Femicide of Older Women

Learning Network Brief 31

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AUTHORS
Danielle Sutton, PhD Student, University of Guelph
Danielle Sutton is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Guelph. Her research concentrates primarily on homicide, policing, and intimate partner violence. Danielle also serves as a Senior Research Assistant for various projects at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence.

Myrna Dawson, Director, Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, University of Guelph
Myrna Dawson is a Canada Research Chair in Public Policy in Criminal Justice and Professor, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, University of Guelph. Funded by the Canadian Foundation of Innovation, she established and serves as Director for the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence (www.violenceresearch.ca). She is co-author of Woman Killing: Intimate Femicide in Ontario, 1991-1994 and Violence Against Women in Canada: Research and Policy Perspectives and recently published in Trauma Violence & Abuse, Child Abuse & Neglect, Current Sociology, and Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency. Her research focuses on social and legal responses to violence with particular emphasis on violence against women, femicide, intimate partner violence and homicide.

SUGGESTED CITATION
Sutton, D. & Dawson, M.  (January 2017).  Femicide of Older Women.  Learning Network Brief (31).  London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.  www.vawlearningnetwork.ca
ISBN: 987-1-988412-05-4
 

Femicide of Older Women

There is a lack of consensus on what age group constitutes “older people”, including older women. In Canada, there is no set age at which a person is considered to be a senior; age thresholds may vary depending on a number of factors and range from 55 to 65 years old as a minimum requirement. Despite disagreement in defining seniority, Statistics Canada acknowledges that seniors 65 years and older represent a burgeoning proportion of Canada’s population, comprising 16% of the total population in 2011.[i] This percentage will continue to rise with the aging population of ‘baby boomers’, resulting in increased concerns about their social, physical, and mental vulnerability. It is also necessary to recognize these vulnerabilities to assist in understanding and monitoring crime and violence perpetrated against seniors in Canada.[ii] This article focuses on femicide, or the killing of women, aged 55 years and older in Ontario between 1974 and 2012. Below, this article begins by providing an overall description of the 452 femicide cases involving older women, examining various victim and perpetrator characteristics, the nature of the offence, and the criminal justice response where documented. This is followed by a comparison of the characteristics of women 55 and older to femicide victims aged 18 to 54.

Data for this analysis were drawn from a larger study that examines all femicides and homicides in Ontario from 1974 to 2012.[iii] Data were collected from a number of official and unofficial sources including death records kept by the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, Crown Attorney files, court documents, and media coverage. More than 200 variables are included in the database, capturing characteristics of the victim, the perpetrator, case characteristics, and criminal justice outcomes. Drawing from this data, during the 38-year period, there were 2,134 female victims; 452 of which were 55 years and older. While multiple data sources were accessed, information for some variables is often not available, a situation common in these types of studies. As such, several of the variables discussed below are missing information for a significant proportion of the data; therefore, the percentages reported reflect only those cases where information is known.

Description of Femicide Characteristics of Victims 55 years and older

Victim characteristics
Similar to prior research analyzing homicides of older women,[iv] the majority of femicide victims 55 years and older (60%) were in a current marital relationship (i.e. legally married or common-law unions) at the time of the offence (see Table 1). Eighty-one percent were Caucasian or of European descent and over 90 percent had at least one child. Given the age category of the victims, it was expected that most would be out of the labour force. Meeting these expectations, approximately 67 percent of victims were retired. Almost one-third of victims had a prior history of psychiatric treatment and/or hospitalization and just under three percent had documented evidence of attempting suicide prior to their death. With respect to substance use, 17 percent were intoxicated at the time of their death and just under one-quarter had a history of substance abuse. Finally, less than two percent of the cases had information documenting that the victim had a prior criminal record.

Perpetrator characteristics
To display the most accurate description of perpetrator characteristics, this stage of analysis was restricted to femicide cases where a perpetrator had been identified and, therefore, excludes unsolved cases. With this restriction, there were 405 femicide cases perpetrated against women 55 years and older.  There were some parallels, but several differences in the demographic composition of perpetrators of femicide when compared to their victims.

