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Running head: WHY PARENTS KILL

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Why Parents Kill Their Children


Tia Lowery and Karin Troy
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke

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Abstract

Filicide is a parent killing his or her own child. Maternal and paternal perpetrators have different
motives that underlie their actions and use diverse methods for performing this horrendous
crime. There are various classes of filicide. Altruistic filicide is when a parent believes they are
saving their child from misery. A parent that has a mental illness commits acutely psychotic
filicide. When there is a case of unwanted child filicide, the new parent, usually a mother, does
not desire to raise the child. Accidental filicide results from fatal child abuse. Finally, filicide
intended to bring the ultimate misery to a spouse or the other parent is classified as spouse
revenge filicide. Filicide is a crime that has been reviewed by professionals from a variety of
specialized fields. Through a thorough review of various literatures on filicide, common links
and prevention strategies for the different classes of filicide are apparent. By use of these
prevention strategies accurately and proficiently, lives may be saved.

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Why Parents Kill Their Children

Suppose two toddler boys, secured in their car seats, were inside of a vehicle that was
rolled into a lake. The perpetrator left the children to drown (Hatters-Friedman & Resnick, 2009,
par. 3). Next, consider a four year old girl who was brutally beaten to death and her body was
then mutilated and dumped into the sea (Martens, 2007, pp. 40-41). Sadly, these were two real
life events. The significance of these horrendous cases is the fact that both of the perpetrators
were parents of the murdered children. The accurate term for the act of a parent or stepparent
killing their child is filicide. What provokes parents to kill their children?
In recent years, the prevalence of filicide has become more prominent in society.
According to West, Friedman, and Resnick (2009) it is a crime that existed even before
Constantine ruled in 374 A.D. Roman law allowed fathers to rid themselves of their offspring
born with deformities by killing them. The Poor Law established in 1576, during the early
modern period, made it a crime for a woman to have a child out of wedlock and the penalty was
incarceration. As a result, mothers begin killing their newborn babies (West, Friedman, &
Resnick, 2009). This led to a statute being established in 1624 which required that in the event
of a mother hiding her pregnancy and the child dying during birth or soon after, to provide
evidence that it was not intentional manslaughter. If she could not prove her innocence, this was
grounds for punishment by death (Gurveich, 2010). Conversely, The Infanticide Act of 1922 and
1938 reformed the punishment for these mothers from death to imprisonment (West et al., 2009).
Professionals lightened the severity of the crime taking into consideration the fact that the new
mother may be suffering from postpartum symptoms (Gurveich, 2010). This was the beginning
of a change in societal views toward filicide and the crime be becoming more tolerated by
lawmakers.

WHY PARENTS KILL

The issue of filicide is important because risk factors associated with it are aspects of a
traditional family. For instance, financial difficulties, problems with a spouse or partner, the
hardships of raising a child, and the pervasiveness of alcohol and drug abuse are found
frequently in families today. These influences in addition to common mental illnesses such as
depression, psychosis, and bipolar disorder heighten the likelihood of a filicide occurrence
(Coorg & Tournay, 2012, p. 747). Hatters-Friedman and Resnick (2009) report:
Most psychiatrics underestimate the percentage of depressed mothers who have thoughts
of harming their young children. One study found that just over 40% of depressed
mothers with children younger than 3 years admitted to having such thoughts. Infant and
child troubles also play a role. For example, in one study 70% of mothers with colicky
infants reported having explicitly aggressive fantasies toward their babies, and fully
26% had infanticidal thoughts during episodes of colic, (par. 16).
With the information provided it is necessary for health professionals such as social workers,
psychologists, family doctors, pediatric doctors, and family and school counselors to play an
imperative role in recognizing warning signs of at risk families. The goal of this literature
review is to use previous research on filicide to identify motives and contributing factors of
filicide and to formulate prevention strategies.
In 1969, Resnick first introduced the classes of filicide motives. They are as follows:
altruistic, acutely psychotic, unwanted child, accidental, spouse revenge (Koenen & Thompson,
2008, p. 64). Altruistic filicide is committed under the assumption that it is in the best interest of
the child. Filicide classified as acutely psychotic is committed by a parent that may or may not
be diagnosed with a mental illness. When a parent murders their child, usually a newborn,
because they reject the responsibility, the incident is classified as unwanted child filicide.

