’m sure on behalf of everyone that’s listening there’s a big note of appreciation for you being willing in exploring your experience in such an open forum.  Kathryn said it Rachel, the system’s fragmented.  We start with seeing children as a secondary victim in this experience.  They’re not considered an equal victim. And I use the word victim for effect.  And when I say secondary, they’re sort of seen as the afterthought.  Kathryn said it herself that – Kathryn said it.  The afterthought is that for children grief is a process that is frightening for adults to go to, it’s time-limited. 

We have these assumptions about how children grieve, how young people grieve, and what the expectation is about how that grief becomes resolved.  And even talking about it that way is an assumption that is very adult-centric.  I think the systems don’t offer the view of a child in these circumstances across their life course.  They don’t see them as needing support across – holistically across all areas in their life.  And so you might be lucky and get some therapeutic support, but you’re unlikely to get some specific support in school say when you’re going through school, or you might not get any support when you become an adolescent and you’re looking to – about your options and planning proactively about what am I going to do next with my life, and education, and employment.  So we tend to compartmentalise the needs of children according to what the services are that are delivered to them as distinct from what is it that children actually need. 

I think that children and young people whose parent has been killed, they require someone to accompany them throughout their life, both informal networks of support that can do that, carers who can do that, but also the formal systems of support that can do that.  And we don’t have that.  We have children and young people services, we have family services, we have adult services, we have mental health services, we have housing services.  Our service system is all built around silos, and what we’re talking about is children experiencing their life in a way that has been affected by a – to call it a significant loss is again an underestimate.  It’s an indescribable loss.  If we were wanting to be as accurate as possible, we can’t describe the loss on behalf of children and young people.  Kathryn can come much closer to being able to describe that loss because they’ve been through it. 

But as the practitioners who are working in this field, we have to believe, or we have to start from the starting point that the loss is indescribable and listen, not make the assumptions that you’re lucky enough because you were three months old and you didn’t know your mum, so the grief will only be passing.  I’ve heard Kathryn talk about that, and I know from our work, that there’s a comparative moment all the time, I wonder what my mum would've thought of this situation, I wonder what mum would say to me now.  They’re questions that adults have when they lose a significant person in their life, that’s how we start to make sense of it.  But I think it’s another layer when that person has – the parent, your mum, has been taken away from you through violence, and as a result all of the things that Kathryn said are at play.

That it’s very difficult for anyone to talk about it, there’s shame and stigma associated with it, there’s preferences to put it aside and not open it up because we don’t know how to talk about it with the neighbour and with the family friend.  So children are left alone in that process.  I really think that if we were going to design a system for children and young people affected by this, by domestic homicide, we would (a) involve them in the design and involve survivors in the design, but we would also have to take a life course understanding of their needs and be able to know that the service system needs to flex up and down according to the needs of particular points in that young persons’ development and into their adulthood.  It’s not good enough that Kathryn had to choose between a meal and mental health support.  I mean what planet do we live on where that is a choice? 

That’s not a choice, that’s a broken system that – it’s an outcome of a broken system.  At other levels we know that kinship carers who effectively is what we’re talking about, there’s a kin, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, who step into the breach, have all sorts of financial, social, relational needs in looking after these children, the children that have been placed – come into their care, and they’re not getting the support or the understanding and the knowledge that they need to be able to really respond to these children in a way that meets these unmet needs that they’re carrying with them as a result of the trauma and the loss.  So we effectively let the children down, and we’re letting them down at so many levels that in order for us to really fix this we need to start again and say, ‘What’s the system that we need to design?’ 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Thank you Joe, that was very helpful to have that insight from your practice perspective, and I like the image that you have of the practitioner walking alongside with the child or young people in this process and supporting them to have a voice, together with the idea that children should be codesigning these services with practitioners to ensure that they meet their needs.  Also relevant to our discussion today I’d like to provide some information from the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia website about the Critical Incident List that the Court has established. 

