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In recent decades, domestic violence has been accepted as a painful reality—one that law enforcement officials, social workers, health care providers, and many other professionals have sought to understand and eliminate. The topic of maternal filicide, or mothers who kill their children, might be seen as a subset of the problem of domestic violence, and yet, it remains mysterious to most experts in domestic violence. This research paper aims to dispel some of the confusion surrounding this topic. It begins by describing research which identified five patterns associated with maternal filicide in the United States. It then discusses the implications of these findings and articulates strategies for preventing the deaths of children at their mothers’ hands.
Research and Methodology
It is impossible to determine the exact frequency of contemporary filicide; however, evidence suggests that every three days in the United States, a mother kills her child. In 2001, Cheryl Meyer and Michelle Oberman published a joint study of U.S. mothers who killed, drawn from over 1,000 reports of maternal filicide in the United States from 1990 to December 31, 1999. The research involved a comprehensive search for media and court accounts of contemporary cases. Two hundred nineteen of the most thoroughly reported cases were selected, from which a typology of mothers who kill their children was created. After publishing that typology, these scholars designed a survey instrument, and Dr. Meyer interviewed forty women who had been convicted of killing their children and were incarcerated for their actions. The responses of the interview subjects inform the discussion below.
Typology: Patterns in Contemporary U.S. Filicide Cases
Filicide Due to Neglect
The most common type of filicide involves mothers whose children die accidentally, as a result of what the law might term ‘‘child neglect.’’ This category of cases is marked by several striking patterns. The mothers typically have more than one child, and the deaths of the child or children are most readily viewed as accidental. Rather than intentional killers, these women typically emerge as well meaning, having attempted to raise their children under challenging circumstances. The vast majority of these mothers receive little or no support from the fathers of their children. They have limited financial means. Their living conditions are unstable, they have limited support from others, and they lack child care. All of these factors hinder the mother’s ability to find work to support herself and her children, as well as to find ways to provide herself with the sort of respite care that all mothers, and particularly single mothers, need.
In the original study, there were a total of seventy-six cases of neglect. The majority of these women became mothers as adolescents. In addition, the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of mothers in this category were single parents. Moreover, among the cases reviewed, 41 percent of the families included three or more children. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of the cases in this category involved mothers living in poverty. Finally, in at least 41 percent of the cases, the mothers’ lives were complicated by mental health problems such as depression or chemical dependency.
Filicide Related to an Ignored Pregnancy
The second most common form of maternal filicide involves the crime known as ‘‘neonaticide.’’ Neonaticide is the killing of a newborn within twenty-four hours of birth, by a woman who typically had received no prenatal care and delivered her baby unattended, outside of a hospital setting. The women who commit this crime are disproportionately young, single, and emotionally isolated. They tend to become pregnant by accident, and they have mixed feelings about having a child. They suspect that their families will not accept their pregnancies and that the birth will rupture their fragile support systems. As young women, they worry about issues such as work, housing, and health care, fearing that they will be unable to support themselves and a child. At the same time, they tend to see the children as a potential source of love and affection in their otherwise lonely existences.
The fears triggered by their pregnancies led these women to ignore or conceal them. Some of the women studied managed to keep their secret because they gained little weight, or continued to bleed throughout their pregnancies. Others simply remained in a state of denial. It is important to note that these women were, in many cases, still girls, living at home with their parents. Although their families of origin often seemed loving, these girls felt unable to confide in any of the adults in their lives. Moreover, the adults did not notice any physical or emotional changes in these girls. In some cases, the adults also ignored or missed the broad hints that the girls dropped in their efforts to get an adult to help them. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that an adolescent might fantasize about the sort of affection and attention that a baby would bring to her life.
The set of cases involving mothers who deliberately take the lives of their children are the most varied and difficult to comprehend. Mental health problems are woven through the overwhelming majority of the cases in this category, and yet there is a remarkably broad spectrum of diagnoses relevant to these cases. At one end of the spectrum are cases in which the mother had little or no history of mental illness, and yet her violent actions clearly evidenced her extreme mental distress. For example, consider the case of Susan Smith, a South Carolina mother who killed her two small children in 1989 by leaving them in her car and rolling the car into a lake. Although she had long struggled with depression and suicide attempts, and even as a married adult continued a sexually abusive relationship with her stepfather, she was not under medical supervision at the time of her crime.
In other cases, the mothers had long histories of mental illness, often with scores of doctors and state agencies on notice about the risk that she posed to herself and to her children. For instance, Andrea Yates, a Texas mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, had been treated for many years for depression and psychosis and was suffering from postpartum psychosis-related delusions when she killed her children.
Despite the diversity amongst these cases, there are striking and clear patterns. These commonalities include the killing of multiple children, the experience of a recent failed relationship, intense desperation and suicidal thoughts, and, finally, issues of cultural and religious ideology. Perhaps the most important of these fact patterns is that most of these cases involve suicide attempts by the mother. When the mother’s suicide attempt fails, the criminal justice system often dismisses it as insignificant. Nonetheless, those seeking to understand and prevent these crimes must notice these attempts, in that it is the mother’s determination that she can no longer go on living that typically leads her to take the lives of her children. Indeed, in many of these cases, the mothers tried to arrange alternative care for their children shortly before they killed them. It was only after their families and friends refused them that they decided to ‘‘take their children with them.’’ Often, this decision reflects the mothers’ deeply held religious convictions regarding guilt, forgiveness, and an afterlife. Another distinctive feature of these women’s stories is their devotion toward their children. The overwhelming majority of these mothers had no history of abuse or neglect toward their children, and people who knew them described them as deeply devoted mothers.
