In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 4

Other mothers murder their children because the children are not wanted or are resented. One such mother, Susan Smith, strapped her two small boys, a fourteen month old and a three year old, into the backseat of her car, rolled up the windows, and pushed the car into a lake.

She first claimed her two sons were taken in a car jacking by an unidentified black man. Smith concocted elaborate lies in the national media, pleading for the safe return of her two children. Later, Smith told police she intended to kill herself, but changed her mind at the last minute and jumped from the car.

In fact, her father had committed suicide, and Susan had attempted suicide at least once in her life. Her stepfather sexually abused her, with whom she continued to have a sexual relationship once she was an adult. Smith also had an affair with her boss and craved a relationship with him. When he ended the affair because he did not want the complication of children in his life, she became desperate to rid herself of her children.

Susan Smith was convicted of two counts of murder. However, on July 28, 1995, a South Carolina jury rejected the idea of sentencing a young mother to death for drowning her two sons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment instead.

As these widely publicized maternal filicide cases illustrate (see earlier Filicide is Different posts), juries show mercy by avoiding the death penalty where a manslaughter charge is not available.[24] Even though this country does not officially recognize that filicide is significantly different from other homicides, one U.S. study of filicide found that local district attorneys prosecuted only 64% of 171 cases over a 30-year period. [25] Of those cases that are prosecuted, juries as well as prosecutors are aware of the mental and emotional mitigating factors that make the death penalty disproportionate and inappropriate in cases of filicide and infanticide.

Even the vast majority of homicidal child abusers are convicted of manslaughter rather than of murder. [26] Perhaps because women kill their children in "gentler" ways than men, such as drowning or suffocation, often sedating the children first, [27] fathers are more likely than mothers to be charged with murder than manslaughter.[28] Similarly, more fathers than mothers convicted of manslaughter are imprisoned; convicted mothers are more likely than fathers to be hospitalized or treated rather than imprisoned. [29]

[24] Janet Ford, Note, Susan Smith and Other Homicidal Mothers - In Search of the Punishment That Fits the Crime, 3 Cardozo Women's L.J. 521, 530 (1996).
[25] McKee, Why Mothers Kill, supra, at 12.
[26] Ford, supra, at 525.
[27] Linda Cylc, Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide, at 7
[28] Yarwood, supra, at 1.
[29] Yarwood, supra, at 1.

In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 3

Progressive postpartum depression is one of the least recognized diseases suffered by young mothers despite the fact that almost 80% of women who give birth experience some form of postpartum upset. Although this symptom picture is well described in the research literature, postpartum depression is not recognized in the mental health professional's legal "bible," the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition ("DSM IV"). [20] The symptoms of postpartum depression may masquerade as manic-depression (bipolar disorder). Periods of euphoria, agitation, sleeplessness, sexual promiscuity, and hyperactivity characterize the manic symptoms. Poor judgment is a result. [21]

Progressive Postpartum Depression and Psychosis

A common misperception is that the postpartum depression is nothing more than the "baby blues" and will disappear on its own shortly after childbirth. [22] However, if untreated, the disease can develop into a more severe form, progressive postpartum depression or even psychosis. When this happens, the mother suffers from continued episodes of mania or depression, each one progressively worse than the last. Rejections, separations, and losses often trigger subsequent recurrent episodes. Because of the episodic nature, the woman is often untreated or undiagnosed until a tragedy occurs.

Despite the common misconception that only newborns are at risk from this disease, mothers suffering from the more severe form kill older children. The case of Andrea Yates more than amply illustrates this point.

The Andrea Yates Case

Andrea Yates suffered from postpartum depression, which progressively deepened with each child she had. Andrea cared for her three young boys while her husband worked to support the family. Her husband became involved in a fundamentalist religious group and eschewed material possession, downsizing their home to a mobile home and then a bus. After the birth of her fourth son, she attempted suicide twice before being hospitalized. The birth of her fifth child, a daughter, caused her to become severely depressed and delusional. She was hospitalized and medicated, but Andrea hid her delusions from her doctors and family. She was having conversations with Satan and feared punishment if she told anyone.

On June 20, 2001, Andrea drowned all five of her children to save them from Satan while they were still innocent. She called 911 and then her husband, who had just left for work an hour before. Andrea told him all the children were hurt, and he needed to come home. When Andrea confessed to the murders, she said she loved her children, but not in the "right" way. Andrea thought she was a bad mother because her children were not developing in an academic or righteous sense.

Andrea Yates was charged with capital murder with possible penalty of death. Whether Yates believed she was saving her children from Satan or she was simply overwhelmed with caring for them, the jury found her guilty of murder after deliberating for three and a half hours. The prosecution then sought the death penalty. After only 35 minutes of deliberation, the jury elected a prison sentence for life. [23]

Continued, in part 4 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo. The final part of the series discusses mothers who don't want their children, the Susan Smith case, and the overall treatment of maternal filicide by the American Justice system.

[20] Oberman, supra at 71.
[21] Husman, supra, at 41-42.
[22] Id.
[23] Margaret G. Spinneli, Maternal Infanticide Associated With Mental Illness, 161 Am. J. Psychiatry 1548, 1548 (2004).

In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 2

Subsequent studies agree with Resnick's Classification of Motives in Maternal Filicide Cases

Subsequent studies have agreed on a commonality of motives in cases of maternal filicide.[8] These motives are: (1) the mother's mental illness, often seen as "pathological," "acutely psychotic," or "mentally ill" killings, (2) lack of bonding with the child, manifested as "neonaticide," "unwanted child," or "ignored pregnancy" deaths, and (3) inadequate parenting, resulting in "accidental," "discipline-related," or "neglect" deaths.

