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Parricide technically refers to the killing of a close relative. Since the 1980s, the term has become increasingly identified by the public as the killing of parents. Widespread interest in the phenomenon of youths killing their parents was generated by media coverage of several cases in the United States in the 1980s in which sons and daughters had acted alone or with others to kill parents who allegedly abused them. In one of these cases, sixteen-year-old Richard Jahnke and his seventeen-year-old sister gunned down their father in 1982 to end the man’s physical abuse of Jahnke and his mother, his sexual abuse of the sister, and his verbal and psychological abuse of the entire family.
Interest in parricide cases has transcended the United States in recent years. A review of online media sources revealed that cases of sons and daughters involved in matricide (the killing of a mother) or patricide (the killing of a father) make headline news around the globe, particularly when the cases involve juveniles (children under eighteen, also referred to as minors) or are particularly heinous or atrocious. For example, news coverage was extensive in the case of Jeremy Bamber of Essex, England, who was charged and subsequently convicted of killing his adopted mother and father, his stepsister, and her two six-year-old twin sons by shooting them twenty-five times with a semiautomatic rifle, mostly at extremely close range. Bamber was twenty-two years old at the time of the multiple murders, which occurred in 1985.
The public’s morbid fascination with parricide dates back thousands of years. The killing of fathers and mothers has been a recurrent theme in world literature, as is evident in the stories of Oedipus, Orestes, Alcmaeon, and King Arthur. The killing of parents has been viewed with horror across time and cultures. Such behavior is considered taboo, as reflected in two biblical commandments: Honor thy father and mother and Thou shalt not kill. When children kill their parents, the public wants to know why. Perhaps the reason behind the widespread curiosity since time immemorial is that all members of the public are children (either minors or adults), and many, if not most, are parents of (minor or adult) children. It is understandable to wonder whether ‘‘everyday people’’ are at risk of killing their parents or of being killed by their offspring.
The risk of an individual becoming a parricide victim or offender is actually very, very small. The act of homicide (killing of one person by another) is a low-base-rate event (an infrequent occurrence) in almost all countries that are not at war. Homicide data reflecting the relationship of the victim to the offender are not readily available across cultures. These data are collected in the United States and published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in its Uniform Crime Reports. The United States serves as a good reference point because the U.S. homicide rate is among the highest of the industrialized countries in the world. Yet, even in this country, where the relationship between the victim and offender is known, only about 2 percent of homicide victims are identified as having been killed by their biological sons or daughters. Perusal of arrest data from the mid-1970s through the end of the twentieth century reveals that annually, fewer than 365 parents in the United States—less than one per day—were killed by their biological children. In a country with a population ranging from approximately 220 to 280 million during this time frame, this number is not particularly large when one considers that there were between 15,000 and 25,000 homicide victims each year.
Interestingly, analysis of Supplementary Homicide Report data compiled by the FBI for the period 1976–1999 indicates that approximately 22 percent of children who kill their parents, often referred to as ‘‘parricide offenders,’’ are under age eighteen. The question remains, Why do these kids do it? To what extent are their reasons different from those of adults who kill their parents?
In Why Kids Kill Parents, Heide (1992) identified three types of parricide offenders from the clinical and research literature: the severely abused child, the dangerously antisocial child, and the severely mentally ill child. In the years since its publication, this typology has proved useful in understanding the dynamics that propel offspring to kill their parents. Most children and adolescents who kill their parents tend to fall into the first two types: severely abused or dangerously antisocial. In contrast, when adult children are the killers, they cluster into the dangerously antisocial or severely mentally ill types. The reasons for these differences will be apparent following a discussion of the three types.
The Severely Abused Child
The severely abused child is thought to be the most frequently encountered type of adolescent parricide offender (APO). These youths are typically seen as ‘‘good kids’’ who kill under extraordinary circumstances. They are depicted as individuals caught up in intolerable situations. They murder their parents because they are in fear of their lives, often killing to protect themselves or others from death or serious physical injury, or because they feel desperate and see no other way to end the chronic abuse they and other family members suffer.
Close examination of these cases typically reveals that there has been long-standing patterns of abuse in the home. Physical abuse is commonly found in these homes, meaning that a parent intentionally inflicts physical injury or attempts to injure or cause pain to the child because of the parent’s unresolved needs. The critical consideration is that the parent’s behavior is not appropriate or proportional to anything the child has done. Although some abusive parents may claim that they are only ‘‘disciplining’’ their children, physical abuse is by definition excessive and disproportionate to any misbehavior by the child. In some physically abusive incidents, the parent’s conduct is often not at all responsive to the child’s behavior; that is, the parent strikes out against the child when the youth has done nothing wrong because the parent is unhappy, angry, or stressed. For example, parents have attacked their children as the youths sat watching television or preparing dinner. One girl who killed her father had earlier sustained a dislocated back after being severely kicked by him. A boy who killed his father had previously suffered bruises and welts on his arms, legs, and back from beatings by his dad. The boy’s father also kicked his son, punched him in the head, nose, mouth, and stomach, and led the boy around by the hair. The man also threw things at his son—cutting him on occasion—and bent his son’s thumb back so far that the boy was writhing on the floor in pain and thought the thumb would break. In these homes, the threat of serious injury or death is pervasive. Parents may threaten to kill their children, brandishing guns or knives and on occasion using them.
