It is time to dig deeper into our painful past if we are to prevent the horror of 'familicide'
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
We've had gangland killings, we've had slaughter because of mistaken identity, we've had Isil with its unmentionable brutality. And when we thought nothing would shock us any more, we have a family of five killed by one of its members who takes his own life in the process.
This type of murder-suicide is known as familicide (a murder- suicide in which at least one spouse and at least one child loses their life, or in which a parent or other close relatives are killed). Thus the victims are close blood relatives, and all of these cases are characterised by the death by suicide of the perpetrator.
In Ireland there have been at least four cases in the past 10 years in which whole families were wiped out, and at least six other instances where several members of the family died. All of these included children; in each, the perpetrator died by suicide.
While the reports of murder-suicides in Ireland may give the impression that it is a common occurrence, few such cases had occurred in this country for decades, and perhaps in our history, seemingly until recently. A testimony to how rare familicide is comes from a Finnish study published in 2006, which revealed that of 1,397 suicides, 10 were in the murder-suicide category - equivalent to a rate of 0.2/100,000 - and of the latter, only one was familicide. A study from Canada, although old (published in 1995), is relevant. As in the Finnish study, numbers were small: from 1974-1990 there were 61 familicide incidents in Canada, and in the UK over the same period there were 48 incidents. These amounted to a rate of 0.15 incidents per million persons per year in Canada, and in Britain the equivalent figure was 0.07 per million. These figures point to the rarity of such events, but from such studies there is some understanding of the factors driving these behaviours, while in Ireland there is no information apart from what is carried by the media.
Families, friends and communities are understandably stricken with incomprehension. People turn to each other and ask what they could have done to prevent these devastating events.
Was there some behaviour that might have marked the perpetrator out as somebody on the verge of a killing spree? Were there any known financial or interpersonal problems within the family, a history of violence perhaps? Was there a severe mental illness or maybe an addiction problem that culminated in multiple deaths?
Of course, the community is helped by talking about this and people sharing their tears with each other. They rally round the family, as do the extended members, and try to offer solace to the bereaved. Children wonder where their friends have gone and they leave toys and gentle notes at their home. Prayers are recited and Masses offered - all of these things are vital for healing.
But in a small country where we have no known history of such killings until the last decade, it seems these murder-suicides involving children are a tragic anachronism.
We need to move from handwringing and sympathy and become proactive. Developing an understanding of what is taking place in the families involved in these terrible deaths is essential. There is no answer for the neighbours who ask what could have been done to prevent these deaths in the current knowledge vacuum. Perhaps they could not have been prevented, perhaps there is no common theme that links these murder-suicide incidents so that an intervention can take place. We simply do not know. Commentators, like me, are currently like blind men looking for black cats in a dark room that isn't there.
The time has come for a clear, focused national investigation into all such cases over the past 30 years. This would allow us to establish if the figures for the last decade represent an increase in the incidence of family-related murder-suicide.
Then factors such as the presence of addiction, child abuse/child safety issues, mental illness, violence, physical illness, debt and other issues identified in the sparse international literature, could be evaluated.
If, for example, it was established that mental illness was a significant factor, this might raise questions as to whether any mental health professional who knew about the real risk of violence made this known to the relevant parties. Similarly, if there were child protection issues, were these handled appropriately? The list of possibilities is endless.
The investigation should be confidential and should take information from any family members wishing to provide this, while access to reports from agencies such as the gardaí, coroners, doctors, probation officers and social workers who had involvement with the parties should be compulsory.
The members of the investigation team should include a child-protection expert, a psychiatrist, a member of the An Garda Síochána and a lay person as a minimum, and the focus should be on the immediate days/hours before the event and also on a defined period prior to that as determined by the information in the reports.
I informally approached the late Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan about this several years ago and he was most interested, but shortly afterwards he became ill and passed away.
Subsequent efforts to raise this with the Department of Justice were unsuccessful.
Now the time is most definitely upon us when an investigation should to be considered so that we can at least try to answer the questions the public is asking. Who knows - we may even prevent such tragedies in our communities.