Filicide in U.S. Family Courts: A Snapshot
Filicide is the deliberate act of a parent murdering his or her own child. Experts in domestic violence have long known that the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim and her/his children are the days immediately following their separation from their perpetrator, which places family courts worldwide on the front lines of a dangerous and volatile epidemic.
Over the past ten years, the Center for Judicial Excellence has tracked news media coverage of children who were killed by a parent when divorce, separation, custody, visitation or child support was mentioned as a factor in their lives at the time of the murder. Our master database of nearly 600 child murders was compiled through a simple “Google alert” set up. Extensive online research about each filicide is conducted after we learn about a case. Some filicides took place before the couple ever stepped foot in court. Others involve a criminal court refusing to grant a restraining order to a parent fearing for her children’s safety. These cases that were triggered by a divorce or separation, but do not involve a family court knowingly placing kids in harm’s way, explain the much larger universe of divorce-related filicide cases being tracked in our master database.
Filicide in U.S. Family Courts: A Snapshot focuses on the deaths of 65 children in 50 cases in which a U.S. family court did the unthinkable during a couple’s separation or divorce- it knowingly placed their children into unsupervised contact with a dangerous parent who eventually killed the child(ren), and often themselves. For more details about our data collection, read this brief memo: Filicide in the U.S. Family Courts: A Snapshot (PDF)
The Center for Judicial Excellence has been committed for more than 10 years to exposing and fixing a crisis in the U.S. family court system that is harming countless children whose parents are navigating the difficult landscape of separation and divorce.
*If you know of a tragic family court child murder case in the U.S. that is not included in our master database, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Without public awareness, there can be no meaningful change. Please help us shine a light on these preventable tragedies.
We believe that if family courts across the country were held accountable for operating as they should – with “the best interests of the child” at the forefront of their decision-making, then many -if not all- of these tragic filicides could have been avoided. By law, family court judges have a duty to protect the children of the parents who appear before them from child abuse, neglect and murder, regardless of what a parent requests during the proceeding. A voluminous body of domestic violence research details the numerous challenges that battered spouses face when trying to leave an abusive relationship. This data does not attempt to delve into these issues- it merely presents a snapshot of the cases where family courts failed to protect children from the ultimate harm -murder by a parent.
Family Court Filicides Are Not ‘Uniquely’ American
For some context for this American filicide crisis, we need only cross the pond to the U.K., and to the work of Women’s Aid, the national charity that is working to end domestic abuse against women and children there. The Women’s Aid 2016 report, Nineteen Child Homicides, presents stark evidence that what is happening in the United States is not unique, and that it is, in fact, a crisis that warrants more in-depth study and analysis. This report indicates that 19 children from 12 families had been killed in the past 10 years, and “each of these children had died at the hands of a parent who was a known perpetrator of domestic abuse.”
A Sampling of Children Killed in the U.S. by a Parent when Divorce, Separation, Custody, Visitation, Child Support were Mentioned in News Coverage (2008-2016)
- U.S. Child Murder Victims (nearly 600 listed by state)
- Master Database of Child Murder Victims (w/ links to news coverage)
- Filicide in U.S. Family Courts: A Snapshot (Database of 65 children in 50 cases)
Further Study Is Needed
Due to resource limitations, we have been unable to delve deeply into the nearly 600 filicides we uncovered to determine how many more of these cases fit our collection criteria. This initial data set provides a significant opportunity for more in-depth research into these cases, which will enable us to better understand what system reforms are needed to prevent these tragic child murders and to better protect children in family courts from ongoing abuse.
Unlike juvenile court records, many family court records are publicly accessible. Court transcripts, when available, frequently show that judges and other court professionals knew about a parent’s violent criminal history and chose to ignore it before placing child homicide victims into unsupervised contact with their violent parent. Grieving parents who survive these life-shattering tragedies are often more willing to speak about the devastating loss of a child or children after some time has passed, so the opportunities to obtain a more detailed picture of the family court system’s role in filicides may be possible.
Custody in Crisis: How Family Courts Nationwide Put Children in Danger
By Laurie Udesky, 100Reporters – December 1, 2016