Verbal abuse is almost always present in these families. Parents say things to their children or make remarks in their presence about them that either are designed to damage their concepts of self or would reasonably be expected to undermine the children’s senses of competency or self-esteem. Verbally abusive remarks include swearing at a child or insulting or belittling a child, by telling a daughter, for example, that she is ‘‘ugly’’ or ‘‘stupid’’ or saying to a son that he is ‘‘a sissy’’ or doesn’t have the brains with which he was born.
Sexual abuse occurs in some homes in which sons and daughters kill parents. It is often harder to corroborate than physical and verbal abuse, because parents who sexually abuse their sons and daughters typically hide their activities from others. In addition, sexual abuse victims often feel partly responsible and ashamed, and are reluctant to tell others about the abuse, even when they are facing long prison sentences for killing the abusive parent. In some cases, the sexual abuse is characterized by gentleness on the part of the parent, who turns to the child to fill his or her needs for nurturance, love, or intimacy. In other cases, the sexual abuse is more appropriately characterized as brute force; the parent attacks the child to vent his rage and demonstrate his power, dynamics that are in fact similar to those seen in rape and sexual assault. Some parents expose their children to sexual issues that are age inappropriate and/or raise them in an environment that is sexually saturated or provocative. In the latter case, even though there may be no sexual contact with the child, the parent’s activities are undeniably sexually explicit. These sexually abusive behaviors, although covert, are damaging to children because the children almost always know that these behaviors are ‘‘wrong’’ and feel confused about them. For example, one adolescent girl who killed her father was made to watch as her father’s girlfriend performed oral sex on him; this man insisted on coming into the bathroom repeatedly to converse with his adolescent daughter when she was showering.
In cases of severely abused children who kill their parents, psychological abuse is always present. Psychological abuse encompasses words and behaviors that undermine a child’s sense of self, competence, and safety in the world. Verbal abuse is one type of psychological abuse. Physical and sexual abuse by a parent or guardian are also forms of psychological abuse because they destroy the child’s sense of security and impede the development of competence in interpersonal relationships. Psychologically abusive messages take a variety of forms. Particularly undermining messages include repeatedly putting a child down by unfavorably comparing him with a sibling or another child, or characteristically expressing dissatisfaction with a child’s accomplishments no matter how well she does. Psychologically abusive behaviors by parents are also myriad, and typically include repeated acts that are cruel or designed to humiliate the child into complying with parental expectations that a child may not be able to meet. One girl who killed her mother had endured many psychologically abusive acts by her. These included being prevented from seeing her godparents, who were very stable and good people and had practically raised the girl from the time she was a baby to about age twelve. One boy who had a bed-wetting problem killed his mother after she displayed his soiled bedsheets on a clothesline in the yard with a sign proclaiming the boy’s problem for all the neighbors to see.
The Role of Neglect in Cases of Severely Abused Children
Not surprisingly, the focus in cases involving severely abused children is on the chronic nature of the abuse and its threat both to the child’s psyche and to the child’s very life. In nearly all of these cases, however, neglect accompanies the abuse in one or more forms, making it difficult to sort out the specific effects of each form of maltreatment. Physical and sexual abuse are often specifically defined incidents. In contrast, neglect is often chronic, and it is more difficult to identify. Four types of neglect are frequently seen in adolescent parricide offender cases.
Physical neglect has several components. Parents physically neglect their children by not providing adequate food or clothing, or by not providing a safe place to live. The failure to act to safeguard the child’s physical and mental health also constitutes physical neglect. Failure to supervise the child properly is the most common form of neglect in the United States. Failure to set appropriate limits of behavior and to discipline one’s child is also another common form of physical neglect.
An overlap in abuse and neglect occurs with youths who are physically, sexually, verbally, and psychologically abused, because these children are clearly not being protected by their parents; this constitutes a form of physical neglect. By the canons of good parenting, parents are supposed to provide a safe environment for their children. If one parent is being abusive, the nonabusive parent, if there is one, is responsible for protecting the child.
In addition to physical neglect, medical neglect is often encountered in cases of youth violence. The failure of parents to attend to their children’s mental and physical health issues constitutes medical neglect. Adolescent parricide offenders are often seen by others as depressed and stressed for long periods of time preceding the killing.
