Section 2: Family-related murder-suicides
By Shannon Brennan and Jillian Boyce
- Prevalence and frequency of family-related murder-suicides
- Spousal murder-suicides
- Family-related murder-suicides of children and youth
- Family-related murder-suicides of seniors
- Detailed data tables
Although murder-suicidesNote 1 in Canada are relatively rare, previous studies have shown that they frequently tend to involve members from the same family (Aston and Pottie Bunge 2005). Family-related murder-suicides represent the most fatal outcome of family violence. In addition to the deaths of at least two family members, they typically can have a devastating impact on members survived by the deceased as well as the surrounding community.
Since 1961, Statistics Canada has collected police-reported data on murder-suicide incidents, victims and accused persons through the Homicide Survey.Note 2 This section will present an overview of family-related murder-suicides in Canada for the period from 2001 to 2011. For the purpose of this report, murder-suicides are defined as any homicide incident that has been cleared by police as a result of the suicide of the accused.Note 3 Using data from the Homicide Survey, the prevalence and trends in family-related murder-suicides will be examined. In addition, this section will look at the more common types of family-related murder-suicides including murder-suicides in spousal relationships, murder-suicides of children and murder-suicides of seniors aged 65 and older.Note 4
Prevalence and frequency of family-related murder-suicides
Males killing a spouse the most common form of murder-suicide
Between 2001 and 2011, there were 344 murder-suicides in Canada, which resulted in the deaths of 419 victims and 344 accused. The number of murder-suicide incidents accounted for 6% of all homicide incidents during that time.
Over the past 10 years, more than three-quarters (77%) of murder-suicide incidents involved at least one victim that was related to the accused (Table 2.1). This differs from patterns in homicide in general, where 34% were family-related (Chart 2.1).
Overall, males accounted for a large majority (95%) of those accused of murder-suicide in Canada. The most common form of murder-suicide in Canada involved a male killing his spouse. Just over one-half (54%) of all murder-suicide incidents between 2001 and 2011 involved a male who killed a current or former legal or common-law spouse: 46% involved a spouse only and 6% involved a male killing a spouse and at least one of his children (Chart 2.2, Table 2.1).
Rate of family-related murder suicides on the decline
Given the small number of murder-suicides and family-related murder-suicides that occur in Canada each year, the rate of these incidents is generally quite low. Over the past 50 years, five-year average rates of family-related murder-suicide incidents have ranged between 0.6 and 1.2 incidents per million population. While there have been annual fluctuations over this time period, the rate of family-related murder-suicides has generally been declining since peaking in the mid-1980s (Chart 2.3).
Rate of family-related murder-suicides highest in New Brunswick
Homicide rates in Canada typically tend to be higher in the western provinces, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and lower in the eastern provincesNote 5 (Brennan 2012). However, this did not hold true for family-related murder-suicides, as New BrunswickNote 6 reported the highest rate among the provinces, followed by Newfoundland and Labrador. Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Ontario reported among the lowest rates (Chart 2.4). Prince Edward Island was the only province to have no family-related murder suicides between 2001 and 2011.
The majority of family-related murder-suicides involved just one victim (82%) while 13% involved 2 victims and 6% involved three or more.Note 7 Murder-suicides of family members were more likely, however, to have multiple victims than were non-family-related murder suicides. Whereas 18% of family-related murder-suicides involved 2 or more victims, the same was true for 9% of murder-suicides which did not involve family members.
Spouses accounted for the largest proportion of family-related murder-suicides committed between 2001 and 2011. Spousal murder-suicides include all those committed by persons in legal marriages and common-law relationships in addition to those who are divorced or separated from legal or common-law unions.
Between 2001 and 2011, there were 195 victims of spousal murder-suicides, virtually all of whom (97%) were female. Looking at the trend over the past 40 years,Note 8 female victims have consistently experienced substantially higher ratesNote 9 of spousal murder-suicides (Chart 2.5).
