Family violence has, in recent years, been subjected to a very short sighted restricted analysis that is based on stereotypes of victims and abusers. Typically, the “victim” is depicted as a timid, oppressed female and the abuser is portrayed as a brutish, aggressive male that often assaults or even murders children. But such gender stereotypes are dangerous, and leave groups of people suffering and vulnerable because they do not fit the pigeon hole prescriptions that dominate family violence discourse and support organisations in our country.

As it should be the homicide of children is considered to be a detestable crime in our community where they are seen as being very vulnerable and especially susceptible to abduction, physical and sexual assault and murder.

Maternal filicide, defined as child murder by mothers, is a problem that transcends national boundaries. Mothers who kill their children often use the defence of depression or insanity, but are all mothers who kill their children insane? The short answer is “No,” and some courts are beginning to recognise that fact as the following transcribed media accounts of recent criminal proceedings reveal:

“Donna Fitchett called the murder of her two boys her ‘greatest act of love’, but in sentencing late last year Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Curtain told her it was her ‘greatest act of betrayal’.

“Fitchett drugged, smothered and strangled Thomas Fitchett, 11, and his brother Matthew, 9, at their Balwyn home in September 2005. Justice Curtain sentenced Fitchett to 27 years in jail, with a non-parole period of 18 years.“…

“Her defence argued she was mentally diminished at the time of the killings and thought what she was doing was right. But Justice Curtain rejected that argument because Fitchett had written a note detailing the crime.“ (ABC News Tuesday, May 18, 2010).

“A 43-year-old Brisbane woman, who could not be identified, was found guilty after a trial in the Supreme Court in Brisbane earlier last year of murdering her six-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter at their home at Sandstone Point, near Bribie Island. She was also found guilty of the attempted murder of her 16-year-old son, and was sentenced to life in jail.“

“The mother gave the children crushed sleeping tablets before putting them in the back seat of the car, attaching a garden hose to the exhaust, and switching on the ignition. The bodies of the children, who died from carbon monoxide poisoning, were found on November 22, 2002.”

“During the trial, the Brisbane court was told the mother decided to kill herself and the children as an act of revenge towards her ex-husband. She had been angry, the court was told, after being issued with a Family Court order stating they would spend Christmas Day with their dad.”

“The Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed her challenge of the murder conviction because the woman had not proved she was unable to control her actions.“

(“Mum who gassed children loses appeal”, by Christine Flatley, The Australian, December 2010).

It has been said that the catalyst for the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence) Bill 2010 was the tragic 2009 death of little Darcey Freeman, at the hands of her father. According to critics of current family law favouring shared parenting including Debbie Kirkwood from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre fathers pose a risk to their children and the selected use of instances where fathers have harmed their children strongly suggests a blinkered prejudice. (see, “Men’s Murderous Revenge”, Debbie Kirkwood, SMH March 31 2011).

However, they don’t. When the divorcing mother Gabriela Garcia jumped off the same Melbourne bridge just seven months earlier, with her 22 month old baby son Oliver there were no tortured calls for a public inquiry. The silence regarding the death of this infant boy by the supposed champions of children’s interests was and still is deafening.

The heartwrenching murders of Darcey Freeman and Oliver Garcia are the product of despair or incomprehensible madness and should not be a catalyst for gender wars. To borrow the common-sense words of social commentator Bettina Arndt ” Neither sex has a monopoly on vice or virtue.”

And to set the record straight. Do I have any sympathy for the Arthur Freeman’s or Gabriela Garcia’s of this world? Not one bit. Nothing can ever excuse the murder of the innocent.

The Howard government’s 2006 shared parenting legislation specifically refers to “the need to protect the child from the risk of physical or psychological harm caused by family violence or child abuse” [s60CC 2(b)]. The legislation also clearly establishes that where shared care has been ordered by a court, the presumption of shared parental responsibility is dependent on there being no family violence or child abuse [s61DA 2(a)]. Putting a child into a possibly violent situation contradicts the law. So what are the one sided exaggerations peddled by shared parenting detractors all about?

Despite the posturing I suggest the motivation is not a primary concern on the safety of children but is grounded in a mean-spirited anti father ideology that assumes the worst behaviour of the most extreme individual is the norm. Family law should not be based on this presumption of pathology.

