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Creating Knowledge

Understanding Child Homicide and Filicide: A Focus on Intimacy, Gender and Punishment

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This project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight program and the Canada Research Chair program. The Principal Investigator is Dr. Myrna Dawson.

Child homicides are rare; when they occur, the majority are committed by biological parents or stepparents – what is commonly referred to as filicide. However, the concept of intimacy and how it might be associated with characteristics of a homicide and subsequent legal responses has been examined almost exclusively in the context of intimate partner violence. However, the characteristics of and punishment outcomes in cases of child homicides may also differ depending on the relationship that existed between the child and their killer. Research has also shown that traditional perceptions about gender roles and parenting have been linked to variations in how mothers and fathers are perceived and reacted to when they kill their children. Although maternal and paternal filicide is committed in almost equal numbers, historically mothers who kill their children have a long history of receiving more negative media coverage and community outrage.

The goals of this project are three-fold: (1) To examine the total population of child homicides in Ontario to determine how the victim, perpetrator and incident characteristics may vary depending on the child’s relationship to their killer as well as the gender of the perpetrator; (2) To examine the role of intimacy and gender in determining punishments for these crimes; and (3) To compare what we know about criminal justice responses to filicide in Ontario to a similar set of cases in Victoria, Australia. The goal of the latter focus is to determine if there are variations in how similarly-situated countries respond to and discuss these crimes. This comparison is important given that Canadian sentencing principles have stipulated since 1996 that judges should consider the existence of a spousal or parental relationship between an offender and a victim as an aggravating factor at sentencing.

The Australian component of the project is being led by Dr. Danielle Tyson, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia.

Related References:

Dawson, M. 2019. Filicide trends in Canada, 1961–2011. Pp. 36-37 in Killing of Children and Young Adults, Booklet 6 of the Global Report on Homicide, 2019. Vienna: United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

Johnson A. and M. Dawson. 2017. Filicide: An Oxford Bibliography. New York: Oxford [In press].

Dawson, M. 2015. Canadian trends in filicide by gender of the accused, 1961-2011. Child Abuse & Neglect 47: 162-174.

Jaffe, P., K. Scott, A. Jenney, M. Dawson, M. Campbell, and A. Straatman. 2013. Risk factors for children in situations of family violence in the context of separation and divorce. Ottawa: Department of Justice.

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