WHY PARENTS KILL

Accidental filicide usually occurs as a result of child abuse. Finally, some parents reason that
murdering their child is a means to make their partner suffer; therefore, it is classified as spousal
revenge (Holden, Stephenson Burland, & Lemmen, 1996, p. 25). Underlying motives for each
classification varies. However, as literature is reviewed, similarities are apparent.
In reference to altruistic motives, studies suggest that this class consumes 70% of filicide
cases (Coorg & Tournay, 2012, p. 745). Suicidal parents believe filicide will relieve the child
from expected misery resulting from their suicide, also known as filicide-suicide. On the other
hand, some parents are so overwhelmed that they begin to reason that filicide-suicide is their last
resort (Collins, Shaughnessy, Bradley, & Brown ,2001, p. 283). According to one study, autism
is the most common disability amongst filicide-suicide victims (Coorg & Tournay, 2012, p.749).
Uncontrollable behaviors put autistic children at risk for abuse. When the caretaker is already
considering suicide, prior to murdering themselves, they may also commit filicide.
In contrast, altruistic motives not associated with suicide and are sometimes referred to as
mercy killings (Wilczynski, 1995, p. 368). They are genuinely trying to put a child out of their
assumed misery. For instance, a young mother suffering from schizophrenia experienced a
psychotic episode and cut the throat of her baby. While explaining her motives, she portrayed
the belief that she was freeing the child from a lifetime in a dreadful world (Simpson & Stanton,
2000, p. 140). After considering altruistic filicide, one could see how a disturbed parent may
actually feel that they are acting in the childs best interest.
When considering acute psychotic filicide perpetrators, they usually act upon delusions
and hallucinations (Collins et al., 2001, p. 283). For example, a 30-year old divorced mother
with acute psychosis believed her husbands family was trying to take the child. As a result, she
became angry and set fire to the 9-month old babys crib (Krischer, Stone, Sevecke, &

WHY PARENTS KILL

Steinmeyer, 2007, p.197). A study by Flynn, Shaw, and Abel suggests 40% of the perpetrators
are diagnosed with mental disorders. The most prevalent diagnoses are affective personality
disorders (2013). In addition, professionals report that some mentally ill women admit to violent
thoughts towards their children. Also, Murray and Carothers study suggests that postpartum
depression may be a contributing factor in these filicide cases (as cited in Collins et al., 2001).
Therefore, these perpetrators have no particular motive; filicide is a result of their mental illness.
Unwanted child filicide is also known as neonaticide. If the filicide victim is less than 24
hours old, then it is classified as neonaticide. Although the rate of neonaticide is
underrepresented, Murphy reports that homicide is the fifteenth leading cause of death in the first
year of life (as cited in Shelton, Corey, Donaldson, & Dennison, 2011). The rarity of neonaticide
is difficult to determine due to the easy disposal of newborns. For instance, one young girl hid
her pregnancy and gave birth to her child in the bathroom during her prom; she then threw the
child in the trash can and went on to enjoy her night (Hatters-Friedman, & Resnick, 2009, par.
11). Most perpetrators are usually women who mask their pregnancy (Hatters-Friedman, &
Resnick, 2009, par. 10, 12). Spinelli suggests that most women are affected by childhood
neglect, over protective fathers, and lacked attention from their mothers (as cited in Koenen &
Thompson, 2008, p. 67). These mothers disassociate themselves from the child; thus, making it
easier to murder them. Therefore, young mothers that are ill equipped for such challenges are
more at risk to commit neonaticide.
Accidental filicide can occur because of fatal child abuse. Previous child maltreatment is
reported in 40% of accidental filicide cases (Marika Kauppi, Vanamo, Karkola, & Merikanto,
2012, p. 5). Accidental filicide, as a result of extreme abuse, is the most widespread type of
filicide (Hatters, Carol, Debra, & Phillip, 2008). In most instances of accidental filicide, the

WHY PARENTS KILL

abusive parent is dealing with other stressors in their lives. Johnson (2006) discusses that the
experiences of an individual while developing, such as abandonment and or abuse, could
possible lead to higher levels of stress and they may be unable to accurately respond to
situations. Researchers suggests that the parent may be dealing with issues within their marriage
or alcohol abuse and this makes managing the responsibility of raising a child even more
difficult (Marika Kauppi et al., 2012, p. 8). In the majority of instances, child abuse is detected
and therefore accidental filicide can be prevented if the necessary measures are taken. However,
as a society, we tend to turn our heads; even the professionals such as day care workers,
physicians, and social workers, overlook or do not intervene in time to prevent child abuse or
accidental filicide.
Finally, spousal revenge is filicide mainly driven out of spite to hurt the partner.
Wilczynski (1995) agrees that unstable marriages with apparent domestic violence and jealousy
issues were factors that increased the risk for spousal revenge. Interestingly, retaliating filicide
was once known as the Medea syndrome, coined by the Greeks in reference to a woman named
Medea that was extremely insecure and resentful that she sought revenge by killing her two
children (Collins et al., 2001). According to Polk, a perpetrators motivation in retaliating
filicide mainly derives from masculine power (as cited in Johnson, 2006). Johnson argued that
murdering the child was a mans way of creating a never-ending payback to his wife for leaving
him. Johnson continued to report that individuals who struggle in gaining individuation may
react with extreme anger and suffer emotional turmoil because in their mind they have been
abandoned by the ones who should love them the most. This in effect may lead to homicidesuicide or filicide (2006). As with accidental filicide, spousal revenge filicide may also be
prevented.

