U.Va. School of Nursing Researchers Offer Help for Children and Families after Domestic Homicide

October 21, 2008 — Each year, thousands of children — as many as are diagnosed with leukemia — are orphaned by the homicide of one parent by the other.

Typically, both parents die through homicide-suicide, or one parent is dead and the other incarcerated.

No agency is responsible for ensuring that the surviving children and the rest of their extended family receive the support and assistance they need, and no one really tracks their welfare and progress.

"No one has focused on these families at all," said Kathryn Laughon, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Virginia. "Each family feels alone."

To better assist the survivors of domestic homicide, a trio of U.Va. School of Nursing researchers is seeking volunteers to test a new Web-based intervention they developed to provide those families with support and information.

Nursing professors Richard H. Steeves, who has studied bereavement for much of his career, and Barbara J. Parker, a leading expert in domestic violence, have studied families who survived such a murder. Along with Laughon, they received a two-year, $275,000 grant from the National Institute for Mental Health to test this intervention.

They are seeking guardians, aged 18 or older,  from all over the United States. The children in the guardians' care must be aged 16 or under, and the death may have occurred at any time in the past. Anyone willing to be included in the study can call toll-free 866-934-3386 or contact the researchers via e-mail at guardianhelp@virginia.edu.

This is a randomized trial of the intervention, so some of the participants will be pointed to a range of existing Web sites that they might find useful. Participants in the intervention group will also have access to a private chat room where they can talk to other guardians in their situation, have the opportunity to ask questions of experts, see the questions and answers of others, and access information gained from the prior grant with survivors. The researchers will measure the stress, coping behaviors and resources of all of the participating guardians. 

In their groundbreaking study of 86 adults who survived a domestic homicide as children, Steeves and Parker found that most of the children ended up with family members right after the death. These family guardians were also dealing with the loss of a loved one, either to death or prison, and coping with unexpectedly caring for one or more grieving children. While the families did the best they could, the circumstances placed a huge stress on family members who often did not know where to turn for help.

"It's true that in any given area, there aren't many families who have experienced such a loss," Laughon said. "There are tens of thousands across the country, though, and we hope that careful use of Internet technology can bring them together to help each other.

"Ultimately, we hope that helping the adult guardians to cope better will also help the kids they are caring for."

Research Team for this Study

• Richard H. Steeves, PhD, RN, FNP, FAAN
Madeleine Higginbotham Sly Professor of Nursing

• Barbara J. Parker, PhD, RN, FAAN
Theresa A. Thomas Professor of Nursing

• Kathryn Laughon, PhD, RN
Assistant Professor of Nursing

About the University of Virginia School of Nursing:

U.Va.'s School of Nursing stands among the top 5 percent in the nation, ranked 19th by US News & World Report; two of its graduate programs are currently listed in the U.S. News Top 10. With a vigorous research program that includes studies in rural health care and disparities, oncology, gerontology, complementary therapies and nursing history, the school has implemented new programs and strategies to address the national nursing shortage and the concurrent need for more highly educated nurses to deliver increasingly complex health care. The newly opened Claude Moore Nursing Education Building and upcoming renovation of McLeod Hall allow for an enrollment increase and expansion of the Clinical Simulation Learning Center and the Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry. Dean and Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professor of Nursing Dorrie Fontaine, RN, PhD, FAAN, is the former associate dean for academic programs at the University of California-San Francisco and a past president of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, the largest specialty nursing organization in the world.  For information about the U.Va. School of Nursing and its programs, visit www.nursing.virginia.edu.