This list is for family law applications that are filed on or after the 6th of June 2022 in circumstances where there is no parent available to care for a child or children as a result of death, including domestic homicide, critical injury or incarceration relating to family violence where there are no existing family law state or territory child welfare orders in place which relate to the child or children’s care arrangements with the nonparent, or allocating parental responsibility of the children to a nonparent, and orders are urgently needed, appropriate arrangements to be made. And in these circumstances the Court can make orders about where the children live as well as orders for parental responsibility which will enable nonparent carers to make appropriate arrangements for children in a timely way including enrolling the children in school, organising and consenting to medical treatment et cetera.

So the Court acknowledges the extraordinary challenges families and children face in these circumstances, and a key objective of this Critical Incident List is to facilitate this fast access to the Court to assist families during these times of crisis.  Applications are accepted into the Critical Incident List are then allocated to a first listing date before the judge in charge of this list within seven business days subject to demand and availability of judicial resourcing.  So movements towards a service system that is better able to respond in a timely and effective way.  We’re now going to move to live questions from our audience for the remainder of our time together today, and may I begin with a question that you each may wish to respond to, and that is what is the availability of support groups for people who are impacted by domestic homicide? And Joe, maybe we could begin with you. 

DR JOE TUCCI: Well if you ask Kathryn they’ll tell you that there’s none, there’s none, and in fact one of the goals of our collaboration is to try to figure out how we might be able to do this, how we might be able to establish it.  So Kathryn, you answer, I think your experience is much more relevant.

KATHRYN JOY: I know that there are a few general homicide victim support groups in a few states, not specifically for domestic homicide but more broadly, but I also know that these are pretty under-resourced, and often started by victim survivors themselves who just were looking and saw the gap.  So I know there are a few here and there in different states that are trying to fill that gap in some way, but there aren’t any that I know of.  If anyone’s watching that’s like, ‘There is’, I would love to know.  But from what we’ve all seen and heard and my experience is that there are no specific support groups for children or adults who have been bereaved by domestic homicide, which I just think is – I find that so unbelievable really that that’s still the case now.  I know that growing up that was something I really wanted and have looked for for a really, really long time, and it’s I guess come to this point where I think I’m just going to have to start it with some people.

Which is really hard as well because that’s something that I would still like myself.  Not to necessarily have to start something, just to actually be able to go and experience that kind of support.  And I feel really lucky that throughout this research that we’ve been doing I have met and been able to interview and connect with a number of people who have had this experience, and that just in itself has been incredible, and so – just being able to sit and have a conversation with a few people about a number of different things, but just to be in the same space to have those moments of, ‘Oh yeah, exactly’, just cannot be underestimated how important – and even now where I feel like in a lot of ways I have a lot of support, there’s nothing quite like sitting with someone who really understands this particular experience.  So yeah, it’s so, so needed, but unfortunately doesn’t really exist.

DR RACHEL CARSON: Eva, I wonder if you might be able to tell us a little bit about the experiences of children from diverse backgrounds.  We’ve heard from Kathryn about the acknowledgement of First Nations children and women in these circumstances, are you able to talk to the experiences of children from CALD backgrounds or First Nations families, or children or families with disability?

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: Really important question.  Unfortunately we have very little information about children from a range of marginalised backgrounds, and that is also partially I think we’re based in a – I but also colleague researchers, many of us are based in white institutions and with a lack of centralised information about people who have been affected, we don’t find each other really well.  And I totally understand that not everybody would want to trust a research team that is based in such a white institution that has inflicted harm on people historically.  So one thing that really struck me with the Dutch research was that we knew the population of children that were affected, so the whole group, and we also knew who we eventually interviewed for our qualitative in-depth interviews, and that was not the same proportion of children from migrant backgrounds for example.

And clearly through also our more informal conversations with families my sense was really that we were able to connect with families through our interviews for example through our clinical services there, and that’s where we are missing – well, we’re not providing the support that we need to be providing to families from migrant and refugee backgrounds.  In this case the Netherlands is slightly different from Australia of course, but all kinds of marginalised backgrounds who – as Joe said, those services are often designed around the people who provide the services rather than the people who are expected to receive the services.  So similar with the research, there’s still really a lot to do.  I wanted to pick up on two things that were said before, if you don’t mind.


PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: One was assumptions were mentioned a couple of times both by Kathryn and by Joe, and that really resonated with me because what we’ve seen, and Kathryn and I have been talking about these things a lot over time as well, is that we often assume that siblings will have similar stances with regard to what they need or what they want, and our research really clearly shows that that is not the case, and also other people’s research shows that.  Naturally siblings often have different ages and are different developmental stages and have different perspectives, so we’ve literally come across siblings where one felt at home at the new home and the other didn’t, or where one did want to have contact with the perpetrator parent in some way and the other did not or wasn’t sure. 

We’ve literally had the whole spectrum within one family, and again I think Kathryn mentioned this, or Joe, I forgot: it’s lots of factors, including people’s personalities and personal preferences.  So that would be one thing for me, also for practitioners listening, that we really don’t want to assume anything actually in that case, and that’s why we’ve been so focused on how can we be child and young person centred in what we do research wise, as well as in practice? And that brings me actually to a resource that we’ve made together with Kathryn for practitioners about the various aspects of experiences of young people in the aftermath of a domestic homicide.  It’s a tool for reflective practice in a way of – it’s a combination of text and descriptions and videos, it’s freely available online, short videos and reflective questions afterwards about how we might be as tuned in as possible to what a young person needs, and that sometimes that is about asking, but it can also be about observing. 

For example when a young person or a child responds in a particular way to contact with a perpetrator parent, or behaviour at school that might be related to how other kids are responding to what has happened, not everybody’s able to verbalise that all the time, but it may show in other ways, in sleep problems or in behavioural ways.  So trying to tune into what a child needs, and also to keep doing it over time.  The answer today may be very different from the answer in a year from now of what a child wants and needs, and both Joe and Kathryn have touched on that. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Thank you for that Eva, that was very helpful.  I’d like to leave the last word to Kathryn, so Joe I’m going to come to you next with this question which relates to, and it sort of segues nicely from Eva’s most recent comments in terms of how can practitioners – what supports can we give practitioners to give this child-centred approach when they’re working with and supporting young people and their mental health and wellbeing where they’re being exposed to distressing situations and information?

DR JOE TUCCI: What supports do practitioners need when they’re – is that –

DR RACHEL CARSON: Yes, that’s correct.  The questioner asks about the supports that practitioners can use or access when they’re working with young people to support their mental health and wellbeing, and doing so in that child-centred way as Eva mentioned. 

DR JOE TUCCI: I think these are meaning-making experiences.  What the practitioner is needing to do is support the child, young person, the family, the carers, the system, the networks of people around them to make sense of something that’s very complicated to make sense of, and it’s not just making sense of it, as Eva just said, once, it’s a sense-making process over time.  So if that’s the focus of the work then practitioners need that opportunity themselves to think about how does it impact on them, what are the world views that they’re carrying which may be challenging for them in their work, what knowledge do they need to hold in order to be able to do this, how do they access the voices of children and young people and survivors of this experience to be able to be truly informed from that perspective about their work and about how they’re going about doing what they’re doing. 

For me it comes down to good quality supervision, finding – using this topic in reflective practice forums that you might have with colleagues, and ultimately it’s about making sure that we don’t fall into the trap that Kathryn talked about which was to make it harder for grief to be processed, to be understood, to be experienced, and for mourning to occur.  I think they’re the things that hold children and young people and everyone involved around them, and we’re the ones that sometimes get in the way of doing that.  Not just practitioners, adults I mean. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Yes.  So Kathryn, I wonder if you may have any reflections on the supports that schools or other sectors that are not specialist family violence workers, what they could provide for children, this questioner has asked. 

