With an increasing breakdown of family structure – and Malta is not immune to this social fragmentation – there is a risk of one parent alienating their children against the second parent. Mario Garrett reports

After an anonymous elder abuse report, a city team investigates. Accompanying this team while making their rounds it is common that once we get there we are told by the victim that they do not want to bring any charges against the abuser. It happens often.

Sometimes the team has to make sure that the older person is competent enough to make that determination. In most cases we just move on and keep the file open. Professionals understand this resistance.

Most abuse is carried out by family members, usually a son or a daughter. These abusers have problems of their own, whether it is money troubles, alcohol, drugs, relationships or simply psychiatric issues.

Understanding the resistance to report abuse is psychological. Imagine if someone you loved and cared for is causing you pain. Reporting them would then suggest two things: one, that you were a bad parent and, two, that you are a bad person for attracting such abuse. Both admissions are negative and reflect badly on you, the victim. One thing you do not need at this time is more negative news. However valid this assessment, it is shortsighted.

There are a lot of cases where a child bludgeons their older parent to death. The fault with professionals is that we see the early inception of these cases months and sometimes years earlier. Every time a victim refuses to bring charges, this scenario plays in my mind.

The hostility adolescent children feel towards us is not new and will never be overcome. As parents, we understand this rebellion as a stage in our children’s development. We see our animosity with our own parents, and it is normal.

One in six Maltese have no friends to call in times of need

This hostility provides our children with that feeling of detachment necessary for them to develop a healthy separation to differentiate themselves as unique beings. Such feelings are nothing new. The surprise being the existence of websites devoted to killing one’s parents, with instructions. And what is more surprising are the emerging statistics about children killing ageing parents.

For more than two decades, Kathleen Heide from the University of South Florida has been conducting analysis of homicides where children kill their parents. In the US, five children kill their biological parents every week. Matricide – killing your mother – and patricide – killing your father – are both very rare events and constitute about one in every 100 homicides in the US. But we have a lot of homicides in the US.

In a 2011 report from the Department of Justice, Alexia Cooper and Erica Smith reported a change in trend of family homicide. The most common were homicide by a spouse or ex-spouse, which is declining from half of all family homicides in 1980 to just over a third in 2008.

Children killed by their parents were the second most frequent type of family homicide. This is also seeing an increase, from one in seven family homicides in 1980 to one in four by 2008. But the fastest growing homicide is parents killed by one of their children.

This type of homicide has been increasing steadily from one for every 10 family homicides in 1980 to one in every eight in 2008. Children killing their parents is the fastest growing type of family homicide. In the latest federal statistics, both matricide and patricide are committed primarily by sons aged between 16 and 19.

In 1993 Clifford J. Linedecker wrote a book on Killer Kids, where he reports that there were over a million assaults in the US by children on their parents, some of which were fatal. He documents some of the most horrific cases.

Younger killers mostly use their parents’ guns, while others use knives, axes and any available weapon. The younger killers are more likely to use their parents’ gun. Not surprisingly since in the US we have 390 million guns and more than half of all homicides are gun-related. Gun ownership means that you and your family are more likely to die by shooting.

Since patricide is most frequent (nearly twice as likely as matricide), increasingly there might be contributing factors. With increasing breakdown of family structure – and Malta is not immune to this social fragmentation, although it has the lowest divorce rate in Europe – there is a risk of one parent alienating their children against the second parent.

Parental alienation is on the increase and might be a contributing factor for children killing their fathers. Very often, the father (rather than the mother) becomes portrayed as the reason for all the negative emotions. Parental alienation does not start or end with divorce.

The British and Canadian researchers Amanda Holt and Phillip Shon argue that there are broader considerations to these murders. And they are right. Although Malta is not there yet, the signs are that the community is slowly disintegrating.

Older people being mobbed in Sliema as they walk home from church (Times of Malta, May 19) is a call to arms. Andrew Azzopardi and Marilyn Clark, with the Faculty for Social Well-being, have started to document this breakdown. They report that one in six Maltese had no friends to call or cannot call them in times of need.

With an ombudsman system that seems fragmented and at worse ineffective, elder abuse will continue to worsen as incidents will remain hidden until fatalities develop.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.

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