On the dark days, Jeffersine Jackson says she just stares at her 5-year-old grandson and "feels for him." His mother is dead and his father is in jail -- sentenced to life in a Maryland prison for hiring someone in 2001 to stab the boy's mother.
The Prince George's County homicide left Jackson's grandson a de facto orphan, one of the thousands of children set adrift each year after one parent kills the other. Surprisingly common, researchers say a child is statistically more likely to endure the trauma of parental homicide than to contract childhood leukemia.
But unlike leukemia, there has been comparatively little examination of parental homicide, which affects an estimated 4,000 children annually in the United States. And while academia recently has begun to approach the topic, children's advocates and grieving families say insight cannot come soon enough.
"It's going to get worse as he gets older," says Jackson, 50, of her young grandson. "I think he's going to realize the truth about his dad. It's going to hit him that his dad did something wrong."
Among those trying to help the victims are two researchers from the University of Virginia who are midway through a study of adult survivors of parental homicide. For the past year, investigators Richard Steeves and Barbara Parker have spoken to these victims, probing their coping methods to better understand the long-term consequences of the trauma and possibly help the abused from becoming abusers when they grow up. The three-year study is being funded by a $750,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
We want to know "what was their life from the time of the homicide through adulthood," says Parker, director of the doctoral program at the University of Virginia School of Nursing. "The well-adjusted are telling us how they are well-adjusted."
Parker says that rather than focus on a set list of questions, she simply asks the victims -- who are paid $150 for participating in two, 45-minute interviews -- to "tell us their story."
One of those interviewed was Randy Saucedo, who now works with Project Safeguard, a Denver-based advocate group for abused women and their children. Twenty-five years ago this month, Saucedo's mother was killed by her ex-boyfriend, who broke into their south Texas apartment after weeks of incessant phone calls and visits. (For purposes of the study, Parker says, stepparents, boyfriends and girlfriends who fulfilled a parental role are also being included.)
"Back then, there wasn't any type of trauma assistance," says Saucedo, 38, who was shot and almost paralyzed in the attack that killed his mother. So he learned to cope through writing his thoughts down and keeping a journal. He recommends that victims seek out the assistance available now that wasn't available then. "It will help you understand what was happening and better process it," he says.
Parker says those interviewed described the sessions as therapeutic, despite the occasional difficulty in retelling the stories. One woman, for example, recounted her dying mother telling her: "Don't hate your dad. He was sick and he couldn't help himself."
A thicket of problems
Parental homicide brings on a complicated grief and can be compounded by years of abuse in the household.
According to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, an advocate group based in Bowie, 71 people in Maryland died between July 2003 and June 2004 as a result of domestic violence. On the national level, the Department of Justice estimates that during the 1990s, more than 20,000 people died at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend.
In thousands of these cases each year, a child is left without his or her parents. Yet these young survivors have received surprisingly little notice within academic, legal and law enforcement circles. Parker says the University of Virginia study is among the first of its kind, drawing together family violence and bereavement research that she and Steeves have studied previously.
Beyond the emotional difficulties for the young survivors, there are legal complications as well. Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, says parental homicide leaves survivors with a fractured family situation, compounding their grief and frustrating their recovery.
Legal complications occur, he says, when it comes to custody for the surviving families -- a wrinkle Parker also noted in her research.
"The lines are unclear, especially in the time before there is a conviction," Butler says. "Because it is only an allegation that the crime has been committed by the other parent, the court is often unwilling to change custody from the parent to a third party until there is a determination."
And these types of homicides tend to divide the remaining relatives into "family feud" situations, with each side casting blame on the other, fighting over custody and trying to influence the children.