Mirroring victimization trends in general, rates of spousal murder-suicide victims were highest among those between the ages of 15 to 24 years, and decreased with age. More specifically, the rate of spousal murder-suicide among victims aged 15 to 24 was more than double the rate of those aged 55 and older (2.2 per 1,000,000 spousal population versus 0.7 per 1,000,000 population)(Chart 2.6).
Rates of those accused of spousal murder-suicides remained fairly stable across every age group (Chart 2.6).The vast majority of those accused of spousal murder-suicides between 2001 and 2011 were male (97%).
Most victims of spousal murder-suicides killed by a current partner
Similar to trends in spousal homicide overall, most victims of spousal-murder suicides were killed by a current rather than an ex-spouse. More specifically, between 2001 and 2011, close to three-quarters of spousal-murder suicide victims were killed by a legal or common-law spouse: one-half (49%) were legally married while 23% were in a common-law relationship. A further 26% were separated and the remaining 3% were divorced.
Many accused have a history of family violence
Previous studies have shown that spousal homicides are often precipitated by other forms of violence prior to the incident (Sinha 2012). The same was true among spousal murder-suicides. In close to 4 in 10 (39%) spousal murder-suicide incidents, the accused had a known history with police of previous incidents of family violence. Moreover, certain spousal relationships were more likely than others to have a known history of family violence. For example, murder-suicides committed by separated spouses were more than twice as likely as those committed by legally married spouses to have had a known history of family violence (56% versus 26%) (Table 2.2).
Drug and alcohol consumption more common among accused than victims
Earlier research has shown that drug and alcohol use by the accused is often a factor in violent crime, and spousal-related violence in particular (Mihorean 2005). In total, 41% of accused in spousal murder-suicide incidents were found to have ingested either alcohol and/or drugs prior to committing the spousal homicide.Note 10 This proportion was, however, lower than spousal homicides not ending in the suicide of the accused, as more than two-thirds (67%) of accused in these incidents were believed to have consumed either drugs or alcohol. That said, those accused of spousal murder-suicide incidents who were in a common-law relationship were more likely to have consumed drugs or alcohol while those who were legally married were less likely (62% versus 27%).
Compared to those accused of spousal murder-suicide, alcohol and drug use was less common among victims. In total, just under one-quarter (24%) of spousal murder-suicide victims consumed any type of drug or alcohol prior to the incident. This varied by relationship type, as 41% of victims in common-law relationships had consumed alcohol or drugs, compared to 18% of victims who were separated and 22% of victims who were married.
Shooting the most common cause of death in spousal murder-suicides
The most common cause of death among spousal murder-suicide victims between 2001 and 2011 was shootings. This varied from non-suicide spousal homicides, where the most common cause of death was stabbings. In total, more than one-half (53%) of spousal murder-suicide victims died as a result of being shot. Other causes of death included stabbings (22%), strangulation, suffocation or drowning (14%), beatings (7%) and other causes such as poisonings or burns (4%) (Table 2.3).
In total, 101 spousal victims of murder-suicide were shot to death between 2001 and 2011, of which over 7 in 10 (71%) were shot by a rifle or shotgun, while the remaining 29% were killed with a handgun. These proportions are similar among victims of spousal homicides where the accused did not commit suicide.
In most cases of spousal murder-suicide, the firearm used belonged to the accused (73%) or to a person other than the victim (25%). The firearm belonged to the victim in just 2% of cases.Note 11 In addition, over one-half (52%) of spousal murder-suicide victims were killed with a firearm that did not have a valid license.Note 12
Similar to victims of spousal homicide where the accused did not commit suicide, most victims of spousal murder-suicides were killed in a private residence, regardless of the type of relationship. Over 9 in 10 victims (91%) were killed in a residence, with the remaining 9% being killed in various locations, including in vehicles, on streets and in public places. Of those who were killed in a private residence, 73% were killed in the residence they shared with the accused, 19% were killed in their own residence, 5% were killed in the accused's residence and 3% were killed in a residence belonging to someone other than the victim or accused.
Arguments, frustration, anger or despair most common motive in spousal murder-suicides
Although the motive of the homicide is not relevant for establishing the offence, there were many motives cited by police for spousal murder-suicides committed between 2001 and 2011. The most frequently cited motive was an argument between the victim and accused, or feelings of frustration, anger or despair on the part of the accused (61%), followed by jealousy or revenge (27%).