KATHRYN JOY: I don’t want to put too much pressure on teachers because teachers already have so much pressure put on them to do extra work, but I will say that teachers for me were a hugely important place of safety at times, and witnessing.  School is where you’re – you spend every day all day, so in some ways your teachers can be the people that know you in a particular way at different times more – or see you more than anyone.  So I do feel like there’s opportunity for schools and teachers to be a really supportive part of a child’s community, but I wouldn’t want it just to feel like just them.  I think there’s so much opportunity for, I don’t know, maybe I think about peer support, how important friendships and just your peers are at school, and how that can either be such a beautiful experience of support or the complete opposite.  So I do feel like –

I think a lot about how we can empower other young people to be part of a supportive community for each other.  I don’t necessarily have the answers to all that we need to do there, but I feel like – yeah, I think there’s just so many opportunities for support, and for different people depending on the kinds of communities you’re in touch with.  For some people their church community might be a really important part of their life, or various cultural – yeah, communities that could potentially offer a lot of support, and I really believe in the power of community to be part of a supportive environment for young people, and they can also be the opposite.  So I think – I don’t know, I think we just need to do more in general, all of us in the communities we’re in, to think about the ways that we include children and young people generally to see them as whole beings, not people becoming whole beings as adults.  It’s like, ‘No, they already are.’ 

And instead of this idea that children are inherently vulnerable, this deficit model of, ‘We have to protect them because they’re lacking in all of these things’, actually just seeing the wholeness of them as humans and including them in our communities in all kinds of ways.  And I really feel like if we did that more there would be more support for children and more space for children to feel safe and to have safer adults around them if they were actually genuinely included within all our communities instead of excluded a lot of the time.  So yeah, I’m not sure if that fully answers the question –

DR RACHEL CARSON: That’s a wonderful sentiment to end on Kathryn, thank you for bringing the voices of children to the centre.  And as we draw to a close now I’d like to thank each of our presenters today, Kathryn, Eva and Joe.  I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia and particularly the Honourable Justice Jacoba Brasch, for assistance in relation to the information about the Courts Critical Incident List.  Thank you of course to our audience, and I’d like to also acknowledge and thank our AIFS Communication Team, and the Child, Family and Evidence and Evaluation Team for organising and producing today’s webinar.  And before we conclude a reminder to subscribe to the AIFS newsletters to be notified about the recording and to complete our feedback survey.  We look forward to joining you at our next webinar, and take care, and we’ll see you again soon.  Thank you. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Welcome back to the extended question and answer session for this webinar.  We were inundated with lots of questions, and we’re going to take a moment to address some of these questions now.  I’ll begin with a very interesting question about how practitioners can navigate and support children with their relationship with the offending parent, particularly considering the connection that that child may have with a parent and that parent being held accountable.  I might open it up to everybody and have a discussion about that topic, which we touched on in the course of our discussion in the webinar,

KATHRYN JOY: Gosh, it’s so dependent on the situation firstly.  I think that obviously being child informed, obviously you want to be communicating with the child about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and like Eva mentioned also seeing their responses and just – yeah, I think that there’s a lot of things that we have to take into account.  Obviously you’re going to be thinking about things like safety, and sometimes children may want one thing that everybody else can see is actually not safe for them, so I think that’s going to come into it as well.  From my experience I just want to say that it was helpful, or it has been helpful for me at times to – and throughout my childhood there were times where it was really important for me to not want my father in my life, to hate my father, to feel all kinds of things about him, but also for him to still be seen as a human being and not just as a perpetrator, seen as my father who could be really loving and kind as well as behaving in ways that were not loving and were unsafe. 

There’s something for me around still making sure that you see that person as a whole human as well.  They might not be a safe person for that child, but just recognising that for the child that still they’re going to have a lot of feelings about their parent, conflicting feelings, and potentially yeah, still a lot of love.  I don’t have any easy answers for that because I think it really depends on the situation, and I think Eva can speak a little bit to broader studies on this with lots of young people and the reasons why they may choose to be in contact with their parent.  But I think it’s just trying to hold the complexity of it, and recognise that that’s what a child is trying to do too, just hold all of the things that they feel which is just so many things.  So if you can accompany them in that holding, hopefully you can see a way forward that prioritises their safety of course, but also their connection and the humanity of all of the people involved.