Frequently in these cases, the youths are victims of emotional neglect. Neither the abusive nor the nonabusive parent, if there is one, is emotionally available to the child. In case after case, abusive parents are depicted as failing to provide loving messages and gestures and as not listening to their children. In abusive families, the nonabusive parent frequently escapes either physically or psychologically. The nonabusive parent is frequently physically absent from the abusive home and is therefore unable to protect the child or provide emotional support. A nonabusive parent who is in the home is often emotionally unavailable due to his or her own strategies for coping with the stress caused by the abusive parent. For example, nonabusive parents have reported turning to alcohol or ‘‘zoning out’’ on psychotropic drugs to cope with their spouses’ destructive behavior. While this strategy may help the nonabusive parent cope with the situation, it often results in the emotional neglect of the child during a time of great need.
When the nonabusive parent leaves physically or emotionally, the child is at high risk of being a victim of emotional incest. In the absence of a spouse or age-appropriate mate, the abusive parent often expects the child to function like a surrogate partner, taking on the typical roles of a spouse and parent. The child may be expected to maintain the household (including cooking, cleaning, and raising younger siblings), as well as serving as a confidante to the parent. This type of neglect deprives the child of normal childhood experiences (such as participating in sports or extracurricular activities at school) and causes stress. Meeting expectations and assuming duties beyond their years is enormously stressful for children. When combined with other forms of abuse and neglect, the consequences can be devastating, with lifelong effects.
Child neglect typically begins at an early age and can seriously affect development. Children who experience early emotional neglect are at high risk for attachment disorders. The first two years, particularly the first six months, are critical periods for infants and young children. The foundation for trust of others is learned during this period when parents or guardians connect with children and meet their basic needs for food, physical comfort, and human contact. When the caretaker meets the child’s needs, the child develops a healthy, secure attachment that becomes the basis for all future relationships.
The absence of a consistent, nurturing caregiver who forms a relationship with the child and takes care of the child’s needs is developmentally traumatic. Children whose physical, emotional, and medical needs are not met learn very early in life that they cannot count on other human beings to respond to their needs and to comfort them. As a result, they disconnect from people and may not develop compassion and empathy for other human beings. They are often filled with distrust toward others and deep down harbor tremendous hatred and rage. Their pain and anger is a direct result of the parents’ failure to nurture and care for them.
Children who have been neglected, like abused children, often have disorganized, insecure attachments to their caregivers. Without secure attachments, children cannot develop a healthy sense of themselves, and they often have difficulty connecting with other human beings throughout their lives. Because they do not form attachments to other people, they are more prone to acting out violently in relationships. Studies show that neglect is more devastating to a child than abuse by itself. Prolonged neglect can set the foundation for the development of the dangerously antisocial child.
The Dangerously Antisocial Child
Dangerously antisocial youths kill their parents for selfish, instrumental reasons. The term dangerously antisocial child here refers to individuals previously referred to by mental health professionals as ‘‘psychopathic’’ or ‘‘sociopathic’’ personalities. Today two more precise terms—conduct disorder (CD) and antisocial personality disorder (APD)—are used, depending on the age of the individual and the presence of specific criteria. Individuals who are diagnosed as having either of these disorders, unlike those who suffer from a psychotic disorder, are oriented in time and space and are free of delusions and hallucinations.
A youth under eighteen years of age may be classified clinically as having a conduct disorder when a long-standing pattern of violating the rights of others or disregarding major societal norms has been established. Diagnostic criteria include specific behavioral indicators of aggression to animals and people, theft or deceitfulness, destruction of property, and other serious rule violations. These indicators specifically target acts that constitute criminal behavior (e.g., battery, rape, vandalism, robbery, theft, arson) or behaviors that are deemed serious enough to warrant societal intervention (e.g., status offenses such as truancy, running away). CD is often the precursor to APD, a diagnosis reserved for adults (eighteen years of age and older) who engage in a similar response pattern.
The diagnosis of CD is to be distinguished from oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), often its forerunner. ODD is a pattern of long-standing defiant, negative, and hostile behavior (e.g., losing temper, arguing with adults, actively defying or refusing to comply with adults’ requests) that is noncriminal. As diagrammed below, the three behavioral disorders can be placed along a continuum of defiance of authority and societal norms.
Abuse and neglect are often associated with behavioral disorders in children and adults. Children who are abused and neglected may adopt an antisocial way of responding to life as a means of psychic, if not physical, survival. Antisocial behavior can focus a youth’s attention away from problems at home that are too difficult to handle. Criminal behavior can also provide an avenue for the youth to act out his or her pain. In the case of an adolescent parricide offender with a history of acting out, the question of whether the adolescent is truly sociopathic (that is, lacks a conscience) or has adopted a pattern of acting out as a coping strategy to maintain his or her fragile mental health is one best reserved for the mental health professional.