There were variations in motive depending on the type of spousal relationship. Jealousy or revenge accounted for the primary motive in close to one-half (48%) of murder-suicides involving separated spouses, compared to 13% involving legally married spouses (Table 2.4). Financial gain or protection of assets was only cited as a motive among current partners, and was not cited as a factor in murder-suicides involving former spouses.
Separation a common theme in several spousal murder-suicides
In addition to collecting information on the characteristics of the victim, accused, and incident, the Homicide Survey also contains a narrative section in which the reporting police officer can share additional details about the homicide – or in this case, the murder-suicide. While the majority of police services provide a narrative for each incident report, the level of detail can vary considerably. Despite these variations, the additional information does allow for the possible identification of common themes in family-related murder-suicides that may not be captured through the remainder of the questionnaire.
In total, there were 162 narratives providing additional details about spousal murder-suicide incidents.Note 13, Note 14 Separation was a common theme found within the spousal murder-suicide narratives. One-half of the spousal narratives mentioned that the couple had either separated (26%), were in the process of separating (9%) or had expressed a desire to separate (15%). In situations where there was a desire to separate, in 8 out of 10 instances, it was the victim who had expressed this desire.
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Murder-suicides of dating and other intimate partners
In addition to looking at murder-suicides in spousal relationships, it is possible to examine the number of murder-suicides that occur between dating and other intimate partners. Dating partners can range from current and previous boyfriends and girlfriends, to those engaged in a sexual relationship or extra-marital affairs. While dating partners do not fall under the scope of family violence, previous studies have shown that victims of dating violence share many similar characteristics to victims of spousal violence (Hotton Mahony 2010).
As with victims of dating violence in general, victims of dating murder-suicides tended to be older than victims of violence in general. For example, while rates of violence generally tend to peak among those aged 15 to 24, rates of dating murder-suicide were highest among victims aged 35 to 44 (0.6 per 1,000,000). As with other forms of violence, rates of dating murder-suicide were lowest among victims aged 55 and older (0.1 per 1,000,000 population).
One-half (50%) of all dating murder-suicides between 2001 and 2011 were committed by an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend of the victim, while close to one-third (31%) were committed by a current boyfriend or girlfriend. The remaining dating murder-suicides were committed by extra-marital lovers (6%) and other intimate partners (13%).
Similar to spousal murder-suicides, the vast majority of those accused of dating murder-suicides were male (97%). Rates of dating murder-suicide were highest among accused aged 45 to 54 (0.5 per 1,000,000 population) and lowest among those aged 15 to 24 (0.1 per 1,000,000 population).
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Family-related murder-suicides of children and youth
Between 2001 and 2011, there were 52 incidents of family-related murder-suicides involving children and youth.Note 17 In total, these incidents resulted in the deaths of 66 children aged 17 years or younger. The rate of family-related murder-suicides against children and youth peaked in the late 1980s and has generally declined since. The average rate from 2006 to 2011 is the lowest since data collection began in 1961 (Chart 2.7).
More than one-half (52%) of all family-related murder-suicides of children and youth involved multiple victims. In total, 48% of homicides involved a sole victim, 29% involved 2 victims, while 23% involved 3 or more victims. Where an incident involved multiple victims, the other victims were most likely the spouse of the accused, or another child of the accused.
Infants and toddlers at highest risk of family-related murder-suicides
Studies have shown that a child's risk of experiencing family violence, and familial homicide in particular, varies by both the age and the sex of the child (Sinha 2012; Sinha 2011; Taylor-Butts and Porter 2011). This was also found to be true among murder-suicides of children and youth.
In general, a child's risk of being the victim of a murder-suicide decreased with age. Infants and toddlers, those 2 years old and younger, were the most likely of all children to be the victim of a murder-suicide between 2001 and 2011, while youth (ages 12 to 17) were the least likely. Girls were more likely than boys to be the victim of a family-related murder-suicide, regardless of their age (Chart 2.8).