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: From the research indeed we saw a variety of ways in which children and young people would go about this, and to me really important that we acknowledge that some children may want contact, some children may not want contact, and that might change.  For a number of children it was very important that the parent showed remorse, and genuine remorse.  That was for some kids really a condition to be willing to engage in contact.  And all the things that Kathryn said about safety being important of course.  As Kathryn just mentioned, children may have different reasons why they want contact.  So some of it may be around that connection, but some of it may not be about that at all, it may be about asking questions about the other parent who they have lost. 

So often the parent who has perpetrated the murder is the person who knows a lot about the other parent, and so holds answers to really important questions for the children.  Sometimes they want to understand more about what happened, and it obviously depends on the parent’s capacity to talk about that in a genuine way that’s helpful for the child.  And sometimes children want to understand better where they come from, like whether they are – well, there may be sometimes an implied concern about becoming similar to the parent, or different.  I know one child who wanted to understand whether their musical talents came from their parent.  So you can be surprised by the reasons why children might want to have contact.  And I also remember one child said, ‘Well, I’m actually not sure, I think these days I do it more for my parent than for myself’, and she was again also changing her perspective on that contact and what she wanted from it. 

KATHRYN JOY: I just want to add it’s a hard one for me to answer because I grew up with my father and I don’t think that – it’s probably less likely in a lot of cases that that might happen these days.  So I think that’s where it so depends on the situation, and there can be a number of different ways that someone may or may not be in contact with that perpetrating parent. 

DR JOE TUCCI: I think the only thing I would add is – two things.  One is be sure to consider whether it’s the child’s agenda or someone else’s agenda in the network, because often children can follow and be influenced heavily by other people who’ve got a different agenda or just an agenda for themselves that’s not the child’s, although the child doesn’t know that they want that one or not.  And I think the second thing is that contact doesn’t necessarily mean seeing.  You can communicate with a parent via a go-between, via letters, different forms of communication.  So I think I would err on some staged processes to make sure that children are kept safe, and they’re the ones who are helping to lead and others follow what the nature of the contact is and what they’re trying to get out of it. 

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: Yes, and to complicate things there is also the consideration of those direct caregivers.  I’m just thinking of the situation – I used to think very much only child-centred, and these days I’m starting to think also when caregivers are grandparents for example and you just see the grief that they are going through and what it means to them, I really wouldn’t want to discount their view in the decision making process.  So it’s just to say that it’s something that requires very careful consideration and consultation with everybody.  And totally agree with what Joe says about there’s so many different ways in which it can be done, and that can lead to more or less stress for everybody involved.  I remember one situation where the parent would call on a Saturday, and for the whole family the whole Saturday always revolved around that call that would happen, when it would happen, and all the emotions with that. 

So basically half of the weekend was dominated – I mean apart from how dominant such an event and everything – calling it an event is a weird thing, the homicide and the whole aftermath and fallout it takes already in a child’s life, but in this case practically the way it was organised it was just the weekend was never a free space to relax from things. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Very complex question –

KATHRYN JOY: Sorry, just quickly, some of the people that we’ve interviewed and I understand this experience as well of people saying that it’s not necessarily that we didn’t want to have any contact with the perpetrating parent, but we just wanted that to be safe for us, and so often it didn’t necessarily feel safe.  So it’s not as clear or binary I suppose as yes contact or no contact.  Like Joe was saying what is the nature of it and how does it look and feel and how is it organised so that you’re not also putting extra stress or trauma onto a caregiver or – there are so many considerations. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: And something that needs to be arranged or considered in relation to that individual child in each circumstance.  So yes, very complex question, but thank you for exploring that with me.  I think that was a very helpful discussion and enlightening discussion.  The next question that we have is how best should we support a child who has lost a parent in this way who does not want to talk about this loss or who says that they’re okay?  Kathryn, I wonder if you might begin with your insights on that particular question. 

