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.