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Responding to Violence, Suicide, Psychosis and Trauma

Step-fathers who Kill

Lurking in the shadows

Posted: 09 April 2009 | Community Care Magazine

Maria Colwell. Jasmine Beckford. Heidi Koseda. Kimberley Carlile. Leanne White. Lauren Creed. Baby P. These names don’t resonate only with social workers; as some of the UK’s most notorious child deaths they conjure up grim details that are etched on the nation’s collective memory.

And they have something else in common: they all died at their stepfather’s hands. In many cases their mothers received prison sentences for offences ranging from neglect to assault or manslaughter.

Sadly, these are just a few names on the deathly roll call that stretches back to 1973 of young children killed by their stepfather or their mother’s boyfriend.

No matter how good our protective or preventive measures, there will always be parents who will harm or even kill their children. Whether the killer is their biological father or their stepfather may not seem that relevant when it comes to informing preventive policies, but research suggests otherwise.

In 1988, US data showed that children aged up to two are at about 100 times greater risk of being killed by their stepfather than their biological father. Psychologists call this the Cinderella effect. The research went on to look at British data, concluding that it indicated “considerable excess risk at the hands of stepfathers”.

With the rates of remarriage, divorce and cohabitation steadily increasing, giving rise to more stepfamilies, this is a disturbing thought. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2006 84% of stepfamilies consisted of a stepfather and biological mother living with children from her previous relationship.

Research suggests that whereas genetic fathers often kill their children “more in sorrow than in anger”, out of perceived necessity and/or as part of a suicide, homicides committed by stepfathers tend to be more rage driven, impulsive acts motivated by hostility towards the child and characterised by violently beating or shaking them.

Despite this evidence, some researchers believe that minimal attention has been given to stepfathers – or mothers’ boyfriends – as the perpetrators of these crimes and the reasons behind them.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center in the US, says: “Sociobiologists point out that these are men who have no genetic stake in this child and see them as competition for attention and time, and their own offspring. Among other primates it’s not unknown for a new alpha male to kill the children of the dominant male when he comes into a group.”

But Finkelhor believes the reasons are simpler than that. “That has some reality to it, but I think it operates through more familiar psychological mechanisms; that these aren’t men who feel a natural affinity or protectiveness about the children of the women they are involved with. These are not men who are nurturing.”

Anger management

This squares with the fact that a child’s inconsolable crying is one of the main triggers for these homicides. “Frequently the dynamics of these cases are common,” says Finkelhor. “The woman leaves the child with the boyfriend or stepfather and when the child starts crying, he doesn’t have the nurturing skills to handle this in a calm way and then hits, throws, or smothers them because he wants them to shut up.

“They are not all of one sort, but a high proportion [in these cases] are violent, abuse their partners, and tend to have an anger management problem.”

Gathering any deeper psychological profile of these men is hampered by the fact that we know so little about them, and what we do know is usually learned after a child has been killed – which isn’t helped by serious case reviews that mostly focus on the pathology of the mother.

This reflects the continuing failure of agencies to engage properly with men, says David Derbyshire, Action for Children’s head of performance improvement and consultancy, and author of several serious case reviews.

“We probably don’t know a lot because too many times we come across cases where there is no involvement with men. Then there is an incident where the child is injured or dies, the serious case review takes place and we see the intervention is often only all with the woman and the man is not known about, or if he is, there’s no contact.

“If you don’t engage with the man but he is there everyday then the work we are doing is going to have a limited impact.”

Before we can even reach a position where men are properly involved, social workers need to recognise their importance to the whole familial picture and approach them with an open mind, which appears to happen too infrequently.

Research for a book he was writing on gender and child protection led says Jonathan Scourfield, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s school of social sciences, to interview social workers about how they worked, or didn’t work, with men. He found primarily pejorative views.

“Men were seen as a threat, as no use, as irrelevant and absent – and there was a whole host of reasons given for not engaging with them.”

The dominant theme was of men as a threat, not surprisingly given the kinds of problems that caused referrals to be made to the team. But what worried Scourfield was the number of men that social workers didn’t pick up on. “Often there’s a boyfriend, the mother doesn’t mention it, but he’s hovering in the background, half noticed.”

