Monday, 30 May 2011

FILICIDE (multiple): Quebec: Shedding light on the darkest of crimes: family killings

JANET BAGNALL,  May 27, 2011
 The trial of Guy Turcotte, a cardiologist charged with killing his two small children, started just days after a 28-year-old mother walked into the freezing waters of the Rivière des Prairies, a twomonth-old baby in her arms and her five-year-old son attached to one of her wrists.
Then, as Quebecers reeled from learning of Turcotte's frenzied knife attack against his children in 2009, another father put his three little children in his truck, set it ablaze, and went off to kill himself.
Seven people died in the three incidents. Only Turcotte, the baby from the river and a badly burned 6-year-old who escaped his father's attempt on his life survived.
What was going on in Quebec society? How could parents do such things to their own children?
Little is known about the young mother, but the two fathers, Turcotte and Martin Houle, appear to fit a pattern where personality characteristics in combination with a lengthy and acute family crisis formed an "explosive cocktail," says Quebec psychology professor Suzanne Léveillée. Turcotte's superior education did not make him atypical, Léveillée says. Men who kill their children and/ or whole families are often middle-class.
Léveillée, together with Julie Lefebvre, her Université du Québec à Trois Rivières colleague, will launch a book on the subject of murder within the family at the International Conference on Violence against Women to be held in Montreal May 29 to June 1.
Because the three cases were all over the media at the same time, it might seem to Quebecers that there has been an increase in the number of children murdered by their parents, but statistically this is not true. There is a distressing sameness to the numbers year in and out. Between 1997 and 2007, 68 children in the province were killed by a parent. Forty of the 68 were killed by their father, 28 by their mother.
Men and women kill for different reasons, research suggests. Men kill out of vengeance against the woman who has spurned them. Women tend to kill their children out of a misplaced "altruism," in which they think they are sparing the child the same misery they themselves have endured.
Men also tend to be responsible for "familicides," in which the whole family is killed. Quebec's chief coroner investigated 16 such cases dating from 1986 to 2000. In all cases, it was a man who carried out the killings. Excessive violence - such as the savage knife attacks by Turcotte on his children - was a characteristic in nearly half of these killings.
Léveillée and Lefebvre studied 10 of these "familicides." They found that there seemed little to suggest ahead of time that the men would go to the extreme of killing their entire family rather than "lose" them. Eight of the 10 men were working. Five were in the process of separating from their spouse. Only one man had a criminal past, and it had nothing to do with violence against another person. Only one man had been hospitalized in a psychiatric centre in the year before he killed his family. Nine of the men killed themselves afterward, one in prison.
"It is very difficult to foresee these crises," Léveillée told me. "Men don't consult when they are in distress."
But there are signs, she said. Among the strongest is the breakup of the couple, particularly if one or both of the partners are incapable of accepting a separation, feel the separation is something they cannot live through. Other signs include the presence of psychological or physical violence, threats of suicide, alcohol or drug consumption, and unhinged behaviour like frequent, hysterical phone calls.
For their book, Léveillée and Lefebvre interviewed, in prison, Quebec men who had killed their spouse. Out of 100 possibilities, only 23 agreed to talk to the researchers. They did so, Léveillée said, "not out of guilt - it's not obvious that they regret what they did. If it was a child, they think it was unfortunate. In many cases, they are not people who feel regret. They have personality disorders.
"Talking to us, I think, was a form of making reparations. It wasn't possible to stop them, but maybe by talking about it they can help stop someone else."
Although Léveillée does not think this spring's killings were connected, she worries that child-custody battles are becoming more of a minefield. Today's Quebec has fewer children and more separations. "We'll see in a few years whether there is a trend here," she said. "It may stabilize, but it is something to watch."

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