Will the Real Filicidal Please Stand Up?
They say when a parent dies, a child feels his own mortality; but when a child dies, it is immortality that a parent loses. Mental psychosis, marital conflict/separation, jealousy, and revenge are a few leading factors that play a role in both biological parents and step-parents committing filicide, however, such heinous crimes perpetrated by genetic parents and step-parents differ considerably in terms of underlying and motivational factors depending on the presence of, and level of, psychiatric disorder and the frequency of altruistic motives. For future researchers, scholars, and the general public, children become just another statistic when they die at the mercy of the only two people they knew as mom and dad. Statistics, however, tell you nothing about how a child suffered in the moments leading up to their massacre; and even less about the perpetrator(s) of that death. Yet, it is these factors that may leave ineffaceable recalls and provoke powerful emotions amongst those that are family, neighbors, and friends; to be without, to have the bare statistics alone, even accumulated over time, is unlikely to edify us about a deepening tragedy in ‘family’ life.
Home is an environment where children are alleged to be safe from harm. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI, 2015), a parent or step-parent committed the majority of all homicidal deaths of children younger than twelve years of age. According to Straus, Steinmetz, & Gelles (1980), if you exclude the military and the police, family is society’s most violent social institution. The personal killing of one’s own biological or step-child is known as filicide. The culturally taboo concept of filicide has been part of our history since the dawn of mankind. Many fairy tales focus on the killing of one’s offspring; for example, the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which an evil step-mother casts the titular children out in the forest to die. In ancient Greco-Roman times, a father was legally permitted to kill his own son (West, 2007).
When a parent kills a child, media initially describes the family and the circumstances surrounding the filicide, but attention quickly turns to the pathology of the offending parent and reinforces the perception that parents who commit filicide are crazy or evil. Filicide, however, is much more complex and multidimensional than that. To gain a better understanding of filicide, research much move beyond the narrow focus used by media and include the family in its social environment as part of the research on filicide. Currently, the research on filicide is limited and the research that does exist lacks synthesis. A first step in the process of understanding filicide is the be aware of the diverse circumstances surrounding the phenomenon and how it is initially reported. A society cannot prevent a problem it does not acknowledge or fully understand.
The word, phrases, and concepts we choose to use in discourse about a phenomenon shape how it is defined and understood. For the purpose of this paper, a parent-child relationship included biological parent, step-parent, foster parent, guardian, or person acting in role of parent, excluding babysitters and nannies. Instances in which the death of a child is from violence or injury, the official manner of death is listed on death certificates by the coroner as an accident, suicide, homicide, or could not be determined (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003). In the discourses of academia and research, child abuse and neglect filicides appear to be reported and researched separately from other types of filicide.
A UNICEP study of rich democracies (thirty countries that produce two-thirds of the world’s goods and services) revealed that the rate of deaths from child abuse in the United States is three times higher than in Canada, and eleven times higher than Italy’s (UNICEF, 2003). It is conservatively estimated that two-thousand to two-thousand, five-hundred children under five, dies from abuse and neglect each year. This is actually equivalent to approximately five children per day under the age of five who are killed by physical abuse or neglect. More children die from neglect than any other form of maltreatment (Douglas ; Finkelhor, 2005).
Albeit, there is a lack of agreement regarding the fate of filicide, one point of consensus is that the number of child deaths is underestimated (FIND MY SOURCE FOR THIS STATEMENT). The reason why filicide rates are underestimated is due to the underreporting, misidentifying the actual cause of death, and classifying the cause of death as undetermined. Underreporting happens for a number of reasons, including some babies being born outside of hospitals; because of this, mothers kill their offspring at the time of delivery. A possible additional reason is that the intent to kill may be hidden in cases where children die from fires, poisoning, or drowning in bathtubs and pools. Neglect can be difficult to determine; for example, parents may not seek adequate and timely medical attention and the child dies. Deaths from neglect may be classified as accidental or due to a medical condition. Death due to neglect is considered the most underreported form of fatal maltreatment. The use of absolute numbers is one way to illustrate the number of filicides due to abuse and neglect compared to other causes of death that may have received more attention.
Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities vs. Other Causes of Death (2009)
Cause of Death Total Deaths
U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq and Afghanistan 479 H1N1 Pediatric Fatalities 281
Food Borne Illness 74
Toyota Accelerator Malfunction 34
Coal Mining Accidents 33
Total Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities 1,740
Historically, children have been regarded as property of their parents. In times of poverty, high rates of disease and mortality, and in the absence of birth control, children were often unwanted and seen as an economic liability. Children who were born with birth defects were often killed out of superstitious fears or economic need to focus resources on children presumed to be healthy. Amongst other reasons, some top explanations for killing an unwanted child usually fell into the categories of a child being born female, economic pressures, inability to care for the child, lack of options (birth control or abortions), and the stigma and societal rejection of unwed mothers.
Traditionally, women who have killed their children have been considered monsters. The Puritans believed, all women who killed their babies, violated what was taken to be the law of nature decreed by God. The women who killed their children, then, were by definition, ‘unnatural’ and ‘monstrous’ – more ‘hardened than the sea monsters, who draw out their breasts, and give such to their young ones (Reece, 1991). Women portrayed as mad have been characterized as morally ‘pure’ women who by all accounts have conformed to traditional gender roles and notions of femininity. These women are often viewed as good mothers, and their crimes are considered irrational, uncontrollable acts, usually the direct result of mental illness. In contrast, women characterized as ‘bad’ are depicted as cold, calloused, evil mothers who have often been neglectful of their children (Thomas et al., 2001).
Any biological or step-parent that commits filicide is no more psychotically anarchic than any other homicide offender. In order to even see the slightest change moving forward, health care and society, at large, must co-act to prevent this danger that lurks behind closed doors. Compared to homicidal offenders, noted in one study by Putkonen (2009), filicide offenders were less intoxicated with alcohol at the time the crime was committed, and they also lacked significantly, previous criminal offenses. Filicide offenders were more likely to be employed and, on paper, were not noted to have any psychopathic tendencies. According to Putkonen, where none of the homicidal offenders committed suicide after their brutal attack, at least half of the filicide offenders attempted suicide at the crime scene (2009). Some researchers believe, because of this, that at times, it is more about the suicide than the killing.
In order to determine whether the Criminal Justice System holds a gendered view towards acts of filicide, as a whole, the circumstances and motivations behind the act must be analyzed; the differences between men and women in relation to this crime must be identified as well, so a fair and concise conclusion can be drawn as to whether the system is favorable and more lenient towards one gender or the other based on who participated in the act. Research carried out by Resnick (1969) identified mothers as being twice as likely to kill their offspring than fathers although this claim was later disproven following more recent research carried out by Levielle, Marleau and Dube (2007). They found that paternal filicide is more frequent than maternal with fathers accounting for fifty-five percent of all child-homicides and mothers accounting for forty-five (Buchanan & Collosso, 2011).
Filicide is more common amongst young, new parents and children under the age of one are more vulnerable to this act than any other age group with almost all acts of filicide occurring under the age of five or six years. Boys are also more likely to be victims of this crime than girls. Conclusions drawn from Levielle et al., (2007) indicate that males were more likely to show aggressive traits and that women were more prone to emotional disorders. Maternal filicide usually consists of the act occurring because the woman feels she has extreme inadequacies as a mother, or because of altruistic reasons whereby the parent feels the killing is in the child’s best interests. Although killing one’s own child(ren) is an “unthinkable” crime, it nevertheless still occurs and for that reason it must be addressed and investigated. Based on large-scale studies of populations of filicidal offenders, the existence of several groups and classifications of filicide has been revealed, and each classification has distinct offenders with their own common characteristics and factors motivating the offense.