Even if he is seen or known about, it’s all too common for no real attempt to be made to engage him. “The social work culture is an important part of that, but there’s a huge issue with the actual behaviour of these men. We are talking about men who are very difficult to work with and that needs to be acknowledged,” Scourfield adds.

This leads to questions of how a social worker can confidently decide whether to engage with the individual, or whether they are so dangerous they should be removed from the child’s life. It’s a dilemma that troubles Brid Featherstone, professor of social work and social policy at Bradford University: “We haven’t equipped social workers to work with these men. We haven’t got skills in assessing men generally, so we don’t even get as far as deciding that this man shouldn’t be in the family home.

“There is a problematic absence of an evidence base in the UK about working with men – either those who are a resource for children or a risk. Half the time we don’t know who is in a family. We don’t even record birthfathers if they are not there so how are we going to find others floating around? We tend to rely on the mother but it can be hard to establish living arrangements, as we can see in the Baby P case.”

The need for evidence

Jack Kennedy understands these difficulties. As a consultant in clinical and forensic psychology he compiles psychological reports for courts and parole boards and has worked on some of the most well-known child death cases. “Social workers have a very difficult job because they need evidence to act,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to anticipate or intervene unless there are overt indicators of risk or harm. Society almost expects [social workers] to be a ministry of pre-crime and intervene before these events happen, but to go in and remove a child on a suspicion won’t hold up in court.”

Other than obvious danger signs such as known domestic violence or injuries on a child, Kennedy suggests that where social services are involved with a family they need to be aware of mothers developing new relationships and people visiting the home. “Not least because it can be destabilising for the child having different people coming into the home. And also because they can assist a mother in actively risk managing all the time. But there is a thin line between policing and social care.”

However, any information social workers pull together often comes from the mother and therefore relies on her being honest. This is unlikely to happen if she is witness to her partner abusing her child but feels powerless to do anything about it.

While most of us would find this thought process hard to fathom, the issues behind this “collusion” can be complicated. The personality of these women can form part of the equation. Research into these deaths shows that many women lived in fear of their partners and that violence and abuse against a partner and child often coexisted.

These women can be depressed, overwhelmed or so distracted by their own difficulties that they don’t feel capable of doing anything. Women who are desperate to keep a partner will placate them, or those who are so intimidated by a partner won’t stand up to them.

“These are usually highly vulnerable women who have a confused understanding of relationships,” says Kennedy. “Their backgrounds are characterised by abuse and they are highly dependent on being in a relationship even if it’s dysfunctional because that provides them with the security they are looking for. Many women prize the man they have highly because they believe themselves to be loved in some way. Love and affection become more important to them than the needs of the child.

“They are not resilient enough to say ‘that is wrong, this is over,’ because they think they will not get anyone else. This is not about excusing their behaviour, it’s about helping us understand more about what sort of situation an individual may be in.”

Featherstone goes further, saying there are women who are terrified, and other more complex women who don’t acknowledge their ambivalence to their child. “We are hamstrung by the assumption that all mothers love their children or, if they don’t, they can be helped to. But we have to acknowledge maternal ambivalence. Hate can become the more dominant feeling. I have worked with a small number of women who were sadistic themselves. While you are not going to get lots of these women, sometimes you have to think the unthinkable.”

In 2007-8 there were 45 homicides of children aged up to four, according to the Home Office. But these figures don’t include death by neglect or cases which, although were not classified as murder, were not accidents either. Some analysts in the US believe that, there, the actual figure for child homicides may be double the official one because they can resemble deaths resulting from accidents or other causes; for example, a child who has been thrown or intentionally dropped will have similar injuries to those of one who died after an accidental fall.

The so-called Cinderella effect has no fairytale solution. Evidence of the prevalence of deaths caused by stepfathers is there, though the connection is not always made. But we owe it to the memories of all those children from Maria Colwell to Baby P to make sure we know who is present in a child’s life and whether they are a resource or a risk, so we can prevent as many children as possible from ending up on the same list.


* Crimes Against Children Research Center

* Men who Murder Children Inside and Outside the Family, K Cavanagh, R Dobash.

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