KATHRYN JOY: First of all I would say that depending on a child’s age and developmental stage that they’re in they’re going to have different responses, and so it’s not as though a child says that and that’s forever, that they’re fine forever.  And I think that’s really important.  I feel like in my childhood there were plenty of times that had somebody just come out and asked me as a child if I was okay I actually would've been like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine’, and then there were other times where the cumulative impact of potentially not having a space to talk about it or not really knowing – having language to talk about it, or just a developmental stage that I got to meant that I was really suddenly not fine at all.  So I wouldn’t want people to think just because a child is saying in that moment that they’re fine that that means they’ll be fine forever. 

And I’m hesitant to say of course they’re not fine, because I think we do really need to listen to where kids are at, and there’s also different ways of processing things.  There’s different ages where you wouldn’t directly just talk to a child about it, you would be thinking about other ways of connecting with that child and bringing them into spaces where if the opportunity – if they want to speak about those things, or if they want to convey something, that there are safe spaces to do that.  So thinking about young children and things like play therapy, or even just including children in community in ways where there’s a connection.  Because like I was saying, there’s such disconnection and isolation in this experience. 

So I think that you have to think about the child in relation to everyone around them as well, and just making sure that the people around them are getting the support so that when that child isn’t okay they have somewhere to go.  So yeah, I think that’s what comes to mind when I think about that.

DR RACHEL CARSON: And Joe and Eva, do you have any reflects in this regard?

DR JOE TUCCI: I think often when people ask that question it’s because of the timeframes that they have to work to.  So they’re saying, ‘I can’t get through to this child right now, and I’ve only got three months more, I’ve only got four sessions to go.’  So being led by the child is not possible within that kind of support frame.  So if that’s the case connecting – thinking about how you connect the child to community.  Like Kathryn said, what are the relationships that hold and support and accompany that child now and into the future might be the best thing you could do.  Alternatively if you have some more time and time’s not restricted, then it’s as much about developing a relationship with that child in which the possibility of exploring it verbally or otherwise through play or through other kinds of opportunities that we know the young person, the child can start to make sense of it. 

But grief isn’t something that happens in the counselling session, and mourning’s not something that happens when you switch it on and switch it off at a particular time.  So we’re really talking about sense-making, meaning-making, and that’s a process that happens with multiple people at multiple times throughout the development of a child.  So, for me we have to understand what it is that’s driving us to ask that question in the first place so that we can find the right answer.

PROFESSOR EVA ALISIC: I agree with all that has been said, and I’m thinking of children again may have different reasons why they say that they are fine, as Kathryn also said. I feel that sometimes children might be fine indeed and may just feel comfortable knowing that if they need in the future they can reach out to this person and feel comfortable with that.  Sometimes it may be clear to us or to a practitioner that the child is not fine and just saying that they’re fine, and then of course we might try different ways of opening up that conversation because you might have concerns about this young person self-harming and really withdrawing, and in that case might want to find a way that – yeah, make sure that the young person can express what is happening to them, and verbally may not be the answer, maybe it is through play or art therapy or something else. 

KATHRYN JOY: And also recognising that maybe you’re not the right person for that child to be speaking to. There might be very valid reasons why a child doesn’t trust you, and I think that’s not about taking it personally, it’s really about finding the people in that child’s life who they could trust and maybe – or maybe a different kind of practitioner, maybe someone who shares their cultural background or – there’s all kinds of reasons why a child might not want to open up and might just say they’re fine as well.  So I think it’s really about finding the right supports and bringing those supports together, recognising that that might not be you as well.

DR RACHEL CARSON: Including at that particular point in time as well, sort of timing that you all spoke about before as well.  I think we have time for one last question and this last question is what are the core skills or services or counselling styles that Kathryn found best supported them?  Kathryn, would you like to answer that?

