‘You had better be careful in your bed tonight’: shock rise in women killed by their sons (2023)

*Jane, 51, has six children. They range from a seven-year-old, who is autistic, to the two eldest, a girl of 14 and a boy of 19. Five years ago, the 19-year-old began to be extremely verbally and physically aggressive towards his mother. “Periodically, he punches me. He has stolen money from me. He’s grabbed me round the neck. He’s held a knife to me and said, ‘I’d like to end you’. He calls me ‘scum’, none of it normal in our family.”

Over the past year, the 14-year-old has begun copying her brother after their mother threatened to inform the police when she started engaging in potentially criminal behaviour. “She said she doesn’t trust me any more.” The girl refuses to have counselling or see social workers while Jane, who is on antidepressants, feels so threatened that she retreats to her bedroom to avoid the attacks.

“I used to have rules and regulation in the house. Now, it’s chaos. As a parent, I don’t want to have my children arrested. Social services don’t want to hear or see anything about child to parent violence. It’s taboo. I’m told it’s my fault. But what if I end up in hospital or dead? My children have to live with that for the rest of their lives.”

Child to parent and grandparent violence is a gendered crime – victims are more likely to be female and the perpetrators male. Some research has been conducted on violence and abuse inflicted mainly by sons aged under 18 but assaults, coercive control and killings by older children is an area that is scandalously underinvestigated.

The red flags that warn risk is escalating are too often disregarded by police, social workers and GPs. In one case of matricide, the son’s medical notes said no female member of staff should be alone with him because he was known to be dangerous to women. Nobody questioned whether he should be living at home with his mother. Support is so minimal, one professional describes it as, “a lolly stick moving an iceberg”.

At least 40% of child-to-parent violence in UK unreported, study findsRead more

The Femicide Census, co-founded by Clarrie O’Callaghan and Karen Ingala Smith, records the death of every woman killed by a man in England and Wales. The number of women killed by sons has shown a steady and alarming rise since 2016, after decades of remaining stable. The number of grandmothers killed by grandsons has also risen. While younger women are more at risk of being killed by a partner or ex-partner, it is women in their 60s and older who are risk from their older sons and grandsons.

In the census’s 10-year report (2009-2018) 109 (8%) of the total of 1,435 women killed by men were mothers killed by sons while 11 grandmothers were killed by grandsons over the decade. In the latest Femicide Census statistics shared exclusively with the Observer, which is campaigning to end femicide, in 2020, the figure for matricide is 15% – 14 killings of mothers and five of grandmothers in a single year with 28 cases in which the relationship is not yet known.

In 2019, 18-year-old Rowan Thompson stabbed his mother, Joanna Thompson 118 times. He later died in a mental health facility. Sophie Rugge-Price, his aunt, said her sister talked about “walking on eggshells” around her son.

Last year, Dale Morgan, 43, was jailed for life after striking his mother Judith Rhead, 68, 14 times with a hammer. A note written by Rhead said, “Huge lies ie car, work had been furloughed, stealing money, stealing medication? Drug addiction, opiates.”

‘You had better be careful in your bed tonight’: shock rise in women killed by their sons (1)

In February 2022 Donovan Miller, 31, pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility after killing his grandmother Phyllis Nelson, 76, using, “extreme violence.”

Last month Andrew Wilding, 42, was sentenced to life, serving a minimum of 27 years, for the murder of his mother, Elsie Pinder, 66. He left her to die in a fire he had set in the flat they shared.

In addition to the abuse, mothers say their homes are destroyed, nerves are shredded, social life and employment end and savings are stolen by sons. However, a natural reluctance to have a son or grandson criminalised leaves few options.

The social worker Helen Bonnick is part of a group of academics, campaigners and parents collaborating to improve research and awareness. Bonnick runs an information website, Holes in the Wall. “Parents tell me, ‘it’s been a hole [kicked] in the wall day’,” she says.

*Rebecca and her husband, Ben, have three sons. Kyle is almost 18 and has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Social workers have assessed that he has mental capacity so refuse to consult with his parents, allowing Kyle to make decisions that often result in “meltdowns” inflicted on his parents.

“He’s given me black eyes. He punched me in the face the other day because, he said, I was looking at him for too long,” Rebecca says. “We have no continuity in social workers and as long it appears we are coping, they don’t care about us as a family. Kyle smashed the shower and we had to hide the jagged glass. He told us: ‘You had better be careful in your bed tonight’. It’s the unpredictability. I just feel so alone.”

Criminologist Prof Rachel Condry is head of the filial violence project at Oxford University and a leading researcher into child to parent violence and abuse (CPVA), along with Caroline Miles of the University of Manchester. In “Who counts? The invisibility of mothers as victims of femicide”, published last year, the two investigated 59 parricides: 34 of the victims were mothers, 25 were fathers. (Fathers who are victims of parricides are more likely to be younger and killed by sons in their teens and 20s). In the report, 77% of the mothers had mentally ill sons and many were their sons’ carers.

In one case, a 76-year-old mother was fatally mutilated by her 44-year-old son who thought she was a witch. The previous day, she had told an ambulance crew she was frightened of her son who was aggressive towards her in front of them. A safeguarding referral was made but not acted upon.

The study says: “The victim-carers … were often completely ignored; their needs were not considered and their concerns were not taken seriously … carers’ assessments should be offered to those providing care … these assessments were frequently not offered.”

