Section 4: Family-related homicides, 2000 to 2009

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Homicides, particularly those involving family members, are a relatively rare occurrence in Canada, accounting for less than 1% of all violent crimes reported to police each year. This section examines the nature and extent of family-related homicides in Canada. These types of incidents involve first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter or infanticide committed by family members related by blood, marriage or adoption.

Information is presented on three groups: spouses, children and youth (0 to 17 years) and seniors (65 years and over). Data are drawn from the Homicide Survey which collects detailed information from police services on all homicides that occur in Canada.

Family members commit one-third of solved homicides

Over the past 10 years, police identified just over 1,500 homicides committed by family members, accounting for about one-third (35%) of all solved 1  homicides (Table 4.1). The rate of family-related homicides has ranged from 4 to 6 victims per million population over this period.

Similar to the trend in homicide overall, the rate of family-related homicide over the past decade was generally higher in western Canada than in the eastern part of the country. Among the provinces, Prince Edward Island recorded the lowest rate while Saskatchewan and Manitoba recorded the highest rates (Table 4.2, Chart 4.1).

Spousal homicides

Spousal homicides involve those committed by persons in legal marriages, those in common-law relationships as well as those who are divorced or separated from legal or common-law unions. Between 2000 and 2009, spousal homicides accounted for 16% of all solved homicides and nearly half (47%) of all family-related homicides.

Spousal homicide rate stable for third year in a row

Following nearly three decades of general decline, the spousal homicide rate remained stable in 2009 for the third consecutive year (Table 4.3). The rate of 3.5 victims per million spouses in 2009 was 44% lower than 30 years ago. Some research has suggested that more equitable male to female employment ratios, increasing levels of education and higher rates of divorce may have contributed to the long-term decline in spousal homicide rates (Dawson, Pottie Bunge and Baldé, 2009).

While males were more likely to be the victims of homicide, females were more likely to be the victims of family-related homicide, particularly spousal homicide. Over the past 30 years, the rate of spousal homicides against females has consistently been about three to four times higher than that for males (Chart 4.2).

Risk of spousal homicide declines with increasing age

For both males and females spousal homicide rates tend to be highest among 15 to 24 year olds and to decline with increasing age (Chart 4.3). Between 2000 and 2009, the spousal homicide rates for males and females aged 15 to 24 were about double those for their 25 to 34 year old counterparts, the second highest age category.

Male spouses most often killed by a common-law partner, female spouses by a married partner

Overall, most spousal homicides were committed by a current rather than a former spouse. Between 2000 and 2009, 40% of spousal homicides involved common-law partners and 36% involved married spouses. Another 23% were against separated spouses and 2% were against divorced spouses.

The type of spousal relationship tended to differ depending on the gender of the victim. While the majority of male victims were killed by a common-law partner (66%), female victims were slightly more likely to have been killed by their legally married spouse (39%) than by a common-law partner (33%). In addition, female victims of spousal homicide were more likely than male victims to be killed by a partner from whom they were separated (26% versus 11%) (Chart 4.4).

Stabbings most common method used to commit spousal homicide

Throughout the past decade, stabbings were the most common method used to commit spousal homicide. This method, however, was much more commonly used against males (72%) than females (32%) (Table 4.4, Chart 4.5). Female victims were more likely than male victims to be shot (26% versus 11%), strangled, suffocated or drowned (22% versus 4%) or beaten to death (16% versus 5%).

The use of firearms, particularly rifles and shotguns, during the commission of spousal homicides has dropped steadily over the past 30 years. The rate for spousal homicides involving firearms fell 74% from nearly 3 per million spouses in 1980 to less than 1 per million spouses in 2009 (Chart 4.6). Nevertheless, shootings were the cause of death in nearly one-quarter (23%) of spousal homicides between 2000 and 2009, second only to stabbings (41%).

Family-related homicides against children and youth

Between 2000 and 2009, there were 326 homicides against children and youth (0 to 17 years) committed by a family member, accounting for 7% of all solved homicides and 21% of all family-related homicides.

Parents commit the majority of family-related homicides against children and youth

In general, homicides against children and youth were committed more often by family members than non-family members (i.e., friends, acquaintances and strangers) (Chart 4.7). While the disparity between the rates of family and non-family homicides of children and youth has lessened in recent years, the 2009 rate of family homicides of children and youth (6 per million population) continued to be higher than the non-family rate (4 per million population).

Parents commit the majority of family-related homicides against children and youth. During the most recent 10-year period, fathers and/or mothers were responsible for 84% of all family-related homicides against children and youth under 18 years of age. Siblings or extended family members, such as uncles or aunts, grandparents or cousins, were responsible for the remaining 15% of such homicides.

Infants at highest risk of homicide by a family member

The risk of homicide by family members tends to be highest for infants (less than one year of age) and to decrease as children grow older (Chart 4.8). Between 2000 and 2009, the rate of family-related homicide against infants was nearly triple the rate of 1 to 3 year-olds, the next highest age group.

Parents were almost invariably the accused person identified in family-related homicides against infants, accounting for about 98% of all such homicides between 2000 and 2009.

Weapons used more often against older children than younger children

The most common methods used by family members to kill children and youth tend to differ according to the victim's age (Table 4.5). Younger victims, namely those under four years of age, were most often shaken or beaten to death. Older children, on the other hand, were most often killed with a weapon, such as a knife or firearm.

Family-related homicides against seniors

Between 2000 and 2009, there were 160 homicides against seniors (65 years and older) committed by a family member, accounting for 4% of all solved homicides and 10% of all family-related homicides.

Family-related homicides against seniors decline

Over the past 30 years, seniors have been killed more often by non-family members (such as friends, acquaintances or strangers) than family members. Although the gap has narrowed in recent years, the rate of homicide by non-family members against seniors in 2009 continued to be about two and a half times higher than that by family members.

The rate of both family-related and non-family-related homicides against seniors has gradually declined (Chart 4.9). In 2009, the rate of family-related homicide against seniors was 34% lower than in 2000 and 61% lower than in 1980.

Senior women at greater risk of family-related homicide than senior men

Senior women are more likely to be killed by a family member than senior men. Between 2000 and 2009 the rate of family-related homicides against senior women was 4.4 per million compared to 2.9 per million for senior men.

Older women were most likely to be killed by their spouses (41%) or sons (36%), while the majority of senior men were killed by their sons (72%) (Chart 4.10).

Frustration, anger or despair most common motivation for family-related homicides against seniors

The most common motivation for a family member killing a senior person was frustration, anger and despair, accounting for about one-third (33%) of all such homicides between 2000 and 2009 (Table 4.6). Another 26% of family-related homicides against seniors stemmed from an argument. In contrast, homicides against seniors committed by non-family members were most often motivated by financial gain (33%).

Summary

Between 2000 and 2009, about one-third of all solved homicides in Canada were committed by a family member. Among the provinces, the highest rates were in the western part of the country, particularly Saskatchewan and Manitoba, similar to the trend in overall homicide.

About half of all family-related homicides involve spouses. Following nearly three decades of gradual decline, the 2009 rate of spousal homicide remained stable for the third consecutive year. The spousal homicide rate against women has consistently been about three to four times higher than the rate against men. For men and women alike, rates of spousal homicide peaked among 15 to 24 year olds.

Family-related homicides against children and youth, the majority of which were committed by parents, represented 21% of all family-related homicides between 2000 and 2009. Infants under the age of one experienced higher rates of family-related homicide compared to older children.

About one in ten family-related homicides involved victims aged 65 and older. The rate of family-related homicides against seniors has gradually declined over the past 30 years. Senior women were at greater risk of family-related homicide than senior men.

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