Majority of child and youth murder-suicide victims killed by parents
Parents and step-parents accounted for the majority (95%) of those accused of family-related murder-suicides of children and youth, with other family members such as aunts and uncles accounting for the remaining 5% (Table 2.5).
The relationship between the victim and the accused varied depending on the age-group of the victim. For example, in comparison to older children, infants and toddlers tended to be killed by their father or step-father. In contrast, children aged 3 to 11 were more likely than toddlers to be killed by their mothers or step-mothers (Table 2.5).
Most accused of family-related murder-suicides of children and youth were male
Between 2001 and 2011, males were most often the accused in family-related murder-suicides of children and youth (79%). Persons aged 35 to 44 accounted for almost 4 in 10 (38%) accused of killing a child or youth. This was followed closely by those aged 25 to 34 (37%) and those aged 45 to 54 (21%). Older family members, those aged 55 and over, accounted for just 4% of those accused of a murder-suicide of a child or youth. It should be noted that over the ten-year time period, none of the accused were under the age of 25.
Similar to spousal-related murder-suicides, most family-related murder-suicides involving children as victims occurred in a private residenceNote 18 (83%).
Shooting the most common cause of death in murder-suicides of children and youth
The most common cause of death among child and youth victims of family-related murder-suicides was shootings (29%), followed by strangulation, suffocation or drowning (23%), stabbings (17%), poisoning (14%), beatings (6%) and other causes such as smoke inhalation (12%) (Table 2.6).
That said, the most common cause of death for children and youth varied based on the victim's relationship with the accused. For instance, 35% of child and youth victims killed by a father or step-father were shot to death. In contrast, no victims who were killed by their mothers died as a result of being shot. The most common cause of death among child and youth victims killed by their mothers was poisoning (42%) (Table 2.6).
Jealousy a common motive in murder-suicides of children and youth killed by fathers
In general, arguments and frustration, anger or despair was the most commonly cited motive for murder-suicides involving children, accounting for over two-thirds (69%) of all motives. The next most commonly cited motive was revenge or jealousy (24%). In 6% of murder-suicides involving children and youth victims, there was no apparent motive for the killing (Table 2.7).
Motives varied slightly by the relationship of the victim and the accused. Jealousy was cited more frequently as a motive in murder-suicides involving children when the accused was their father. In total, 28% of murder-suicides where the father was the accused occurred as a result of jealousy, compared to 9% of murder-suicides where the accused was the victim's mother (Table 2.7).
Relationship dissolution a theme within parent-child murder-suicides
In total, there were 25 homicide narratives which provided additional details of murder-suicides where the victim was the accused's child.Note 19 As with spousal murder-suicides, the dissolution of a relationshipNote 20 was also a prominent theme within the narratives of parent-child murder-suicides. Just over three quarters (76%) of the parent-child murder-suicide narratives noted that the accused had experienced some sort of marital or intimate partner relationship problem at the time of the murder-suicide. Within these particular cases, about half of the accused were having a custody issue (53%) and in 32% of cases the accused was recently separated or in the process of getting divorced.Note 21
Murder-suicides of grown children
As previously established, most murder-suicides involving victims 17 years of age and younger were committed by parents or step-parents. That said, not all victims who were killed by a parent were under the age of 18. Between 2001 and 2011, there were 17 murder-suicides where a parent or step-parent killed their grown child, aged 18 years of age and older.
Overall, the rate of murder-suicide for grown children was fairly low (0.1 victims per 1,000,000 population between 2001 and 2011). Unlike other forms of family-related murder-suicide, males and females were at equal risk of being a victim.
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Mental illness and murder-suicides
Understanding the role of mental illness in murder-suicides is extremely complex. Since accused cannot be interviewed or evaluated, presence of mental illness in a murder-suicide is often determined in other ways, such as records of prior psychiatric treatment, a psychiatric diagnosis given by a mental health or medical professional, or interviews with those closest to the deceased. These methods inevitably have limitations, which can include uncertainty of an active mental illness at the time of the murder-suicide or underestimation of mental illness as a result of no record of previous treatment/diagnosis (Moskowitz et al. 2006).
