It is a shocking and extremely rare crime, but the impact on the public consciousness, experts say, makes it seem more prevalent. A delusional or vengeful father – it is usually the dad – strikes back at mom or "protects" his children the only way he sees: by killing the kids.
Quebec provincial police were investigating just such a possibility again Tuesday after firefighters discovered what are believed to be the bodies of a 47-year-old man and his two children in the burnt-out wreckage of a family garage in Warwick, Que., east of Montreal.
The suspicious deaths of a father and his children – the latest in a spate of high-profile cases – had many Quebeckers wondering if they are witnessing a particularly horrifying type of crime wave. But experts say such killings account for less than 2 per cent of Canada's 600 yearly homicides, a percentage that hasn't changed much in years.
"It's an extremely rare event, but such a big magnitude of an event, it sticks out in your mind. When you see one in the newspaper, then another somewhere else, it seems like it's happening more," said Scott Eliason, a U.S. forensic psychologist who spent a year studying global trends in the phenomenon. "It's something that has remained stable through time, but it's still shocking."
Neighbours in quiet Warwick, Que., about 150 kilometres east of Montreal, reported hearing a loud explosion around 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday – mere hours after Jocelyn Marcoux posted a Facebook diatribe on the failings of Quebec's family court system. Mr. Marcoux also detailed his perceived faults of the mother of his two children, Nadine Brillant, punctuated by a grim assessment of his view of the way out. He faced a court hearing where he feared losing custody of the two children.
"This is where these family tragedies come from!" Mr. Marcoux wrote. "I've sworn to my heart as a father that my children will never again be mistreated. Never again."
Early Tuesday, Ms. Brillant wrote on her own Facebook page that she had learned of the death of her two preteen-aged children, son Lindsay and daughter Karen, on television.
"My ex has killed my children," Ms. Brilliant wrote. "I am crushed."
The post was deleted later, and Ms. Brillant's page was eventually taken down. Police have refused to confirm any details in the case, saying they must wait for autopsies to confirm identities.
The couple had been bogged down in custody proceedings for years. A family breakup or other power struggle has been the common feature of several family killings that have gripped Quebec, Alberta and other areas in recent years.
In one ongoing case that provoked outrage, Guy Turcotte, a Quebec cardiologist, stabbed his two children to death in 2009. He was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental defect and is being treated in a psychiatric facility. He was recently ordered to remain in hospital for at least another six months, despite having a clean bill of mental health from psychiatrists.
About seven per cent of Canadian child homicides over the past 10 years have been committed by family members, a statistic which includes shaken babies, chronic abuse cases, and killings related to postpartum depression.
One to two per cent of homicides are the killings of older children by otherwise caring parents (usually fathers) reacting to family breakdown or other crises, according to Hubert Van Gijseghem, a Montreal psychologist who specializes in criminal matters. The act often ends with at least an attempted suicide by the parent.
Some years, such as 2009, Quebec alone sees a spate of three or four such cases. In other recent years, there have been none. Because the statistics are so small, trends are nearly impossible to spot until years later, according to Dr. Van Gijseghem.
"Given it's rare, we also know very little about risk factors. We always want to talk about prevention, but it's rare enough we haven't identified the risk factors," Dr. Van Gijseghem said. "But we do know mental illness is involved in about three-quarters of cases."
Other warning signs are relatively common to family breakup. "You're looking at someone who is overwhelmed, despondent and upset. And where it becomes dangerous is when they are no longer rational," said Neil Boyd, a criminologist at the University of British Columbia. "When it's accompanied by suicide, you have the measure of just how desperately miserable these people are."