Almost every fortnight an Australian child is killed by a parent. So, why don’t we talk about it?

Crime researchers say the hidden issue of parents killing their own children needs to be put in the spotlight to prevent further death. Source: EPA

Crime researchers and youth advocates believe the hidden issue of parents killing their own children needs to be put in the spotlight to prevent further deaths in Australia.

There have been up to 25 cases of filicide - the killing of one's son or daughter - every year in Australia and while the deaths were reported on in the media extensively, experts are concerned that focus on the issue doesn't always last. 

A Monash University-led national study analysed filicide data over 12 years and revealed almost one child dies every fortnight at the hands of a parent in Australia.

Monash University's Emeritus Professor Thea Brown admitted it's a politically incorrect topic to discuss.

"We have got to the point where that we think we need to bring the issue to a conference in Australia because Australia has a high rate of filicide compared to other similar countries and there's been no systematic effort to address the problem to date," she said.

Professor Brown said incidents of other homicides had slowly reduced, but not filicide.

Emeritus Professor Thea Brown said some of the reasons parents gave for their crimes were nonsensical.

"For example in our Victorian study, one woman said "Oh I did it because I didn't have time"," Professor Brown said.

"So trying to a coherent motivation is very very difficult."

Emeritus Professor Thea Brown from Monash Uni
Emeritus Professor Thea Brown is from Monash University's social work department.
SBS

She said fathers and mothers were almost equally represented but step-fathers were a standout group with disproportionate representation. 

She said certain communities with limited services were particularly vulnerable to filicide such as Melbourne's outer west where mother Akon Goude admitted to driving three of her children into a lake at Wyndham Vale. 

Improved communication needed

Former English police detective Dr Russell Wate has been working with Victoria Police and has recommended more communication between services to understand what to do when a child death happens. 

"What it does is improve is that you don't miss any case and you give yourself the best chance finding out why they died and if they died criminally who is responsible," he said.

Commissioner for Children and Young People in Victoria Liana Buchanan said her inquiries into child deaths suggested agencies should have better coordinated their responses to achieve different outcomes. 

"In almost every case we found that different services working with the child and indeed in some cases the adults in the family, every single service had part of the picture of what was happening in that family and what might pose a risk to the child but that information often wasn't effectively shared," she said. 

Perpetrator risks

Dr Wate said in the 15 cases he has personally worked on, the perpetrators usually had no remorse and were emotionless.

"Certainly one case I dealt with a mother who killed two adolescent children, she absolutely wanted revenge on that partner and that's all she was interested," he said. 

"The loss of her children was not there," Dr Wate said. 

The other factors that have influenced filicide include family violence, mental illness, drug abuse, past criminal history, parental separation and previous child abuse. 

Professor Cathy Humphreys from the University of Melbourne has been researching family violence. She named vulnerable infants as a group particularly at risk of filicide.

Researchers and academics gather in Melbourne for the two-day filicide conference
Experts in domestic violence, justice and policing are discussing how to tackle the taboo topic of filicide.
SBS

"They are the ones we really need to be keeping an eye on but also if you think about violence during pregnancy, that domestic violence during pregnancy is double intentioned violence," she said. 

Professor Humphreys said there is also a hidden scourge of adolescents taking their own lives in family violence circumstances.

"That's a group that is coming to light more and more that we need to be concerned about and I guess the other group that we also need to be concerned about, not young people that are being killed but young people whose mothers have been killed in domestic violence," she said. 

Solutions to deal with filicide

Dr Adam Tomison from the WA Justice Department said he understands the greater government focus on youth suicide compared to filicide because of the higher numbers but argued a general approach could tackle the wider causes.

"So it's actually easier to work better around providing better supports for families who are struggling more generally because that will actually have an impact and actually reduce the number who may get to the point where filicide is something they are considering," he said.

Suicide has been the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for more deaths than car crashes. 

Experts said although filicide was rare, it has been a taboo topic and further discussion was needed to address it. 

If you or anyone you know needs help contact Lifeline on 131114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636

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