Threats to kill a child, parent or carer - advice

This advice provides additional information regarding managing threats against the life of a child, parent or carer during any phase of child protection involvement.
Document ID number 2352, version 3, 20 November 2021.

See procedure Threats to kill a child, parent or carer for tasks that must be undertaken.

It is important for practitioners and managers to take notice of explicit (clear) or implicit (less clear) threats to a child, parent or carer's safety, by consulting with a supervisor, and to take appropriate immediate, short and longer term action.

Threats to kill often occur in the context of family violence, however there are situations which may fall outside this context, including circumstances where a parent or carer is experiencing mental health problems, such as post-natal depression or a psychotic episode, or where a parent or carer is feeling unable to cope with children in their care.

The Australian Institute of Criminology 2018-2019 homicide statistics found that:

  • 34% of homicides were classified as domestic homicides, of which 62% were identified as intimate partner violence and 13% as filicide
  • 8% of victims were under 18 years of age, 35% of whom were under one year of age, with 45% aged between one and nine years and 20% aged between 10 and 17 years of age
  • 26% of offenders had a history of family violence, 13% of offenders were experiencing a mental illness at the time of the homicide, and 12% of offenders were confirmed to have used drugs at the time of homicide.
Immediate action following a threat to kill

Where an explicit or an implicit threat to kill a child or their parent or carer has been made, the  practitioner must alert their supervisor and police and commence the risk assessment relevant to the phase of child protection intervention.

A threat to kill is a serious family violence risk factor, therefore the practitioner’s risk assessment will include a MARAM risk rating and a judgement about the consequence of the harm and the probability of the harm occurring. A plan will be made to determine the intervention required for the family’s safety and wellbeing. This is considered a critical incident and planning, decision making and therefore actions must reflect this urgency.

Where there are significant mental health concerns a crisis mental health assessment may be required. This is undertaken by a Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CATT). The purpose of a crisis mental health assessment is to determine the immediate risk of harm to the person making the threat.

Therefore, distinct areas that need to be covered include:

  • an assessment of their current mental health status
  • an assessment of their immediate risk to self and others
  • the possibility of the onset of acute psychosis or relapse of an ongoing mental illness
  • identification of triggers that caused the acute psychosis, anxiety, suicidal or homicidal ideation or behaviours
  • the immediate treatment, that is, medication, counselling, voluntary or involuntary hospitalisation
  • identification of short-term treatment options, that is, will CATT visit daily, refer to a mental health service for an urgent comprehensive mental health assessment

and in the case of a parent making a threat:

  • the parent's capacity to provide immediate care and protection to the child
  • the likelihood of risk of harm to the child's immediate safety and wellbeing, particularly if the parent was expressing thoughts to harm the child.

See Mental health assessments and treatments – advice for further information on seeking a crisis mental health assessment.

A crisis response may also include contact with emergency accommodation/respite and health services, however the first priority is to ensure the child’s, parent or carer’s immediate safety and wellbeing, other issues, such as treatment planning, recovery and promotion of parenting can be addressed afterwards.

Threats to kill in the context of family violence

The use of threats by perpetrators of family violence

A perpetrator’s threat to a kill child or an adult victim in the context of family violence is often genuine and is identified in the MARAM Framework as a serious risk factor for increased risk of the victim survivor being killed or almost being killed.  

The threat may be of an insidious nature or may be more direct. In both circumstances, practitioners and managers need to consider the perpetrator’s history of violence and coercive control, and current circumstances when assessing the immediate safety needs and appropriate response to address the ongoing care needs.

For detailed information see Working with families where an adult is violent (pdf, 1.17 MB) and Working with adult perpetrators of family violence - advice.

Threats against the affected parent/carer

The affected parent (adult victim survivor) may be particularly vulnerable where the perpetrator feels that their control and entitlement is being threatened. As such, pre, at the point of, and post separation are times of increased risk for the affected parent and the child.

Even where there is no direct threat to the child’s life, practitioners need to consider the harm that such threats have on the child, including being exposed to the threats to the parent or carer.

Threats against the child

Filicide, although a relatively rare event, may occur in the context of parental mental health issues. However, it also needs to be considered in the context of family violence as an extreme expression of the violence. Perpetrators may make threats to kill a child as a way of controlling and manipulating the affected parent and in some circumstances as a means to seek revenge or retaliation against the affected parent following separation or intervention (such as court orders or hearings). See Working with families where an adult is violent (pdf, 1.17 MB) (pp 41- 43).

Response to threats

In most circumstances, reports of threats to kill will have been received by child protection from Police (L17 report).  However, where concerns have first been reported by others or directly disclosed to child protection, depending on the phase of intervention, child protection will seek and record information and evidence about the threats in the appropriate risk assessment document. This risk assessment and consultation with a team manager will inform the formulation of a safety plan and. actions required to secure the child’s and family’s immediate safety.

In cases where there is a high risk of serious threat to the child’s or affected parent’s life, health and safety or wellbeing from family violence a referral to a Risk Assessment Management Panel (RAMP) is required.

Referral to RAMP is a secondary service response that follows referral to a specialist family violence case manager. A referral is appropriate when it is considered that the development of a coordinated multi-agency plan is essential to keep the child and affected parent safe and avert the high risk of serious threat posed by the perpetrator. Practitioners should consult the specialist family violence worker and RAMP coordinator to discuss the possibility of a referral, or where one has already been made, to provide relevant and current risk assessment information, and discuss meeting outcomes and actions required.

If a matter does not reach the threshold for a RAMP referral, consideration should be given to holding a case conference as discussed in Case conference when there has been a threat to kill section below.

Practitioners also need to be aware of possible breaches of current court orders, including child protection orders, Family Violence Intervention Orders, parole or probation orders, or Family Court parenting and contact orders. Any contact arrangements between the perpetrator and the child will need to be reviewed and safety planning undertaken.

For tasks that must be taken for assessing risk and planning where there is family violence see Planning for children’s safety where there is family violence - procedure. For detailed information on assessing risk and safety planning where there is family violence, see Planning for children’s safety where there is family violence - advice.

Case conference when there has been a threat to kill

The team manager must consider whether to convene a case conference to plan the intervention required to address the child's ongoing protection needs, including the threat made to their life. If no case conference is convened, the team manager must record the rationale in CRIS. The meeting should be chaired by a team manager, senior practitioner or a practice leader.

 Although there may be insufficient time to arrange a case conference  to plan the initial urgent response, developing a plan to respond to any ongoing concerns or needs following the incident may assist in safety planning and managing possible future risk.

Note that this practice requirement applies throughout child protection involvement irrespective of phase. Where a threat has been made against the life of a child, parent or carer during the intake and assessment phase, and the report is yet to be classified, or the case is to be closed, the requirement is to be met during the intake phase. Where a case conference is convened in the intake phase before a report has been classified as a protective intervention report or a wellbeing report, information exchange must comply with legislative provisions contained in Section 35 of the CYFA.

Where the report has been classified as a protective intervention report the requirement should be met during the investigation and assessment phase.

Where a threat to kill is made by a young person

There may be circumstances where a young person makes threats to kill members of their family.  A young person’s response to past trauma can parallel adult responses such as violence and an inability to manage aggression. Young people exposed to violence may use violence themselves as a learned behaviour that normalises violence as a solution. Their behaviour may also be impacted by substance abuse and mental health issues.

Responding to the young person requires a therapeutic approach and they may require a crisis mental health assessment. In high risk situations, contacting the police may also be required. See Adolescents and their families - specialist practice resource (pp 9-11) and Mental health assessments and treatments – advice.