Australian children under 15 twice as likely to be murdered than UK children

A study into the circumstances surrounding the murders of children in New South Wales between 1991 to 2005 has revealed some shocking and disturbing information.

A team of psychiatrists led by Dr. Olav B Nielssen from St Vincents hospital in Sydney looked into documents concerning 165 child murders by 157 offenders during that period.

They found that 59 deaths were a result of child abuse, including five children who died from methadone overdoses - another 27 child murders, committed by 26 offenders happened during the acute phase of a psychotic illness - however 15 of these, mainly mothers over the age of 29, many from non-English-speaking backgrounds, had never been treated with antipsychotic medication.

The team found that both the offenders and the victims in fatal child abuse were significantly younger than in other forms of child homicide and they say most child murders are the result of the physical abuse of children, others are associated with severe mental illness, while others are the result of anger arising from the breakdown of relationships along with a range of less common factors.

The psychiatrists suggest that identifying psychotic illness in mothers earlier and treating it and also changing the way methadone is provided to addicted parents, might result in some reduction in the number of child deaths - 5 deaths occurred as a result of children being given methadone usually to sedate rather than kill the child.

They also believe that more lives could be saved by measures which reduce the incidence of child abuse, including the complete banning of the corporal punishment of children.

The research revealed that in the 15 years between 1987 and 2001, 437 Australian children aged less than 15 years were victims of homicide - it also revealed the startling fact that Australian children under the age of 15 are twice as likely, to be murdered than children in the same age groups in the United Kingdom.

The researchers say most infants are killed by men and such killings are often committed by people who do not have a severe mental illness.

The team looked at court judgments, medical reports and news reports of child homicide offences committed in NSW during the 15 years in order to find out the circumstances in which they occurred.

It was found that of the child murders, 51 women were responsible, or jointly responsible, for 53 deaths and 100 men were responsible, or jointly responsible, for 106 deaths - in 11 cases there was more than one offender and more than one victim and in 14 cases an adult (usually a parent) was also killed.

Twenty-six of 151 offenders committed homicide during a psychotic illness often as a result of a persecutory delusional belief concerning the child but fatal child abuse was the most common cause of death, 59 were victims and the offender was often the child’s mother or de-facto partner, or both - substance misuse, unstable accommodation, unemployment and past criminal convictions were often features of these homicides.

There were 30 retaliatory killings carried out by 10 men and 7 women and they were more likely to result in multiple homicides where a parent was also murdered mostly by a non-custodial parent.

Nine men killed a child after a sexual assault who they were often unrelated to and in most of the cases, the murder was thought to have occurred to conceal the sexual assault.

Almost all the teenage homicides occurred in public places and most involved some form of substance misuse - they followed relationship breakdowns, altercations and gang violence and all but one of the offenders were male - 6 killers of teenagers remained unidentified.

The team suggest that measures to reduce intoxication and the possession of guns and knives in public places could prevent some teenage homicides.

Men killed 21 of the 37 infants and women killed 16 - four of these women were mentally ill, one did not want her child, one committed a homicide–suicide and one committed a retaliatory killing - 2 babies died after the administration of methadone.

The St Vincent's team say their study confirms previous research which shows that most child-homicide offenders are men and others were affected by severe mental illness at the time of the homicide.

According to the researchers child abuse was the most common reason for child murders and measures to reduce the rate of physical abuse of children has greatest potential to reduce child homicide in NSW.

They give Sweden as an example and say fatal child abuse declined to very low levels after corporal punishment of children was outlawed in Sweden - most countries in the European Union have now adopted a total ban on the corporal punishment of children.

New Zealand adopted such a ban in 2007, partly in response to a high rate of child homicides - such a ban means that some parents may have to be taught other ways to control their children.

The research is published in the current issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

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