Consequently, the relationship between murder-suicides and mental illness continues to remain unclear, with many experts expressing different positions on the issue. Literature on the prevalence of mental illness in murder-suicide shows considerable variation with rates ranging from 15% to 91% (Moskowitz et al. 2006). Variations in prevalence rates are often the result of different definitions utilized for mental illness or different typologies of murder-suicide under analysis (Moskowitz et al. 2006).
In 1997, the Homicide Survey began collecting information on the mental state of the accused at the time of the homicide. Since that time, the investigating police officer has been able to indicate if the accused had a confirmed or even suspected history of mental illness or other developmental disorder, such as depression or schizophrenia. It should be noted however, that this information is an assessment made by the police officer, and may not be based on a diagnosis from a medical practitioner.
Between 2001 and 2011, police reported that close to one in five family-related murder-suicides in Canada involved an accused who may have had a mental illness. More specifically, in 19% of family-related murder-suicide incidents, the police reported that the accused had a mental illness, while in another 6% of murder-suicides, police suspected that the accused was mentally ill. As these figures are based on police-reported data, the prevalence may differ from assessments by medical practitioners.Note 22
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Family-related murder-suicides of seniors
Between 2001 and 2011, there were 47 family-related murder-suicides involving at least one senior victim. In total, these incidents resulted in the deaths of 50 victims aged 65 and older.
The rate of family-related murder-suicides of seniors has fluctuated annually over the past 50 years. However, unlike trends in family-related murder-suicides overall, murder-suicides against seniors have been increasing since the early 1990s (Chart 2.9).
Senior women at higher risk of family-related murder-suicide compared to senior men
Senior women were much more likely than senior males to have been the victim of a family-related murder-suicide between 2001 and 2011. More than 8 in 10 (84%) senior victims were women, while the remaining 16% were men. Between 2001 and 2011, the rate of family-related murder suicides among women was four times higher than the rate for senior men (1.5 per 1,000,000 population versus 0.4 per 1,000,000 population), a trend which has remained fairly consistent over the past 50 years (Chart 2.9).
Senior victims of murder-suicide most likely to be killed by their spouse
In general, senior victims of family-related murder-suicide were most commonly killed by a spouse. Close to one-half (48%) of senior victims were killed by a spouse, while 32% were killed by their grown child, and 20% were killed by another family member, such as a sibling. There were differences among male and female victims, as females were more likely to be killed by a spouse, whereas males were more likely to be killed by a grown child (Chart 2.10).
The overwhelming majority (98%) of people accused of killing a family member age 65 and older in a murder-suicide were male. In addition, just over one-half (53%) of people accused of killing a senior in a family-related murder-suicides were seniors themselves.
Shootings most common cause of death among senior murder-suicide victims
As was the case with other forms of family-related murder-suicide, the most common cause of death among senior victims was shootings. Close to one-half (46%) of all senior victims died as a result of being shot, while the remainder died as a result of being stabbed (24%), beaten (14%), strangled, suffocated or drowned (14%).
There were, however, variations in the cause of death based on the relationship between the victim and the accused. For example, senior victims killed by their grown child were more likely than those killed by a spouse to be stabbed to death (38% versus 17%). In contrast, compared to victims killed by their grown children, a higher proportion of victims killed by a spouse died as a result of being strangled, suffocated or drowned (6% versus 17%) (Table 2.8).
Similar to family-related murder-suicides in general, those involving senior victims most often resulted from an argument, or frustration, anger or despair (Table 2.9). However, unlike other forms of family-related murder-suicides, those involving senior victims frequently had no apparent motive. While more than one-half (51%) of senior victims were killed as a result of an argument, more than one in five (22%) had no apparent motive. Mercy killings/assisted suicides also emerged as a motive among family-related murder-suicides of seniors, accounting for the motive in the killing of 16% of victims.
Declining health a common theme within narratives for murder-suicides of seniors
According to 38 homicide survey narratives between 2001 and 2011, the most common theme within the narratives pertaining to the murder-suicides of seniorsNote 23 was the declining health of the victim, accused or bothNote 24 (45%). This theme was even more prominent in elderly murder-suicides committed by a spouse (58%).
