Domestic Homicide of Older People in the UK

Hannah Bows is an Assistant Professor in Criminal Law at Durham University and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA).

In this articles she discusses the problem of ‘elder abuse’ and domestic homicide of older people in the UK. She presented on this topic at the N8 PRP Knowledge Exchange conference in June 2018. 

Traditionally, criminologists have been primarily concerned with crime committed against, and by, young people (usually aged 16-40). The well-known age-crime curve, which sees criminal offending peak in late adolescence and decrease thereafter, has been a powerful influence in criminological research, policy and practice. Although no separate age-crime curve has been established for victims, most victimisation surveys have reported victimisation of violent crime to be concentrated in younger age groups (16-40). Consequently, older age groups have been considered low risk for violent victimisation. However, an emerging body of work has shown widespread violence and abuse of older people.

In a recent global meta-analysis and systematic review, Yon et al (2017) estimate that at least 1 in 6 people over the age of 60 experience some form of physical, sexual, emotional and/or financial abuse each year. To put this into context, this would equate to at least 2 million people in the UK each year. This is similar to current estimates of domestic violence of younger people (those aged 16-59) (1.9 million per year – ONS, 2017). Therefore, whilst the risk of violence and abuse might be lower in older age groups, it can no longer be assumed that it is low.

Domestic homicides – what do we know?

Domestic homicide (DH) is the most extreme form of domestic violence and presents major public health challenges globally. Although lacking a statutory definition, domestic homicides can be defined as death of a person aged 16 and over who has died as a result of violence, abuse or neglect by a person who whom he or she was related or had been in an intimate personal relationship, or a member of the same household as himself or herself (Home Office, 2016). However, despite this umbrella term incorporating various contexts and dynamics, the majority of studies in the UK and elsewhere have focused on homicide by a spouse or partner (often conceptualised as ‘intimate-partner homicide’ (IPH)). Where homicide is perpetrated by a child, the term ‘parricide’ has been adopted, although most of the parricide literature is currently limited to adolescent child perpetrators.

Internationally, the World Health Organisation (2013) estimates that as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. Across Europe, domestic homicide represents the most frequent cause of violent death of women (Ruuskanen and Kauko, 2008). The latest figures from the England and Wales report there were 57 male and 113 female domestic homicide victims in the year ending March 2016, representing 14% of all male and 65% of all female homicide victims (ONS, 2017). These figures are similar across the globe; data from the USA show that of all domestic homicides committed by a spouse, 81% of victims were female (Durose et al, 2005). DH are therefore overwhelmingly gendered, with women significantly more at risk of being killed by a partner or family member than men, with previous domestic violence/abuse a key feature in the majority of cases.

The study and early findings

To address the existing gaps in elder abuse/domestic violence literature and expand existing criminological analysis of homicide, my current project has utilised Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all UK police forces to examine the number of homicides involving victims aged 60 and over as well as victim, offender and incident characteristics. The analysis of responses from 45 forces revealed 514 homicides involving an older victim were recorded by police between 2010 and 2015. In 221 (43%) cases the offender was a spouse or other family member, bringing these cases within domestic homicide definitions. This equates to an average of 44 homicides per year, meaning that older victims constitute around 1 in 4 domestic homicides in the UK.

Early findings suggest risk factors for domestic homicide in later life are gender-specific and share some similarities and differences with existing evidence of domestic homicide against younger age groups. In line with international data, the majority of victims of domestic homicide in this study were female (67%). Across both male and female victims, the majority of homicides occurred in the victim’s home (87%) and sharp instrument or knife was the most common method of killing (41%).  Overall, there were 102 (46%) cases perpetrated by a partner/ex-partner (intimate partner homicide) and 97 by a child (44%) (parricide). Consequently, older people are almost as likely to be killed by a partner as they are their child, a significant difference compared with domestic homicide in younger age groups.

Conclusions and implications

Although the analysis is ongoing, these early findings point towards a number of implications for research and practice. In terms of research, there is a need to revisit conceptual understandings of interpersonal violence and develop a more integrated, life-course framework which incorporates existing domestic violence/intimate-partner violence, elder abuse and adolescence-to-parent violence. The current invisibility of older people in criminological research can no longer be justified. Similarly, positioning violence and abuse of older people as caused by age (e.g. elder abuse) restricts comprehensive understandings of violence against older people and ignore the important gender, class and ethnicity factors that are key to understanding violence against younger people. This research clearly demonstrates that gender continues to be a salient factor in domestic homicides.

Ageist stereotypes and narrow understandings of DV mean older victims often overlooked or the issues are considered ‘elder abuse’. It is therefore critical that services that are likely to be in contact with older people are aware of the signs and risk factors for domestic homicide, including age-related organisations, health and social care services and adult safeguarding social workers.

In the UK, both legislation (the Care Act 2014) and national guidelines (NICE, 2014; Association Directors of Adult Social Services, 2014) have placed responsibility for preventing and responding to domestic violence (and by virtue, domestic homicide) within a multi-agency framework including social work, criminal justice and health and social care. One of the most important tools for identifying those at risk of serious physical harm, including homicide, is via the Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA) Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour-base violence (DASH) Risk Identification Checklist. However, this risk assessment is currently more targeted at young victims and young offenders; for example, many of the questions in the risk assessment tool focus on pregnancy and/or young children, issues less likely to affect older adults.

Moreover, the risk assessments are currently designed around intimate partners as perpetrators and most of the questions would fail to capture adult sons or grandsons as perpetrators, despite current definitions of domestic violence capturing these dynamics. In order to ensure social workers are actively seeking to reduce power imbalances and oppression, it is critically important that risk assessment tools and safeguarding policies full incorporate older adults.

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