Since Arthur Freeman was found guilty of murdering his four-year-old daughter, Darcey, much of the media focus has been on the distress of fathers going through separation and custody disputes. There has been a call for more support for fathers. See Federal Fatherhood Funding.
However, we must ask ourselves whether we are losing sight of the victims and, more importantly, whether this is the best approach to preventing these deaths from occurring in the future.
While the community understandably struggles to comprehend a parent killing a child, our research shows that these are not inexplicable tragedies. There is a particular type of filicide (the killing of children by parents) that occurs in the context of the separation of the parents.
In these ”spousal revenge” cases – as recognised by the Freeman jury – fathers kill their children to punish their ex-partners. There is usually no prior violence against the children. In fact, they appear to love their children. The act of killing is directed towards harming the child’s mother. The motive is revenge.
In the case of Freeman and Robert Farquharson (found guilty of three counts of murder of his sons Bailey, Tyler and Jai, aged two to 10, who drowned in a dam near Winchelsea), both fathers indicated that they wished to punish their ex-partner. Shortly before killing Darcey, Freeman told his ex-wife to say goodbye to her children and that she would never see them again – clearly to make her suffer. Farquharson told a friend that he would make his ex-wife suffer by taking what mattered to her most – her children.
Contrary to some claims, these cases are not about fathers losing access to their children. The reality is that in both cases, the fathers had access to their children and, in both cases, killed them during it. There is no logic to the thinking that if a person is distressed about not spending enough time with their kids they would decide to kill them.
If, however, they are consumed with anger and hatred towards their ex-partner and wish to hurt them, then it is, tragically, a very effective means to do so.
The killing of the children in such cases should be recognised as a form of violence against the mother. We need to explore the relationship between the parents in order to understand the killing of children. In particular, the father’s attitudes and behaviour towards the mother before, and after, separation must be examined. VicHealth has clearly identified the underlying causes of violence against women as including belief in rigid gender roles and a masculine sense of entitlement.
What we really need to challenge is the sense of entitlement that some men have over their families, an entitlement that leads them to believe that their partner has no right to leave them and no right to form a new relationship, and that punishing her is justified because of the suffering they themselves experience.
The current focus of commentary suggests that men are victims of the family law system. The mothers seem to be implicitly blamed for the distress their partners experienced when they left them.
Let’s be clear: the first and foremost victims here are the children whose lives are taken. The mothers, whose children have died in perhaps the worst way imaginable, are also the victims, as are remaining siblings and other family members. Darcey Freeman’s mother, Peta Barnes, had expressed concerns about the safety of her children before Darcey’s death. She also expressed concerns about Arthur Freeman’s ”anger management issues” and mood swings. It is important that such concerns are heard and responded to appropriately by a broad range of professionals coming into contact with separating parents, as well as by family and friends.
The family law process must make children’s safety its absolute priority. Importantly, the federal government has a family law bill before Parliament that prioritises the safety of children in family law matters.
The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoriaacknowledges that separation and family breakdown can be incredibly difficult for parents. Parents should be assisted to deal with separation and encouraged to take responsibility for their behaviour. As a community, we need to focus on building positive and respectful relationships.
We support the call for greater services and support. We ask that these services be equipped to identify and respond to risks to the safety and wellbeing of children and their parents. We need to ensure there is accurate and reliable screening and risk assessment for all forms of family violence. These cases demonstrate that the risk of harm to children is closely linked to risks of harm to the mother.
Cases such as Freeman’s have a profound impact on the community and we are right to search for answers. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on parents who kill their children in the past decade in Australia. If we are to find ways to prevent these deaths, we need a far better understanding of why and how they occur.
Dr Debbie Kirkwood is a researcher at the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria and is writing a paper on filicide in the context of parental separation.