Although postpartum mental illness receives a considerable amount of attention, a relatively small percentage of mothers studied by Meyer and Oberman within this category suffered from postpartum disorders (8 percent). Overall, when all 219 cases are included, the postpartum cases accounted for less than 3 percent of the sample. This is not to say that mental illness is not a key factor, as a significant number of women in this category sought treatment for mental health conditions. Unfortunately, those who did seek help did not necessarily disclose their thoughts of harming themselves or their children. In part, this may have been due to the shame they felt about being ‘‘bad mothers,’’ but in addition, they may have feared losing custody of their children were they to reveal their darkest thoughts. Thus, their health care providers failed to recognize the immediate threat that these women posed to their children and to themselves.
Despite the considerable research on the subject of child abuse, little has been written about mothers who take it to fatal extremes. These cases involve chronic levels of abuse, typically taking place over the course of many months or even years. One of the most troubling aspects of this particular form of filicide as it emerged in the research discussed in this research paper is that in the vast majority of cases, state child protection agencies were aware of the trouble in these families long before the children were killed. In the original sample of fifteen cases, child protective services had previously intervened in at least twelve, and possibly even fourteen. In two-thirds of these cases, the mother had previously lost custody and killed the child after reunification.
Some of the underlying commonalities in these cases included early child-bearing (many were adolescents when they had their first child) and substance abuse. Not only were many of the mothers abusing substances, but at least a third of the childrenvictims had been born addicted to substances. At least two of the women were pregnant at the time of the killings. In interviews with the women who had killed their children through abuse, it emerged that most of these women had themselves been abused as children. As others have suggested, there is considerable evidence that being abused as a child, or observing abuse as a child, is related to abusing as a parent.
The final category of cases in this typology refers to situations in which mothers kill their children while acting in conjunction with a partner—generally a romantic partner—who contributes in some manner to the death. In most situations, the mothers are passive participants, failing to protect the children from abuse at the hands of their male partners. The most noteworthy characteristic of women in this category of cases is that they typically are involved in violent relationships with their domestic partners, and the abuse carries over to the children. In most cases, state child protection agencies have been involved with the family. All of the children in this category of the original sample had been physically abused over a long period of time. For the most part, the deaths of these children resulted from discipline-related abuse that escalated into fatal beatings. These incidents typically occurred at particularly stressful times of day for the parents, such as bedtime.
Intervention and Prevention
This research paper has provided an overview of the five different categories of contemporary U.S. cases of maternal filicide. Each category is unique and presents distinct challenges for preventing future cases. There are at least two common problems that underlie all of the categories, however, and that might point to an additional path to prevention.
The first common problem is maternal isolation. Increasingly, motherhood is undertaken alone. The demise of the extended family, and indeed, of the nuclear family, means that mothers today experience a profound degree of isolation from support systems. In the past, and in other cultures around the world today, a new mother receives substantial support from her own mother, from her sisters, her aunts, and indeed, her entire community. With others who will shop, clean, cook, and care for her and her family, the mother of a newborn is free to devote her attention to her baby. In contemporary U.S. society, even a relatively wealthy mother is likely to spend long hours alone with her child, apart from her spouse, living at some distance from her extended family, and unconnected to her neighbors.
Although isolation is not ideal for any mother, for some women it is particularly problematic. Thus, the second problem common to cases of maternal filicide is that the mothers typically enter parenthood with preexisting vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities might derive from factors such as one’s relative youth or dire poverty, or the nature of one’s mental health status, substance abuse, or intimate relationships. Obviously, most women manage to cope with these difficulties without killing their children. But not all harm to children takes the form of killing, which is simply the far end of the spectrum. The mere fact of becoming a mother does not automatically endow one with the coping skills needed to respond patiently and gently to the demands of a young child. Thus, the isolation of mothers with diminished coping skills creates an environment in which harm to a child becomes predictable, if not inevitable.
Nothing in this research paper is meant to minimize the severity of the crime of filicide or to suggest that these mothers are not responsible. It is a crime to kill a child, and those who do so should be held accountable for their actions. What is particularly challenging about these cases emerges as researchers attempt to determine the extent to which these mothers are blameworthy. In this endeavor, one cannot help but notice the challenging circumstances that surrounded these mothers at the time that they took their children’s lives. From this inquiry, one learns that filicide is not incomprehensible; it arises out of the toxic combination of isolation and despair. It is only with this understanding that researchers can chart the course toward change, so that one day, the death of a child at her mother’s hands will indeed be truly incomprehensible.
- Meyer, C. L., M. Oberman (with K. White, M. Rone, P. Batra, and T. Proano). Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the ‘‘Prom Mom.’’ New York: NYU Press, 2001.
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- Cable News Network. ‘‘Nearly 5 Babies Killed Weekly, FBI Data Show,’’ June 27, 1997. CNN Interactive. http://edition.cnn.com/US/9706/27/killed.babies/index.html.
- Oberman, M. ‘‘‘Lady Madonna, Children at Your Feet’: Tragedies at the Intersection of Motherhood, Mental Illness and the Law.’’ William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law 10 (2003): 33–67.
- ———. ‘‘Mothers Who Kill: Cross-Cultural Patterns in and Perspectives on Contemporary Infanticide.’’ International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 26 (2003): 493–514.
- ———. ‘‘Understanding Infanticide in Context: Mothers Who Kill, 1870–1930 and Today.’’ Northwestern Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 92 (2002): 707–738.
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- Resnick, P. J. ‘‘Murder of the Newborn: A Psychiatric Review of Neonaticide.’’ American Journal of Psychiatry 126 (1970): 1414–1420.
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