Phoebe Perry with Lis Bates, Katharine Hoeger, Melanie-Jane Stoneman and Angela Whitaker
The harm caused by domestic abuse can be devastating and difficult to predict. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought about unique challenges for all agencies involved in the protection of vulnerable people. In response, policing, including the College of Policing and specialist teams, is constantly striving to improve their approach to tackling domestic abuse.
In March 2020 there was widespread concern about the safety of vulnerable people potentially isolating with abusers. Policing had to develop a suitable response in order to ensure they were dealing appropriately with dangerous perpetrators whilst also protecting victims. The NPCC and College of Policing working with the National Policing’s Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP), developed the concept of tracking all deaths within a domestic setting. This would enable any potential lessons to be learnt rapidly as England and Wales moved through various stages of lockdown. The first report produced by The Domestic Homicides Project, examined every death identified by police as meeting the definition of a domestic homicide, suspected victim suicide or child death between 23rd March 2020 and 31 March 2021.
For domestic homicides, the overall number of deaths in the 12 months 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021 was 163. This was slightly higher than the previous year (152) but in line with the 15-year average (Home Office police-recorded homicide data). There were 38 suspected suicides of victims of domestic abuse reported to the project between 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021 (there is no comparable baseline dataset for previous years). A slightly higher proportion of all domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides happened within lockdown weeks than outside of lockdown weeks, but this difference was not statistically significant. Bearing in mind the relatively short period of time the data covered (12 months), and despite the unprecedented circumstances of the last year, domestic homicides did not appear to increase substantially.
Cases were divided in to five types:
- Adult Family Homicide (AFH) – homicide of an individual aged 18 or over by an adult family member who is not an intimate partner
- Child Death – homicide of a child under 18 by a family member, where there has been domestic abuse in the family
- Intimate Partner Homicide (IPH) – homicide of an adult aged 18 or over by a current or former intimate partner
- Other – where the relationship is not intimate partner or familial but the victim and suspect live together, e.g. lodger or flatmate
- Suspected Victim Suicide – suspected suicide of an adult aged 18 or over following known domestic abuse against them
This approach allowed for the analysis of different risk factors surrounding each typology and helped to avoid conflation of different types of death, which would have undoubtedly hindered any future learning to prevent further deaths. It is a well-established typology used during Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) (Montique 2019).
Important Risk Factors
Domestic homicide is a gendered issue, as women and most men were at risk from men as a majority. Almost half of all suspects were known to the police for having previously perpetrated domestic abuse, and many were serial and/or repeat offenders, often against the same victim. Victims from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups were less likely to be previously known to the police and other agencies compared with those who were from White ethnic backgrounds. The majority of victims were between 25 and 54 years of age, with a substantial group of victims and suspects aged 65 and over. Coercive and controlling behaviours were common, especially from male suspects, and existing mental health conditions in suspects, as well as alcohol and drug (mis)use were exacerbating factors.
Adult Family Homicides
When looking at adult family homicides (AFH) (18% of deaths), victims tended to be older; mainly men killing parents (often mothers) and grandparents (often grandmothers). Mental health issues were more prevalent in suspects of AFH, especially in those who were required to be under legal section, and many of these suspects were already known to mental health services. Many suspects of AFH were also known to police as a previous perpetrator of domestic abuse; not just against family members, but also against intimate partners. Suspect drug (mis)use was also identified by police in AFH more commonly than in other types of domestic homicide.