The first classification discussed is based on motive. Wide-ranging reviews have been the most significant publications in terms of classifying filicide, and from these reviews, several organizational systems have been proposed for the different types of filicide. One of the most prominent was created by Resnick (1969, 1970), which was established from one-hundred thirty-one case reports from world literature on child murder by both mothers and fathers from 1751-1967 and is based on the apparent motive for the act. The five categories in this system are ‘altruistic’ filicide, ‘acutely psychotic’ filicide, ‘unwanted child’ filicide, ‘accidental’ filicide, and ‘spouse revenge’ filicide. Resnick described cases of altruistic filicide as murders committed out of love. Unwanted child filicide occurs when, in addition to the aforementioned, mothers, for reasons such as illegitimacy or uncertain paternity, kill their children through acts of aggression or through neglect; spouse revenge filicide occurs when the parent seeks to get back at his or her spouse for some particular reason (usually revenge for infidelity; in acutely psychotic filicide, the parent kills the child under the influence of a severe mental illness or psychotic episode.
The second classification discussed is based on impulse to kill. Scott (1973) suggested a classification system based on origin of the impulse to kill, which is more objective than motive, which he saw as being subjective, over-determined, or defensive. Scott also observed that filicidal mothers tended to commit the offense when they were acting at such a primitive level that sophisticated motives such as revenge or altruism may be inappropriate (Stanton & Simpson, 2002). His classification system has not widely used, but the focus on impulse has been influential. The second largest group of filicidal mothers is the accidental filicide/battering mothers. Deaths from accidental filicide occur in the context of psychosocial stress and limited support and are the unintentional deaths that result from child abuse (ADD MY CITATION HERE). There is no clear impulse to kill, but instead a sudden impulsive act characterized by a loss of temper (Stanton, 2000). In several studies of large groups of filicidal mothers, these battering mothers suffered the highest rates of social and family stress, such as marital stress and housing and financial problems.
Mentally ill filicide is the third most common, but it is by far the most complex. In understanding mentally ill filicide, the mediating factor of impaired reality is vital but not sufficient, and the intensity of the suffering perceived in the mothers’ delusional state is of such an extreme magnitude that the filicide seems rational to them (Stanton, 2000). The individuals within this group differ from the mothers who commit neonaticide (ADD DEFINITION OF ? SINCE IT IS NOT DISCUSSED PRIOR) because of the age of the victims, but aside from the age difference killing a child older than one year indicates a much more profound disruption in emotional or mental status than does the killing of a newborn. The range of psychiatric disorders seen in these kinds of offenses is great. In Resnick’s original study in 1969, the mentally ill mothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia, melancholia, manic depressive disorders, and character disorders. In the more recent literature, due to the somewhat recent acknowledgement by the psychological and psychiatric fields, postpartum illnesses and psychoses are also note as being prominent diagnoses.
Postpartum depression reportedly affects ten to twenty-two percent of adult women within the first year after the baby’s birth (Gold, 2001). These disorders are included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR, 2000) but, even though the DSM-IV-TR recognizes the link between postpartum mental disorders and infanticide in the context of delusions, they are not treated as an individual classification, but categorized under the criteria used to diagnose psychosis. The DSM-IV-TR states that infanticide is most often associated with postpartum psychotic episodes that are characterized by command hallucinations to kill the infant or delusions that the infant is possessed. Postpartum psychoses this severe seem to occur in from one in five-hundred to one in one-thousand deliveries, and the risk of psychotic episodes is increased for women who have experienced prior postpartum mood episodes. Once a woman has had a postpartum episode with psychotic features, the risk of occurrence with each subsequent delivery is between thirty to fifty percent (DSM-IV-TR).
One commonality that was seen among mentally ill filicidal women was that they each had been socially isolated except for a relationship with the father of the children, and this relationship had become the only major social interaction that each mother had.