The effect on children of the murder of a parent by the other parent, or uxoricide, is immediate and devastating. Usually in a single act, the child loses both parents. The victim is dead and the killer is either also dead, as in the case of homicide–suicide, or is a fugitive or in the custody of the police. Home, school, neighborhood, and therefore friends, will probably change as the child is moved to the custody of a relative, friend, or foster family. Extended contact with police and other criminal justice system workers may add to the trauma. The incidence of children affected by uxoricide is difficult to determine because the records on domestic homicide do not often specify whether children were involved. It is possible to make an estimate, however, as homicides are public records. In Virginia domestic violence figures for 2000 indicate that there were 85 intimate partner homicides. Sixty victims were women and 25 were men.
With a conservative estimate of two children per family, 108 children experienced an uxoricide in Virginia in 2000, and more than half of them witnessed the killing or found the body. If one assumes that people in Virginia are similar to other Americans, one could extrapolate that 4,144 children in the United States are affected by an uxoricide annually, based on U.S. Census population data from 2000 for Virginia and the United States. Given the lack of research on this topic, it is not surprising that there is little in the literature. There is a book, When Father Kills Mother, by the English psychiatrists Harris-Hendricks, Black and Kaplan (2000).
One story—not a typical story because there did not seem anything typical about these children—is that of Sarah. After her father killed her mother when she was 5 years old, she and her four siblings had to stay in the county juvenile facility for a couple of weeks. All the children then went to live with a maternal aunt and uncle for several months, but that was too large a family for the couple to handle and the siblings were separated. Sarah and her younger sister went to live with another maternal aunt and her husband. Their uncle was a military officer and the family moved often, sometimes overseas. When Sarah reached puberty, her uncle began to sexually rape her, and then later, her little sister. This went on for several years until her aunt was finally told. Her uncle was thrown out of the house but not prosecuted. Sarah said that after that, she began to stay out late, argued with her aunt, and did poorly in school. Finally, her aunt decided she could no longer control Sarah and took her to court as an incorrigible, and she was sent to what was called reform school. After her release, she spent a little time with her adoptive mother but soon lived with friends while she finished high school.
The suffering the children have reported is dependent on their age at the time of the homicide, they reported being lost, bewildered and frightened or angry and numb. Many of the participants have reported flashbulb memories, and those memories were usually of their mother’s body right after the homicide, or in some cases, the blank, evil, and frightening look in their father’s eyes immediately after he committed the homicide. Some of the children did well in school, but most had declining grades, especially in middle school and high school. It was also during adolescence that a number of them began to use alcohol or drugs. Some reported suicide attempts, and one reported a successful attempt by his brother. Almost all of the participants have reported difficulty establishing and/or maintaining love relationships, and for some this has lasted throughout their adult lives. One wonders how the children try to make meaning of their lives in the face of this trauma.