Recent Studies Look Not Only at Motive, but at the Nature of the Mother-Child Relationship

Recent studies focus on more than just the motive, but on the nature of the mother-child relationship. Forensic psychiatric evaluations of women criminally charged with the deaths of their children found the following characterizations of the mother-child relationship: abusive / neglectful mothers, psychotic / depressed mothers, retaliatory mothers, psychopathic mothers, and detached mothers.

Abusive, Psychopathic, or Retaliatory mothers

Abusive / neglectful mothers are unable to set normal behavioral bounds with their child, vacillating from excessive discipline to no discipline. Retaliatory mothers are similar to Resnick's spousal revenge category. The psychopathic mother has an insensitive relationship with their children, using the child to fulfill their own needs.

The detached mother

The detached mother category reflects mothers that have not developed a bond with their child during pregnancy. Researchers talk about the "massive denial" of these women who kill their child. Typically, these mothers deny their pregnancy, often to the point where physical symptoms do not manifest until the actual "surprise" birth. The detached mother may deny the pregnancy out of resentment of the child, a lack of communication within her social network, or a fear of rejection by her family or friends. Interestingly, the families and support systems of these women do not notice the changes in the young woman.

The mother may actually have a dissociative event during childbirth, not remembering the birth or even killing the child at birth. [9] Neonaticide, the killing of a child in the first day of life, may occur if these women give birth in an isolated area or alone. These women were later horrified to find out what they had done.

The psychotic / depressed mother

The psychotic / depressed mother perceives her child through the lens of her particular illness. The illness may be a previously diagnosed clinical disorder, such as schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, or bipolar disorder. The mother may be suffering from a personality disorder, defined as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of an individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and lead to distress or impairment." [10] Three personality disorders relevant to filicidal mothers are dependent, antisocial, and borderline personality disorder. Impulsive actions, poor judgment, and instability in personal relationships and self-image characterized borderline personality disorder.

Just as the families did not notice the pregnancy of denial mothers, the families of young women suffering from clinical or personality disorders often ignore "the elephant in the living room" and deny the problem. [11] The result is that these young women are often at risk because they do not get the diagnosis, treatment, and help that they need due to unacknowledged or unrecognized mental disorders.

Mothers with Bipolar Disorder

One such clinical disorder that may go undiagnosed is bipolar disorder.[12] Bipolar disorder usually begins between ages 15 and 30, and some forms are more common in women. [13] Symptoms of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, are extreme mood swings ranging from manic highs to intense lows. [14] Because these mood swings are on a continuum, and may even not appear at times, some people may go undiagnosed because they don't seek treatment, their condition is mistaken for depression, or because their symptoms don't meet current diagnostic criteria. [15] Complicating the picture, bipolar disorder frequently is accompanied by other disorders. [16]

The mood swings may last for weeks, months, or even years. [17] In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, the signs and symptoms include: extreme optimism, inflated self-esteem, poor judgment, agitation, risky behavior, spending sprees, increased sexual drive, decreased need for sleep, and a tendency to be easily distracted. [18] During the depressive phase, it is easy to see how signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder may masquerade as depression: sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or behavior, anxiety, guilt, sleep problems, appetite problems, fatigue, loss of interest in daily activities, problems concentrating, irritability, and chronic pain without a known cause. [19]

Continued, in part 3 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo. The third part of the series discusses progressive postpartum depression and the Andrea Yates case.

[8] Geoffrey R. McKee, Why Mothers Kill, A Forensic Psychologist's Casebook 28 (2006).
[9] Oberman, supra, at 53.
[10] Oberman, supra, at 71.
[11] Arlene M. Huysman, A Mother's Tears 52 (1998).
[12] Mayo Clinic, Bipolar Disorder, at 4, available at disorder/DS00356/DSECTION=symptoms.
[13] Id.
[14] Id., at 1
[15] Id., at 4.
[16] K. Cauldwell, Living With Bipolar Disorder: One Woman's Journey Through Diagnosis, Understanding, and Acceptance, at 2
[17] Id.
[18] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2.
[19] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2-3.

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.

Another lesson from the Casey Anthony case ....

Last week, I wrote about mercy as being a lesson in the Casey Anthony case coverage. Here's another one that I'm pondering. Filicide. It's been around for centuries, it happens with alarming frequency in the United States today, and yet it is still one of those elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Filicide? What's that?

Filicide is Susan Smith and Andrea Yates and Ellen Feinberg and Diane Downs. Filicide - maternal filicide -- is the name given to the particular kind of homicide where mothers kill their children. (Paternal filicide happens too, and more on that, later.)

You know about maternal filicide.

1. Meryl Streep won an Oscar for Sophie's Choice. What was that choice? Filicide.
2. Oprah Winfrey produced and starred in Beloved, based upon the novel by Toni Morrison, where the character Sethe killed her daughter Beloved to keep her from being a slave.
3. Medea (remember, Euripides?) killed her children all because Jason left her.
4. Lois (with Peter) killed son Stevie on an episode of TV's Family Guy.

In this country today, it's much more common that we like to recognize. Every community has had its newborn baby found dead in the dumpster or trash can, left there shortly after birth - and lots of those stories reveal a teen mom who tells authorities she didn't even know she was pregnant. Sure, you've read one of those.

What you need to know about maternal filicide is WHY.

Perhaps we'd all be better served if the reality that filicide exists weren't such a taboo subject. Because then maybe it would be easier for post partum depression sufferers to ask for help. Maybe teen moms might give their newborns to someone rather than dump them.

And, maybe the fixation and for some, obsession, about the Casey Anthony case in the media wouldn't outweigh every other news story in this country for the past year (except for hurricanes, according to Yahoo!).

For more on filicide, look for an upcoming series of posts (Friday's Legal Memo) studying the topic in detail and titled "Filicide is Different."

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