Child deaths (12% of deaths) were more likely to involve male victims than female victims and were more likely than other types of domestic homicide to involve female suspects, with specific reference to mothers. Quite a few of the female suspects were previously themselves a victim of domestic abuse. There were 21 recorded deaths (84% of child deaths) that involved the death of a child where the suspect was a parent or caregiver. Three separate cases involved the murder of adolescent girls (two aged 16, one aged 17) by their stepfather, cousin, and cousin’s husband respectively. Two of these cases involved a clear sexual violence element, with evidence of sexual assault after death in one, and the victim having alleged sexual abuse by her stepfather just before the homicide in the other. The remaining child deaths were in cases where the suspect (exclusively the father) killed his partner and children
Intimate Partner Homicides
When looking at intimate partner homicides (IPH) (49% of deaths), suspects were likely to have been known to police as a suspect or perpetrator of domestic abuse, or to have been a perpetrator of undisclosed domestic abuse which only came to light after the homicide had occurred. Abuse was highly gendered, with nearly all cases involving a male suspect and a female victim, and coercive and controlling behaviour was strongly present. Victims and suspects were most likely to be in their 30s and 40s, with a sizeable group aged 65 and over. Heavy alcohol use characterised some cases, sometimes by both victim and suspect. Previous threats or attempts of suicide by the suspect was also a risk factor, especially in cases involving coercive control and in familicide cases. Separation (or attempts at separation) and previous non-fatal strangulation by the suspect of the victim were present in a sizeable number of cases
There were nine suspects in six deaths of adults that were classified as ‘other’ (3% of deaths). Five victims were male and one female, with all male suspects. These cases involved housemates, lodgers or friends who did not have an intimate or family relationship with the victim(s), and also included some individuals involved in intimate partner homicide or adult family homicide cases as third parties.
Suspected suicides with a known history of domestic abuse victimisation
In cases where a victim of domestic abuse was suspected of taking their own life (18% of deaths), the victim and suspect characteristics were similar to those in intimate partner homicide cases, however, female suspected suicide victims were even more likely than female IPH victims to be previously known as victims of high-risk domestic abuse involving coercive control. The previous domestic abuse in these suspected suicide cases was highly gendered, as nearly all suspects were male and victims female. Suspected suicide victims were slightly younger than victims in other types, mostly under 45 years old. There were fewer Black and minority ethnic victims; possibly indicating under-identification of suspected victim suicides amongst minoritised ethnic groups. Previous non-fatal strangulation by the suspect of this or a previous victim was more present amongst this type of case, and as with intimate partner homicide, (attempted or actual) separation was also present in a sizeable number of cases.
Conclusions and recommendations
COVID-19 has not ‘caused’ domestic homicide, but it has acted as an escalator and intensifier of existing abuse in individual cases. Victims have been less able to seek help or advice. In some cases, victims’ access to ongoing support or help with caring responsibilities or mental or physical health conditions have been reduced. Furthermore, vulnerable children and adults have in some cases been made more ‘invisible’ to services through home-schooling and homeworking. Both victims’ and suspects’ ability to manage mental ill-health and drug and/or alcohol dependencies have been reduced by the pandemic.
It is important now that police and supporting organisations are prepared for an increased risk of domestic homicides and potentially suicides of domestic abuse victims as lockdown restrictions continue to lift. This may be particularly true of intimate partner homicide and suspected victim suicide. Ongoing situational pressures arising from the COVID-19 pandemic will persist – these may increase perpetrator risk and decrease victim resilience. It is also imperative that we are alert to ‘COVID-blaming’ as an excuse or justification by perpetrators for domestic abuse or coercive and controlling behaviour. This project has identified a number of cases in which perpetrators have sought to claim this. This analysis shows how important it is for police, other agencies, the courts, and the public to understand that COVID-19 might be used by perpetrators variously as a weapon of control and as an excuse for abuse or even murder.
Phoebe Perry is an Analyst on the Domestic Homicides Project, National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)
Katharine Hoeger is an Analyst on the Domestic Homicides Project, National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)
Melanie-Jane Stoneman is a Research Fellow on the National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)
Angela Whitaker is the Project Lead for the National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)
Findings from the project are available here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1013128/Domestic_homicides_and_suspected_victim_suicides_during_the_Covid-19_Pandemic_2020-2021.pdf
For further information on this study contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
 The Homicide Index data was provided directly from the Home Office and has been re-coded in line with the project definition and therefore will not match the data published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).