The overwhelming majority were male perpetrators (93%)[1] and, similar to their victims, the majority were in a current marital relationship (61%) (See Table 2). Nearly three-quarters of perpetrators were Caucasian or of European descent and 75 percent had at least one child and this was also similar to patterns among femicide victims. However, differences were evident with respect to employment status. As shown above, femicide victims were most likely to be retired, however, perpetrator employment status displayed wide variation. Specifically, 36 percent were retired, 28 percent were legally employed, and 27 percent were unemployed at the time of the offence.  Furthermore, in contrast to their victims, the majority of perpetrators had a history of prior psychiatric treatment or hospitalization (67%), about one quarter committed suicide following the femicide and six percent attempted suicide. However, similar to the victims, the majority of perpetrators did not have a prior criminal record (53%), although the proportion with a record was much higher than victims. Among the 47 percent with a record, 26 percent had a violent record and 21 percent had a nonviolent record. At the time of the homicide, 37 percent of perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol and 66 percent of offenders had a history of substance abuse.

Case characteristics
Similar to the preceding section, this stage of the analysis was restricted to cases where the perpetrator has been identified, excluding unsolved cases. Where the victim-perpetrator relationship was known, the majority of femicide cases involved intimate partners (38%) and one quarter of the cases were perpetrated by other family members (i.e., parents, siblings, other kin)(See Table 3). Almost one half of the cases (49%) involved evidence of prior violence in the relationship and almost one third of the cases involved evidence of prior threats made by the perpetrator against the victim. Despite evidence of prior violence and threats made by the perpetrator against the victim, only 27 percent of cases had documented prior police contact. This finding may be explained by previous research which has highlighted that older individuals may be more reluctant or unable to report prior abuse due to fear of further violence or repercussions, mental impairment, feelings of shame, and unfamiliarity of support services available.[v]

Most victims (29%) were beaten to death or subsequently died from complications that arose due to the beating (e.g. pneumonia) while 25 percent of victims were shot and 23 percent were stabbed. Excessive force, defined as the use of multiple methods or repeated use of one method, was apparent in 38 percent of cases. About 33 percent of the cases involved the use of a knife or other bladed weapon, 23 percent involved the use of a firearm, and 24 percent of cases used an alternative type of weapon (i.e. bat, bar, stick); the remaining 21 percent of cases involved no weapon (i.e. hands). Most cases (29%) appeared to be motivated by mental illness or were perceived as mercy killings or suicide-pacts, according to official records. 

Criminal justice response
Among cases where an offender was identified and the criminal justice response was documented, one-third of perpetrators were charged with second-degree murder; 30 percent were charged with first degree-murder; and approximately 27 percent committed suicide so there were no criminal proceedings (see Table 4). After screening out perpetrators who were not charged criminally, the sample was reduced to 250 cases. Of these cases, over one quarter of perpetrators (28%) were convicted of second-degree murder, 25 percent were found not criminally responsible, and 22 percent were found guilty of manslaughter. When convicted and sentenced, the average sentence length was slightly more than 12 years.

Bivariate comparisons between femicide victims aged 18-54 and 55 and older

In order to address the unique vulnerabilities faced by women 55 years and older, bivariate analyses were conducted to identify which demographic, incident, and criminal justice characteristics distinguished femicide cases of women 55 years and older from cases involving femicide victims aged 18 to 54 years old.

Demographic differences
When comparing the two groups of femicide victims, several significant differences emerged (see Table 1). Relative to the femicide victims aged 18-54 group, femicide victims in the older age category were significantly more likely to:

  • Be widowed
  • Be Caucasian
  • Have at least one child
  • Be retired/out of labour force

Several of the above findings are expected given the age stages of the femicide victims. Specifically, it is reasonable to presume that, in comparison to the younger group, older femicide victims would be widowed, have at least one child, and be retired. In contrast, victims aged 55 years and older were less likely to:

  • Have a prior criminal record
  • Be under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Have a history of substance abuse
  • Have a documented history of previous suicide attempts

These findings are difficult to explain given that older women would arguably have more time and more opportunities to accumulate a criminal record. However, it may be that these dissimilarities are due to generational differences between older and younger women, an examination that is beyond the scope of this paper.

