Author Kieran O'Hagan

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Kieran O'Hagan is an established writer and former Reader in the School of Social Work at The Queen's University, Belfast. He worked for over twenty years in the social services in Britain. He has also lectured and worked in Australia, India and the USA. He has published many books and articles on a wide range of subjects in welfare and in training, including child abuse, crisis intervention, social work competence and the abuse of women in family and child care.

Filicide Killings: Predictable and Preventable

April, 2014

The book I’ve been working on for the past three years was released last month. It’s entitled: Filicide - Suicide: the killings of children in the context of separation, divorce and custody disputes. It’s published by Palgrave Macmillan. The number of cases in this study increased dramatically from the original estimate of 150 to 224 children, all killed by a parent in the throes of marital breakdown. I’ve released a short video presentation on Youtube, on one of the book’s main findings, which you can see at:

So called “experts” on the subject strive to discover the “type” of parent who would do this to their child. But this is a fruitless and irrelevant task, because the core motivating factor is not “personality” or “type”, but rather, events and processes. The break-up of relationships, affairs and pregnancies involving third parties, bitter disputes over custody, violence and threats of violence, deteriorating mental health, and, a widening imbalance of power and influence between the parents, are all dominant characteristics in many of the cases studied.

Such events and processes are more complex and less appealing than the study of personality. But it is only through understanding and recognising them, that professionals will have a chance of prediction and prevention.

Government agencies, and, in particular, Local Safeguarding Children Boards, continue to delude (a) themselves, (b) the families involved, and (c) the wider public, by claiming that these killings are unpredictable and unpreventable. They publish Serious Case Reviews, which are meant to explain the role of agencies in the time leading up to the killings. Although their description of events is often couched in typical bureaucratic underplay, the reviews nevertheless invariably reveal shocking catalogues of incompetence, sloppiness, negligence, and, not least, monumental failures to adhere to basic statutory requirement and agency guidelines. One review for example listed over thirty professionals involved in a case, each and everyone of them preoccupied with and concentrating their efforts upon the mother; not a single one of them took the trouble to assess the father, who killed the child. In another case, social workers successfully persuaded a court to award custody of the children to the father, despite the fact that he was a life-long wife-beater, a serial liar, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and a convicted criminal having twice served time in prison for violence. He killed his two children.

It is quite ironical that, on the one hand, Serious Case Reviews reveal a catalogue of quite shocking failures by professionals in their dealings with a case, and on the other hand, the authors invariably conclude that the murder of the children was unpredictable and unpreventable. No one seems to have asked the question: would the killings have been any less unpredictable and unpreventable if all the workers involved had been consistently competent, professional, ethical, and rigorous in their assessments.

The question hasn’t been asked, because the answer is so painfully obvious. Competence, professionalism and rigorous assessment would have ensured that the workers would have recognised all of those events and processes which are so characteristic of filicide killings, thus enabling them to take preventive action and saving the lives of many children.


Filicide - Suicide: the killings of children in the context of separation, divorce and custody disputes