CRC - Child Homicide: Parents Who Kill

Organization: CRC
Publication Date: 15 August 2006
Page Count: 314


Drought, plague, and flood are some of Mother Nature's means of population control. Tens of thousands can die in any of these, as we have seen in the tsunamis of 2004 and the hurricanes of 2005. Countries and subcultures often control population growth by war, with thousands killed or starved to death on each side. Societies whose economy cannot support a growing population enact population-limiting laws or simply practice wholesale neonaticide when families grow too large or the newborn is the "wrong" gender (i.e., female). All cultures' moral codes are constituted within the exigencies of survival.

Although infanticide is generally abhorred, a case can be made for its appearance in societies that lack the resources to feed all the children who are born (Posner, 1998). Scheper-Hughes (1989) noted that, in the "impoverished Third World today, women had had to give birth and to nurture children under ecological conditions and social arrangements hostile to child survival, as well as to their own well-being" (p. 14). Under these adverse conditions, women purposely allow weak and infirm infants to die or neglect them as part of their efforts to ensure the well-being and survival of the rest of their families.

Although we are more aware today, early in the 21st century, of instances of child homicide, this crime is not a modern phenomenon. Despite universal reprobation, neonaticide and infanticide have been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to those in "higher" civilizations, including our ancestors and contemporaries. "Rather than being the exception, it has been the rule" (Williamson, 1978, p. 61). People are horrified when parents kill their children, and the media focus much attention on such crimes. It is likely that we are more aware of such events today simply because modern communications carry these news items farther and faster than they did even a few decades ago. This may also provoke "copycat" cases as less mentally stable or less capable parents see killing their children as a solution to their problems.

Today, most societies deplore child homicide and many, including ours , debate the right to have an abortion. Population problems, though, continue to exist. In a sense, those who commit child homicide are also practicing population control, but after the fact instead of before conception. These individuals and their acts against their children are our objects of study. Child killing within the family can be divided into three categories based on the age of the victim: neonaticide, infanticide, or filicide. The murderer in these cases is usually one of the child's parents; occasionally, it is someone acting in loco parentis . Most of the books available focus on mothers who kill their children of any age; they seriously underestimate the number of father figures who commit infanticide and filicide. Their role in child homicides is amply demonstrated in the pages that follow.

To begin, we must provide a context for the crime by looking at the roles of neonaticide, infanticide, and filicide in history. To do this, we will discuss these crimes as they occurred in Biblical and ancient times, up to our modern era. Apart from historical research, we know that they were also the core of much literature, from Medea (Euripedes, 431 B . C .) to the contemporary novel (e.g., The Angel of Darkness by Carr, 1991). Such crimes were certainly evident in many of the folk and fairy tales still read to children today. They also often have a cultural endorsement that we in the United States and in most Westernized cultures do not quite comprehend.

Here, we will focus on neonaticide that is not a culturally supported matter, but rather an individual one; we will also keep this crime distinct from infanticide and filicide, which occur under different circumstances. An abundance of questions arises from each of these crimes. These questions inevitably lead to discussion of the politics and semiotics involved in contraception, abortion, and sex education (although such a discussion is not a major focus of this work). Depending upon the circumstances of the individual case and, to a lesser extent, the community in which a child homicide case occurs, how much media attention is given to the specific case? What is the effect of media focus on the crime and its perpetrator? Does media publicity affect the penalty to be paid by the murdering parent or parents?

In some cases, the mother of an abandoned neonate may not be found, as often happens in large cities. How does she live with herself afterward, even if she is not punished by the courts? If she is found, should she be regarded as legally insane at the time of the crime or as guilty of manslaughter or first- or second-degree murder? To what extent should her age or circumstances be considered in weighing the charge and, if she confesses or is found guilty, the penalty? Is imprisonment the appropriate penalty? These questions lead to examining the crime from the perspective of therapeutic jurisprudence.

If the baby's father was involved in the neonaticide, does that change the legal perspective? If he was not involved, should he be permitted to escape any penalty for his role in the pregnancy that led to the crime? The law varies among communities, as well as among states and nations; it has changed over the centuries and even over recent decades. Awareness of these variations is necessary to the construction of any new policies.

Many of these questions arise in cases of infanticide and filicide as well, with others added to the list. In an era when births are shown in almost complete detail in televised soap operas or "family" shows, there seems to be little excuse for anyone to be uninformed about infantile crying and bodily functions. What psychological factors operate to repress such knowledge in the minds of those who kill an infant for crying too long, too often, or at the "wrong" time? Social welfare agencies exist in virtually every community in the United States, so why are some parents so overwhelmed by child care that they murder a child rather than seek outside help? In cases in which parents separate, why does one parent kill their offspring rather than provide child support or permit the other parent to have visitation or shared custody? Why are children the victims of their parents' inability to cope with life? Does postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis play a role in these crimes?

The issues of sex education, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia are related to some of the proposals to cope with these dilemmas; however, they are fraught with sharp political nuances and insuperable divisions of opinion, passion, and, sometimes, religion. In the following chapters, we will try to treat these questions with objectivity. We will also provide sociobiological, historical, and literary perspectives on these child homicide crimes, as well as seek to answer the many psychological questions that arise from these perspectives. In short, we will examine the mothers and fathers in terms of background and motives; the role, if any, of mental illness; the response of the legal system in terms of charges and penalties; and future directions in terms of preventive measures.