In general, murder-suicides are relatively infrequent in Canada, accounting for 6% of all homicide incidents between 2001 and 2011. When murder-suicides do occur however, most involve members of the same family.
Spousal murder-suicides were the most prevalent form of family-related murder-suicide in Canada between 2001 and 2011. However, rates of spousal murder-suicide have been declining over the past 40 years, particularly those involving female victims. Females and those aged 15 to 24 were the most at risk of spousal murder-suicides, while males accounted for the majority of accused.
Family-related murder-suicides of children and youth have also been declining, with rates beginning to fall in the mid-1990s. Most child victims of family related-murder suicides were killed by their parent or step-parent. In general, infants and toddlers were most at risk compared to other children (ages 3 to 11) and youth (ages 12 to 17).
The rate of family-related murder suicides of seniors have increased over the past 15 years. As with other forms of family-related murder-suicide, senior women were at higher risk compared to men. Senior victims were most often killed by spouses, but this varied based on sex of the victim, as males were more likely to be killed by their grown child.
Brennan, S. 2012. "Police-reported crime Statistics in Canada, 2011." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
Hotton Mahony, T. 2010. "Police-reported dating violence in Canada, 2007." Juristat. Vol. 3, no. 2. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
Mihorean, K. 2005. "Trends in self-reported spousal violence." In K. AuCoin (ed.), Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, 2005. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X.
Moskowitz, A., A.I.F. Simpson, B. McKenna, J. Skipworth and J. Barry-Walsh. 2006. "The role of mental illness in homicide-suicide in New Zealand, 1991–2000." The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology. Vol. 17, no. 3. p. 417-430.
Sinha, M. 2011. "Police-reported family violence against children and youth, 2009." Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X.
Sinha, M. 2012. "Family violence against children and youth." Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, 2010. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
Taylor-Butts, A. and L. Porter 2011. "Family-related homicides, 2000 to 2009." Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-224-X.
- For the purpose of this report, the term "murder-suicide" includes incidents of infanticide and manslaughter.
- In 1974, the Homicide Survey expanded its data collection to include information on incidences of infanticide and manslaughter.
- The suicide is not required to be committed within a certain time period following the homicide, but rather is contingent upon the reporting of it by police.
- This section includes spousal murder-suicides where the victim was 65 years of age or older.
- Information pertaining to the Territories has been excluded as a result of low counts.
- There were 13 family-related murder-suicides in New Brunswick between 2001 and 2011.
- Totals may not add to 100% due to rounding.
- Rates were calculated from 1971 due to the availability of spousal population data.
- For more information on the calculation of rates, refer to Text box 3.1.
- This proportion excludes 73 accused where it was unknown if they had consumed alcohol or drugs. Expressed as a percentage, this represents 37% of all persons accused of a spousal murder-suicide between 2001 and 2011. As a result, these figures should be used with caution.
- The calculation of these proportions excludes unknowns. In total, there were 13 spousal-murder-suicides where the ownership of the firearm was unknown.
- The calculation of these proportions excludes unknowns. In total, there were 8 murder-suicides where the licensing information of the firearm was unknown.
- Based on 162 single victim spousal-related murder-suicides that occurred between 2001 and 2011.
- The total amount of narratives analysed was slightly less than the total number of spousal murder-suicides since not all incidents included a narrative.
- Excludes the population of Canadians who were legally married or living in a common-law relationship.
- Excludes 1 victim under 15 years of age.
- Child victims refer to victims aged 0 to 11, while youth victims refer to victims aged 12 to 17.
- Includes hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts.
- Refers to incidents where the child was 17 years or younger.
- Refers to marital or intimate partner relationships.
- Categories were not mutually exclusive. There were some incidents where the accused was recently separated, as well as having custody issues.
- The presence of mental illness was recorded as "unknown" for 27% of those accused of a family-related murder-suicide between 2001 and 2011.
- Senior murder-suicides refer to incidents in which the victim is age 65 or older.
- Examples of declining health include cancer or Alzheimer's disease.
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