WHY PARENTS KILL

Research indicates that the methods and motives underlying paternal and maternal
filicide differ. For instance, Liem and Koenraadt (2008) imply that men use more violent
methods than women do. They continue to discuss that men use the psychological method of
displacement to focus their aggression from their partner and place it on the child. In their
comparative study, they found that women had higher rates of pathological filicide and
neonaticide (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008). In 1995, Wilczynski considered motives of men and
women when committing filicide. She stated, Men are socialized to be unemotional,
aggressive, dominant and sexually possessiveConversely, social norms encourage women to
be passive, nurturant and self-sacrificing, (p. 369). Wilczynski continues to discuss that men
are commonly found committing filicide with spousal revenge and accidental motives, while
women act upon mercy killings, psychosis breakthroughs and neglecting responsibilities (1995).
Therefore, whereas men act in response to anger and aggression, women have motives that are
more psychotic.
In regards to the variations of methods used, research suggests that in comparison to
women, men use methods that are more violent. A study conducted by Liem and Koenraadt
(2008) categorizes the methods used in a table. The results of this data conclude that the method
used with the highest percentage is strangulation; more women used this method than men did.
For paternal perpetrators the filicide method with the highest rate was physical maltreatment.
Interestingly, in this same study, no women and only a small percentage of men used a firearm as
their weapon of choice (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008). Conversely, Coorg and Tournay indicate that
in 38% of filicide cases, the most common method was a gunshot wound for children with
disabilities (2012). Following this leading method of filicide was medication poisoning at 24%
and carbon monoxide or generator poisoning at 14% (Coorg & Tournay, 2012). However,

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according to a review by Collins et al., bathtub drowning seems to be the most prominent method
of filicide in young children (2001). Therefore, it is apparent that filicidal men and women cope
with environmental stressors differently and these have an effect on what methods they use to
murder.
A review of literature about filicide can give one insight to possible effective approaches
of prevention. Typically, this literature review serves the purpose to inform helping professionals
about the warning signs that may indicate whether parents are considering filicide. Importantly,
Krischer, Stone, Sevecke, and Steinmeyer report that clinicians and social support agencies
should be aware of motivating factors such as financial instability, drug abuse, and no partner
support that may increase the burden for mothers (2007). These researchers also explain the need
for extensive psychiatric treatment along with marriage and social counseling for mothers with
history of psychosis and childhood abuse (Krischer et al., 2007). Specifically, these mothers
need continuing guidance and support to appropriately and safely raise a child. In addition, Liem
and Koenraadt stress that parents going through a divorce or separation should be evaluated for
depression or psychotic symptoms by their primary care physicians (2008).
According to Koenen and Thompson, appropriate education, diagnosis, and treatment can
prevent filicidal thoughts for mothers with postpartum disorder (2008). Yet, Collins et al.
encourages counselors to focus on instilling the meaning of love and life to mothers and fathers.
These researchers believe that positive approaches to help clients find the meaning of parenting
and the value of family can reduce frustration that may lead to filicidal thoughts (2001). If a
parent happens to admit to experiencing filicidal thoughts, professionals should not minimize
them. Hatters-Friedman and Resnick stress that clinicians should search for the source of these
thoughts then continue to determine treatment to lower the risk of filicide (2009). In contrast,

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helping professionals suggest that caregivers of disabled children may need frequent follow-ups
with physicians. Coorg and Tournay stress the fact that closely monitoring the caregiver's
mental state may be the key factor to indicate filicidal behavior (2012). Therefore, school
counselors, social workers, therapists and other helping professionals must be proactive and
prepared to respond effectively to red flags indicating children at risk for filicide.
In addition, most of the literature uses information that dates back to the 1900s. Recent
studies should be conducted to show how past approaches may have been more effective than
present approaches to prevent filicide. The limitation of current statistics may lead to uncertainty
of whether the information presented is accurate. However, the lack of resources regarding
filicide made this literature review a search for an underrepresented topic, yet a highly prevalent
issue in many nations.
In conclusion, the literature review clearly demonstrates the variation of stressors,
childhood barriers, and motives that affect men and women differently. It would be safe to infer
that certain motives in addition to specific stressors may lead to filicide for one parent, but not
the other. Therefore, the research serves as a basis for correlating life obstacles, mental state,
and life meaning to possible motives for filicide. For example, maybe a single mother is
approaching divorce but she wants to work things out. As a result, if the mother has a mental
condition or is overwhelmed, there is a possibility that the mother may consider spousal revenge.
Considering this, the various motives for filicide can depend solely on the perpetrator. Thus, the
methods perpetrators choose may depend on the age of child. For instance, for infants the most
common method is strangulation. On the other hand, older children usually endure deadly
methods such as stabbing and excessive beatings. More children than what one may realize are
at risk for becoming a victim of filicide. In his article, Martens suggests, Every child at risk

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(growing up in a chaotic family, parental divorce, introduction of new partner of parent, change
of child behavior, childs physical and mental signs of abuse or worry/sorry) should be examined
profoundlyon a regular basis, (2007, p. 43). Professionals need to be aware of signs and
stressors that may indicate abuse or other actions that may result in filicide. However,
professionals are not the only ones who should be on the lookout; extended family members
should be aware of signs and factors that contribute to filicide and should be prepared to take
action. Filicide is a horrendous crime that can be prevented or at least decreased if awareness of
the crime is raised and action is taken.

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References

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