Turning to perpetrator characteristics (see Table 2), compared to femicide perpetrators who killed women aged 18 to 54, femicide perpetrators who killed women 55 years and older were significantly more likely to:

  • Be female
  • Be in a current marital relationship
  • Be out of the labour force/retired
  • Have a history of psychiatric treatment/hospitalization
  • Commit suicide following the incident

In contrast, femicide perpetrators who killed women 55 years and older were less likely to:

  • Have a prior criminal record

Femicide perpetrators, regardless of the age group of the victim, did not differ significantly in terms of whether they had a child, their race/ethnicity, and whether they used or abused substances.[2]

Case characteristics
Several significant differences emerged with respect to case characteristics. Specifically, femicide cases involving victims 55 years and older were significantly more likely to involve other family members as perpetrators (i.e. siblings, parents, or other kin) whereas the younger age group were more likely to be perpetrated by intimate partners. The younger age group were also significantly more likely to have evidence of prior violence, threats, and police contact (see Table 3).

Additionally, the two femicide age groups differed in the method of killing: the older group were significantly more likely to be beaten to death whereas the younger group were more likely to be stabbed or shot to death. This finding aligns with observations of family violence against seniors more generally: a weapon is rarely used in cases of family violence perpetrated against seniors and, when one is used, very rarely is it a firearm.[vi] Perpetrators of femicide involving younger victims were significantly more likely to have been motivated by jealousy or feelings of being spurned whereas, according to official records, the older group of homicide cases appeared to have been motivated by the mental illness or diminished capacities of those involved. Prior research has recognized that intimate femicide is often motivated by jealousy whereas intimate femicide that is followed by the perpetrator’s suicide is more often motivated by sickness, failing health, and other life stresses, which may explain the differing motives found across these two groups.[vii]

Criminal justice response
Finally, it was demonstrated that the two femicide groups differed significantly in the criminal justice response (see Table 4). First, perpetrators who killed women 55 years and older were significantly less likely to have a criminal charge laid against them whereas perpetrators who killed women in the younger age group were more likely to be charged with first degree murder. Second, among perpetrators who were prosecuted, those who committed femicide against the older age group were more likely to be found not criminally responsible, whereas perpetrators who committed femicide against the younger age group were more likely to be convicted of first- or second-degree murder. Third, restricting the analysis to include only perpetrators who were charged and prosecuted criminally, perpetrators who committed femicide against the older age category were more likely to be hospitalized which aligns with the finding that this group was more likely to be found not criminally responsible. In contrast, perpetrators who committed femicide against the younger group were more likely to receive a prison sentence. When the analysis is restricted further to those perpetrators who received a term of imprisonment, those who committed femicide against the younger age category received a longer sentence, by approximately one year.

Conclusion

After reviewing the victim, perpetrator, case, and criminal justice characteristics for femicide cases involving victims 55 years and older, the findings allow for some tentative conclusions regarding the unique vulnerabilities of older women and the potential for intervention strategies. Specifically, older women are more likely to be widowed and retired which may increase isolation from support services and increase their likelihood of victimization due to the lack of a capable guardian. Intervention strategies can materialize in the form of increased education, screening caregivers, and instituting a mandatory reporting system of violence perpetrated against older women.[viii] For example, public education should revolve around educating individuals on the prevalence of violence perpetrated against older women, the unique vulnerabilities faced by an aging population, and the importance of support services available to older women facing abuse. Furthermore, screening caregivers may serve to identify individuals who have mental health and substance abuse issues – two factors revealed to be prominent characteristics of individuals who perpetrate femicide against older women. Finally, instituting a mandatory reporting system of violence against older women would provide a tool to identify at risk relationships and potentially intervene in those relationships to prevent future victimization. 

