In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 1

Filicide, the killing of a child by its parent, has unique characteristics making it different from other forms of homicide.[1] Filicide seems particularly horrifying and inexplicable, especially when the parent is the mother.

Remember first that, in the United States, a staggering number of children go missing each year. In 2001, 797,500 children under 18 were reported missing, resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.[2] Unfortunately, of these missing children, nearly 1,300 were victims of homicide.[3] Nearly half of these children were under the age of five, and a parent killed over half of these.[4] Of all the children under age five killed during the period 1976 to 2000, 31% were killed by fathers, 30% by mothers, 23% killed by male acquaintances, 7% by other relatives, and 3% by strangers.[5]

Maternal Filicide - The Profile of Mothers Who Kill Their Children

A general profile of mothers most at risk of committing filicide has developed. Typically, the mother is young, around 21 years of age. She is single and has had multiple unstable relationships with men. Either she is mentally deficient or an apparently normal young woman, forced to put off high school graduation, college, or career because of pregnancy. She is unemployed and has financial difficulties. She may have suffered from serious mental illness in the past, or only manifested undiagnosed personality changes after the birth of her child. Roughly, one fifth of these mothers have been victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Resnick's Classification of Maternal Filicide: The Five Catagories (Altrustic, Psychotic, Unwanted, Accidental, Revenge)

The underlying reasons why some mothers kill their children are much more complex. Philip Resnick was an early pioneer in the attempt to understand this act. In 1969, Resnick developed the first filicide classification system based on the parent's most apparent motive.[6] Five categories were established.

In altruistic filicide, the parent's motive is to save the child from real or imagined present suffering, or in cases of parental suicide, the antici¬pated suffering from the parent's suicide.[7] In the acutely psychotic filicide, the parent kills under the influence of severe mental illness. In unwanted child filicides, the murder occurs because the parent no longer desires the child for non-psychotic reasons such as illegit¬imacy or uncertain paternity. Accidental filicides are unintentional deaths that occur from child abuse. In spousal revenge filicides, the parent's homicidal impulse transfers onto the child to punish the parent's mate.

Continued in part 2 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo.


[1] Filicide is not confined to this country. Almost thirty countries make a legal distinction between filicide and homicide because of the mitigating circumstances surrounding such killings. People around the world have recognized that filicide, sometimes referred to as infanticide, is a distinct form of homicide due to the impact of motherhood on women's mental status. The British Infanticide Act of 1922 provides that the maximum penalty in these cases is manslaughter, not murder. Cheryl L. Meyer & Michelle Oberman, Mothers Who Kill their Children 11 (2001).
[2] Andrea J. Sedlak, David Finkelhor, Heather Hammer, and Dana J. Schultz, U.S. National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview, in National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 5 (Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2002).
[3] Yarwood, supra, at 5.
[4] Id. at 12.
[5] Id.
[6] Geoffrey R. McKee & Stephen J. Shea, Maternal Filicide: A Cross-national Comparison, 54 J. Clinical Psychol. 679, 681(1998).
[7] Id.

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AshleyP - April 3, 2009 10:59 AM

Great article Mr. Lenamon. So it seems the general profile of mothers who kill their children reflects that the mom feels they have not other alternative i.e. like to give their child to a family member. Unlike Casey Anthony who had the perfect opportunity to give her child to her mother Cindy Anthony who actually wanted custody. Casey Anthony appears to be in the sociopath Scott Peterson, Ted Bundy arena.

Missy - April 3, 2009 2:39 PM

Yes, filicide is different. It's far, far more heinous for a mom to kill her own child, provided she has even the flimsiest understanding of right from wrong.

The "impact of motherhood on women's mental status" is a rather broad and condescending generalization. Obviously, most women do just fine handling the stresses of motherhood. The extreme degree of post-partum depression/psychosis that would lead one to kill is thankfully rare. It isn't the norm, any more than pedophilia is the norm for men. And we certainly don't excuse or lessen their culpability for crimes because of their "mental status," do we?

There are legitimate cases where a mother, just as some other murderers, is truly incapable of differentiating between moral or legal right and wrong. Those rare situations deserve a closer look to determine legal culpability. But in those cases where it's abundantly apparent that the mother knew wrong from right -- as in the murder of precious little Caylee Anthony by her own mother -- there can be no concession made for any "mental state" the mom claims to have suffered since she demonstrated over and over again a disdain for her child, secretiveness, hiding, lying to avoid being caught. There's no doubt she knew right from wrong. Any mental defect lesser than being so far gone that a mom couldn't understand that killing her own child was wrong will never cut it with a jury or the public.

What about Andrea Yates, you might say -- she knew legal right from wrong because she waited for her husband to go to work and then called 911 after she killed her babies. The difference is that, even though she realized what she was doing was wrong by "man's" law, she suffered such a severe mental defect that she truly believed religion dictated she "save" her children by killing them, despite the consequences to her -- and for her, that superseded man's law. She is an example of someone so truly sick that they can't be held fully criminally accountable for their actions.

Anthony, on the other hand, had no such religious psychosis or delusions. While she had a very dysfunctional relationship with her mother (and at the very least some personality disorder issues), her mental state certainly wasn't such that she didn't know right from wrong.

There may be common categories of (and threads among) young women who commit infanticide, but unless they rise to a level of mental defect such that the mother is truly incapable of understanding right from wrong, she is even more culpable than your average joe murderer because the life she is snuffing out is one of a helpless child who is utterly and completely dependent upon her for love and sheltering and nurturing...and protection.

I believe Anthony falls into two of Resnick's categories -- "unwanted" and "revenge" (except the revenge is directed toward her own mother, rather than a spouse/partner). Unfortunately for Anthony, neither situation rises to the level of mental defect that would morally or legally diminish her culpability in the least.

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