It concludes that fatal violence is inflicted on mothers facing multiple interconnected inequalities including ageism, racism and sexism in a patriarchal society. In addition, at a time of shrinking services, these mothers and grandmothers are left as, “the last woman standing”, as services and relatives fall away. This is an example of “institutionalised state failure to protect them as a vulnerable citizens”, the study says.

“On the one hand, mothers are given too much responsibility for the care of their sons in a way that you wouldn’t ask of a victim of abuse in a different context,” Condry says. “On the other, these women are very marginalised. In one case, the mother had installed padlocks inside her house she was so frightened. In another, the son was taken off medication without consulting or telling the mother.”

Shame and stigma add to the reasons why this abuse is so hidden. “If you raise a child who has these sorts of problems, society judges that the explanation much be located somewhere in the family – and then there is the mother’s loyalty to her son,” Condry says. “There will be thousands more women behind these matricide statistics who are living unseen in daily fear.”

Precisely how many is difficult to gauge. The Dewis Choice Initiative, based at the Centre for Age Gender and Social Justice in Aberystwyth, has run one of the few longitudinal studies tracking how domestic abuse affects people aged over 60. It gives a glimpse of the scale of child to parent abuse. Surprisingly, since 2015, half of the 200 “victim-survivors” helped have been affected by adult family violence (AFV) – in 44% of cases the perpetrator was a son; in 14% of cases, it was a grandson and in the remaining 42%, other family members. Two-thirds of those affected by AFV were aged 74 and older; dementia was a feature in a fifth of cases and half have a disability.

“We are witnessing the tip of the iceberg,” says the centre’s director, Sarah Wydall. “It’s a myth that women choose to stay in a potentially dangerous situation. Where they are in a position to make informed choices about their rights and entitlements and are properly supported, they do restore their freedom and social networks.”

“What isn’t considered is that in later life, for instance, for a 93-year-old, what might not look like a high level of violence has a much bigger impact,” says Dewis’s Elize Freeman. “A shove can be life threatening.

“Coercive control legislation doesn’t even consider adult family violence. It’s not easy to remove an adult child from your home. You have to live with a son while you are trying to make him homeless and that escalates the risk. There’s a massive chasm where adult safeguarding is concerned.”

The Domestic Abuse Act (2021) refers to “child-to-parent” abuse and makes clear that if the child is 16 or older, the abuse falls under the statutory definition of domestic abuse with all the protection that ought to afford. However, terms such as “family abuse” and “adult family violence” conceal the fact that victims are mainly women experiencing violence from male perpetrators. Matricide is referred to specifically too rarely. A new Home Office definition of child to parent violence is “imminent”, but it’s not clear if it will refer to matricide.

“If you don’t name the problem, how can you even begin to tackle it?” say O’Callaghan and Ingala Smith. “We also need to ask what is it about masculinity and male supremacy that makes sons significantly more likely than daughters to kill a parent. We should never look at matricide outside the context of patriarchy.”

Domestic homicide reviews (DHRs) examine the role of agencies leading to a killing so lessons can be learned. In a study of 66 DHRs that included 26 mothers killed by their sons, conducted by the Homicide Abuse Learning Together (Halt) team at Manchester Metropolitan University, five interlinked precursors to child to parent killing were detected – mental ill health, substance/alcohol abuse, criminal history, childhood trauma, financial factors and care. The presence of any or all ought to flag up danger.

Again, however, mothers were not considered by those supporting the perpetrator. In one case, the victim called the police out 50 times over two years because of her son’s behaviour. In hospital, she said she was too frightened to go home, but she was discharged and killed. “Often, questions were not asked [by professionals], reports not investigated and information remained unchecked,” the Halt study details. Among Halt’s recommendations are improved training for professionals, better collaboration between agencies and proper resourcing of the forthcoming oversight mechanism run by the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure the recommendations from DHRs are implemented.

“We need to consider risk-assessing the perpetrator not just the potential victim,” says Prof Khatidja Chandler, Halt’s principal investigator. “The missing question for professionals is, ‘What must it be like to live with this person?’”

In March last year, the first major research in London into child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPVA) was published. The report recommends improved training, early intervention focusing on the family as a whole, a champion in every borough to raise awareness and greater collaboration between youth workers, GPs, the criminal prosecution service, police and social workers.

End femicide: 278 dead – the hidden scandal of older women killed by menRead more

One of the researchers, Amanda Holt, a pioneer in CAPVA, is now helping to devise a public health strategy for London to prevent and reduce CAPVA. “Many mothers don’t even recognise that they are living with abuse because they’ve learned to walk on eggshells,” she says. “It’s a unique form of family violence that requires unique solutions. In my experience, everyone seems to know somebody who is experiencing it.”

Why are matricides rising after years of stability? Perhaps partly due to Covid lockdowns and a combination of rising mental ill health and a chronic lack of support. Add to that, crises in housing and the cost of living resulting in adult children remaining much longer in the family home.

Michelle John established Pegs (Parental Education Growth Support) early in 2020 after she faced her own family challenges. Pegs has since provided 3,000 parents with online support, it has trained professionals in Wales and developed a new assessment of risk model. John wants to improve training nationally for GPs, social services and schools. “Parents are often their child’s biggest advocate,” she says. “They just want the behaviour and the coercive control to stop. If the first person a mother tells isn’t positive and refuses to believe her then that’s going to dangerously isolate mother and her child even more.

“A lot of professionals tell us: ‘It doesn’t happen here,” she adds. “We say: ‘Because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.’ If nothing changes, mothers and grandmothers will continue to live in misery and they will continue to be killed.”

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