Table 1. Descriptive and Bivariate Statistics of Victim Characteristics for Femicide Cases Involving Victims 55 and Older and Femicide Cases Involving Victims aged 18 to 54 (N = 2,134)

Variable

Total Sample

(N = 2,134)

55+ Group

(N = 452)

18-54 Group

(N = 1,682)

Victim marital status***

 

 

 

Unmarried/Never married

15%

4%

18%

Marital relationship

56%

60%

55%

Widowed

6%

25%

2%

Estranged marital relationship

22%

11%

25%

Victim’s children***

 

 

 

None

20%

8%

23%

At least one child

80%

92%

77%

Victim’s race***

 

 

 

White/European

69%

81%

67%

Aboriginal

9%

5%

10%

Black

9%

6%

10%

Other

13%

8%

14%

Victim’s employment status***

 

 

 

Unemployed

15%

4%

18%

Legally employed

55%

24%

63%

Out of labour force

22%

67%

11%

Welfare/disability

3%

4%

3%

Student

5%

1%

6%

Victim’s psychiatric history

 

 

 

None

69%

63%

71%

Treatment/hospitalization

25%

29%

24%

Other: evidence of mental illness

6%

9%

5%

Victim’s prior criminal record***

 

 

 

None

85%

98%

82%

Nonviolent record

12%

2%

15%

Violent record

3%

-

3%

Charges pending

1%

-

1%

Victim’s substance use***

 

 

 

None

66%

83%

62%

Alcohol use

26%

14%

28%

Drug use

6%

2%

7%

Both alcohol and drug use

3%

1%

4%

Victim’s substance abuse history**

 

 

 

No history

63%

78%

59%

History of substance abuse

37%

22%

41%

Victim’s past suicide attempts*

 

 

 

No known suicide attempts

91%

97%

90%

Suicide attempts in past

9%

3%

10%

a Percentages shown are based on cases where information was available
b Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding error

* indicates significant difference between groups at p < .05
** indicates significant difference between groups at p < .01
*** indicates significant difference between groups at p < .001

Table 2. Descriptive and Bivariate Statistics of Perpetrator Characteristics for Femicide Cases Involving Victims Older than 55 years and Femicide Cases Involving Victims aged 18 to 54
(N = 1,934)

Variable

Total Sample

(N = 1,934)

55+ Group

(N = 405)

18-54 Group

(N = 1,529)

Perpetrator gender***

 

 

 

Male

96%

93%

97%

Female

4%

7%

3%

Perpetrator marital status***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unmarried/Never married

21%

29%

19%

Marital relationship

54%

61%

53%

Widowed

1%

1%

1%

Estranged marital relationship

24%

8%

28%

Perpetrator’s children

 

 

 

None

26%

25%

27%

At least one child

74%

75%

73%

Perpetrator’s race

 

 

 

White/European

67%

72%

65%

Aboriginal

7%

6%

8%

Black

12%

9%

12%

Other

15%

13%

15%

Perpetrator’s employment status***

 

 

 

Unemployed

27%

27%

27%

Legally employed

57%

28%

63%

Out of labour force

8%

36%

2%

Welfare/disability

4%

6%

4%

Student

4%

4%

4%

Perpetrator’s psychiatric history**

 

 

 

None

28%

18%

33%

Treatment/hospitalization

57%

67%

53%

Other: evidence of mental illness

15%

16%

14%

Perpetrator’s prior criminal record***

 

 

 

None

38%

53%

35%

Nonviolent record

25%

21%

25%

Violent record

35%

26%

37%

Charges pending

1%

1%

1%

Youth record

2%

1%

2%

Perpetrator substance use

 

 

 

None

47%

54%

45%

Alcohol

41%

37%

41%

Drugs

5%

2%

6%

Both drugs/alcohol

8%

7%

8%

Perpetrator substance abuse history

 

 

 

No history

32%

34%

31%

History of abuse

68%

66%

69%

Perpetrator suicide**

 

 

 

No suicide

73%

68%

75%

Suicide

20%

26%

18%

Attempted suicide

7%

6%

7%

a Percentages shown are based on cases where information was available
b Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding error
** p < .01
** p < .001

Table 3. Descriptive and Bivariate Statistics of Case Characteristics for Femicide Cases Involving Victims Older than 55 years and Femicide Cases Involving Victims aged 18 to 54 (N = 1,934)