KATHRYN JOY: I would love to, as someone who’s been in therapy my whole life, adult life.  Firstly I just want to say that a group, support group, that kind of thing would have been so, so helpful because again it’s that – it’s so isolating and I think the need for connection is really great, and when we individualise it that can be more isolating.  So any kind of group support I think could be potentially really great, which unfortunately I haven’t had.  But in terms of just therapy styles and practitioners, a couple of things.  One, I have always really deeply appreciated practitioners who are very human in the room who are willing to be vulnerable themselves.  I think when you’ve experienced something like this as a child and you’ve had such severed attachments, it’s so important to – the relationship is so important.  So it’s not necessarily what you’re talking about, it’s actually the relationship between you and the practitioner or the therapist. 

That’s always been so important to me, and it took me a really long time to figure that out, and also to feel okay with that.  I had a lot of shame around feeling like I really needed to be connected to my therapist, and I’ve really come to realise that that makes total sense.  But yeah, I think something around a lot of trust being built, and just recognising that the relationship is really important, which we know anyway in lots of counselling that the relationship is important, but I would say especially for people who have experienced something like this where all of their relationships in some ways have been fractured.  Yeah, that’s a pretty key thing.  The other thing I was going to say that has left my mind now – maybe that’s enough. 

DR RACHEL CARSON: Well, thank you again Kathryn –

KATHRYN JOY: Actually, sorry –

DR RACHEL CARSON: Go ahead, go ahead –

KATHRYN JOY: I remembered it.  Well, I think this really, really depends on the person, so I’m going to speak just purely from what I noticed as somebody who often really intellectualised my pain, so I could often speak about what I was thinking or feeling, but I wasn’t feeling it in my body because there was so much – it was so unsafe for my whole childhood to really feel the extent of what I was experiencing, especially living with my father.  So I found that really gentle introduction into somatic kind of therapy and counselling was really helpful, but I would just say that that was a very slow process.

DR RACHEL CARSON: Thank you again Kathryn for being so open, and for sharing your experiences and your knowledge and wisdom with us.  Thank you Eva and Joe for your tremendous contributions also.  And thank you again to the audience, and good afternoon. 

Related resources

Related resources

The children left behind by domestic homicide  
Children who lose a parent to domestic homicide are often treated as collateral damage. This University of Melbourne research is putting the focus back on the child.

Resources: Children and Young People Bereaved by Domestic Homicide  
This resource is for professionals who are supporting a child or young person who has lost a parent due to intimate partner violence.

Children’s perspectives on life and well-being after parental intimate partner homicide   
This journal article examines how willing children are to express their views on key issues related to their life after a parental intimate partner homicide, such as contact with the perpetrating parent and living arrangements.


Professor Eva Alisic, Child Trauma and Recovery, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne

Professor Eva Alisic is based at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health (University of Melbourne). She studies how young people and families deal with traumatic experiences and disadvantage, with the aim of strengthening support and services. Since 2010, she has led a program of research regarding the impact of domestic homicide, first in the Netherlands and currently in Australia.

Kathryn Joy (they/them), co-researcher with lived experience

Kathryn (they/them) lost their mother at the hands of their father when they were just a few months old. Kathryn has engaged in Social Work studies and is an experienced activist in the domains of domestic violence, social justice and climate justice. They have been a co-investigator on research regarding domestic homicide for several years. They are also deeply involved in the creation of the documentary KILLJOY, directed/produced by Vincent Lamberti and Lisa Albert, which will be released in 2024. 

Dr Joe Tucci, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Childhood Foundation

Dr Joe Tucci is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Childhood Foundation and is also the inaugural Chairperson of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse. Joe is a registered psychologist and social worker with significant experience in child protection and working therapeutically with children. He has worked in the field of child abuse for the past 30 years.


Rachel Carson profile photo

Dr Rachel Carson is a Senior Research Fellow and Executive Manager of the Family Law, Family Violence and Elder Abuse Research Team at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. She has twenty years’ experience undertaking socio-legal research focusing on the Australian family law system, including examining the intersections between the family law system and family violence, and particularly legislative, policy and practice reforms designed to improve the system.