Every child centred healthy individual knows that children want and have a right to the love of both their parents in equal measure. It is past time to entrench this principle in law.

The article “When Dads Get Deadly” (Christine Jackman, Australian, 17 September 2003) provides chilling statistics on filicide that challenge conventional wisdom.

Referring to a recent Sydney murder/suicide tragedy Christine Jackman writes:

[D]espite the disproportionate amount of publicity these crimes attract when they occur; murder-suicides committed by a father are among the rarest forms of child homicide. Australian Institute of Criminology statistics show there were 270 child homicide incidents in Australia from July 1989 to June 1999, involving 287 identified offenders and resulting in the deaths of 316 children under 15…

When children (younger than 15) are killed in Australia, they are most likely to be killed by a family member (66.9 per cent), primarily a parent (94.2 per cent),” AIC research analyst Jenny Mouzos says in her report ‘Homicidal Encounters.’ Although fathers are responsible for most cases of filicide these numbers are inflated by the number of non-biological fathers who kill children.

When Mouzos crunched figures on the distribution of parents who killed children by gender and biological ties, she found biological mothers posed a more lethal risk to their own. Biological mothers account for about 35 per cent of all filicides (about the same proportion as stepfathers and de factos), while biological fathers account for 29 per cent.

What is more according to Men’s Health Australia the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) had cause to correct an error in its National Homicide Monitoring Program 2006-07 Annual Report. “The original report stated that 7 homicides involved a mother and 15 involved male family members. “

The rectified report now states that:

11 homicides involved a mother and 11 homicides involved a male family member. When the ‘male family member’ category was broken down, 5 perpetrators were biological fathers, while another 5 five were de-facto partners of the mother who lived with the child (one father murdered two children). No child victims were killed by a complete stranger in 2006-07.

Of the 14 offenders who who committed suicide following the 2006-07 homicide incident four (29%) had child victims. In all four cases the offender was the custodial parent (two mothers; two fathers).

The usage of male family member and mother is not a useful way of classifying relationship between a child homicide victim and their offender. In future reports we will employ classifications that provide a more detailed classification of the relationship between child victims and offenders” the AIC acknowledged.

Further, according to a study published in 2009 by the Medical Journal of Australia that examined instances of family homicide/revenge/homicide-suicide in NSW between 1991-2005 men were the perpetrators of child homicide in ten cases while women were the perpetrators in seven instances. Notably, the study did not indicate the offenders biological relationships to the child victims.

With respect to the child victimisation inside the boundaries of child abuse coverage by government agencies often a gender-neutral term such as ‘parent’ or ‘caregiver’ is used and there is no further discussion as to whether it was a natural father or natural mother who perpetrated the assaults or neglect. With this problem in mind the decision taken in 1997 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW; Broadbent & Bentley 1997) not to publish data indicating the gender of child abuse perpetrators must be reversed.

The action was taken just one year after the figures were first published in 1996 (968 men and 1138 women). The omission was justified on the wobbly basis that only one state (WA) and two territories (ACT & NT) had furnished statistics and a lack of publishing space (several sentences). Curiously, these lame reasons did not stop the publication of the statistics in 1996. In fact, Angus & Hall (AIHW; 1996) observed that the information base provide an extra dimension to data previously presented.

Should the AIHW decision represents one-sided reporting then such slanted views have no place in the Australian landscape and in scientific endeavours. Furthermore, why do state child protection annual reports fail to provide information on the numbers of natural mother and natural father victimisers in each category of established child maltreatment. The designating of perpetrators as “parent” or “non parent” does not suffice and it should not require a Freedom of Information (FIO) request before the statistics are released as was the case in WA. And yes, when the data was disclosed the figures finished off the widely peddled myth that natural fathers present the major risk for their children’s well-being.

The Western Australian figures shed light on who is likely to abuse children in families and are in line with overseas findings. The data show there were 1505 substantiations of child abuse in WA during the period 2007-8. Natural parents were responsible for 37% of total cases. Of these, mothers are identified as the perpetrator of neglect and abuse in a total of 73% of verified cases.

Plainly, the censoring of such vital data by most state and federal authorities can negatively impact on the formation of child abuse policy and the appropriate allocation of scant resources. In the U.S child protection authorities are not so coy as their local counterparts and as a matter of routine publish the information for public and legislative consumption.