Variable

Total Sample

(N = 1,934)

55+ Group

(N = 405)

18-54 Group

(N = 1,529)

Victim perpetrator relationship***

 

 

 

Intimate partner

61%

38%

67%

Other family

12%

25%

8%

Friend/Acquaintance

15%

23%

13%

Stranger

10%

12%

10%

Other

2%

2%

2%

Prior violence***

 

 

 

No evidence

31%

51%

27%

Evidence of prior violence by perpetrator

69%

49%

73%

Prior threats***

 

 

 

No evidence of threats

51%

68%

47%

Victim claimed perpetrator threatened her

43%

28%

47%

Others heard perpetrator threaten victim

6%

4%

6%

Prior contact with police***

 

 

 

No known prior contact

57%

73%

54%

Police intervened in past

43%

27%

47%

Method of killing***

 

 

 

Stabbing

29%

23%

30%

Shooting

27%

25%

27%

Beating

19%

29%

17%

Strangulation/Suffocation

17%

14%

18%

Other

8%

9%

8%

Excessive force

 

 

 

No evidence

63%

62%

63%

Multiple/repeated methods

37%

38%

37%

Weapon

 

 

 

No weapon

23%

21%

23%

Gun

24%

23%

25%

Knife/other sharp object

37%

33%

38%

Other

16%

24%

14%

Motive***

 

 

 

Unknown

19%

19%

18%

Jealousy/spurned

27%

8%

32%

Quarrel

16%

13%

16%

Financially motivated

5%

7%

5%

Mental illness

11%

29%

7%

Other

22%

24%

21%

a Percentages shown are based on cases where information was available
b Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding error
*** p < .001

Table 4. Descriptive and Bivariate Statistics of the Criminal Justice Response for Femicide Cases Involving Victims Older than 55 years and Femicide Cases Involving Victims aged 18 to 54 (N = 1,934)

Variable

Total Sample

(N = 1,934)

55+ Group

(N = 405)

18-54 Group

(N = 1,529)

Charge laid***

 

 

 

Manslaughter

3%

3%

3%

Murder

2%

1%

2%

First degree murder

40%

30%

43%

Second degree murder

32%

33%

32%

Other

1%

2%

1%

None, decided not to prosecute

1%

4%

1%

NA, died before charge laid

21%

27%

19%

Conviction***

(N = 1,413)

(N = 250)

(N = 1,163)

Manslaughter

24%

22%

25%

Murder

1%

1%

1%

First degree murder

17%

9%

19%

Second degree murder

37%

28%

38%

Other

3%

4%

3%

NCR

11%

25%

9%

Not prosecuted

4%

6%

4%

Not guilty

4%

6%

3%

Sentence length**

13.69 years

12.16 years

13.93 years

a Percentages shown are based on cases where information was available
b Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding error
** p < .01
*** p < .001


[1] There is some debate around the definition of femicide and, with respect to perpetrator gender, whether female perpetrators should be included. We have included all femicide cases regardless of perpetrator’s gender for a more comprehensive picture of femicide cases only.

[2] Race/ethnicity and substance use had high proportions of missing information; findings based on cases with information.


[i] Statistics Canada. 2016. “Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile, 2014.” Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Catalogue no. 85-002-X. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14303-eng.pdf

[ii] Statistics Canada. 2016.

[iii] Dawson, M. 2016. Punishing femicide: Criminal justice responses to the killing of women over four decades. Current Sociology 64(7): 996-1016.

[iv] Canetto, S.S., & Hollenshead, J.D. 2001. “Older women and mercy killing”. OMEGA, 42 (1), 83-99. 

[v] Crime and Misconduct Commission. 2013. “Vulnerable victims: Homicide of older people”. Research and Issues, 12. www.ccc.qld.gov.au/.../vulnerable-victims-homicide-of-older-people.pdf

[vi] Statistics Canada. 2016.

[vii] Dawson, M. 2005. “Intimate femicide followed by suicide: examining the role of premeditation”. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35 (1), 76-90.

[viii] Crime and Misconduct Commission. 2013.