The family dynamics that set the stage for the development of ODD typically begin with parental neglect early in the child’s life. ODD can often be traced to the failure of parents to set limits and to impose appropriate discipline for misbehavior, which is clearly a form of neglect. Children begin to learn societal rules and to accept authority and respect boundaries when they are between the ages of two and five years of age. Parents’ acquiescence to their children’s demands may not seem that significant when the child is three and wants a popsicle before dinner, or when the child is four and does not want to go to bed at the prescribed time. Unfortunately, the pattern becomes established and the stakes become higher and higher over time. The problem is often identified when youths are between ages twelve and fifteen and are obviously out of control, demanding to stay out until midnight and cursing their parents for ‘‘interfering’’ with their lives. Parents’ attempts to set boundaries are ineffectual at this point. Adolescents who did not learn respect for authority in the home and lacked self-discipline as children can easily cross the threshold from defiant and oppositional behavior to criminal behavior, including violent acts. Parents are now seen by these children as obstacles, whose efforts to impede their goals are met with resentment, and on occasion with contempt.
Children whose parents do not set consistent limits are not the only ones at risk for development of ODD and CD. Children who have been severely neglected, as well as those who have been severely abused, are at risk for developing attachment disorders. As a result of their early childhood experiences, many abused and neglected youths fail to bond with others. These adolescents often lack attachments to teachers and conventional peers, as well as to parents. Consequently, they do not develop the values, empathy, and self-concept that foster self-control and could inhibit them from killing others.
Failure of parents to set boundaries was clearly present in the case of two brothers who viciously stabbed and bludgeoned to death their mother, father, and remaining sibling as the three slept peacefully in their beds. The boys were not mentally ill and there was no evidence of any type of abuse. The parents, however, were characterized as being ‘‘laid back’’ and as very tolerant about their sons’ behaviors as the boys were growing up. Available evidence suggested that the parents were inconsistent about setting limits and imposing discipline. Both boys had extensive histories of antisocial behavior and alcohol abuse. In addition, previous mental health reports revealed that they had both been hospitalized for threatening to kill their mother. Both boys had physically assaulted their father and had told mental health professionals, as well as some friends, that they were going to kill their parents. The brothers had a history of involvement with an antisocial group known for endorsing a hate-filled ideology, engaging in violent tactics, and propagating anarchy. The parents were killed shortly after the boys learned that they were going to set some limits and were pursuing appropriate channels to hospitalize them.
The Severely Mentally Ill Child
Severely mentally ill children who murder their parents are psychotic or otherwise gravely mentally ill. They typically have a long-established psychiatric history. The killing of the parent is an underlying product of the mental illness. In one case, for example, an adolescent diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia followed a detailed plan he had crafted to kill his mother to show his devotion to Satan.
Severe neglect and/or extreme abuse during early childhood can result in fragmentation of the child’s mind, leading to dissociative identity disorder (DID) (formerly known as multiple personality disorder, or MPD) or to psychosis. Dissociation is a psychic response to overwhelming stress and hyperarousal. The child withdraws from the dangerous outside world and retreats into his or her internal world. With continued trauma, the internal world becomes increasingly complex and the child’s personality may split into several parts, each specialized to cope with some aspect of the hostile environment.
Psychotic individuals have lost touch with reality. Typically their personalities are severely disorganized, their perceptions distorted, and their communications disjointed. They may experience hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that are not really happening) and bizarre delusions (beliefs that have no basis in reality and that would appear totally implausible to others in their environment; for example, a belief that one is the resurrected Jesus Christ returned to earth). Individuals with psychotic disorders do not understand that they are mentally ill and may behave bizarrely due to their belief systems or sensory experiences. They frequently need to be hospitalized until their mental disorder has been stabilized. Psychotropic medications are often helpful in reducing psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions.
Motivational Dynamics behind the Homicide
The key question in parricide cases is what propelled the child to kill his or her parent(s)? Cases are often not as simple and clear-cut as they initially appear. In-depth assessment of the offender and the circumstances behind the killing by a mental health professional experienced in domestic violence is essential. In addition, review of case materials and interviews with surviving family members and those who know the offender and the victim are important for corroborative purposes.
Abuse and neglect often exist in the histories of both juvenile and adult parricide offenders. The existence of abuse and/or neglect does not mean that the child was severely abused and killed out of terror or desperation. Abuse is unlikely to be the driving force in cases of adults who kill their mothers or fathers. Usually, adults have more resources and choices than do children and adolescents. A healthy adult who is living in a home with an abusive parent can move out of the dwelling or, if he or she stays, can seek help for the parent and set and maintain appropriate boundaries. For the healthy and prosocial adult, parricide is unlikely to be the answer. The research and clinical literature indicate that adults who kill parents often have documented histories of severe mental illness or of antisocial behavior. Depending on how they are viewed in the criminal justice system, they are likely to be sent to a psychiatric hospital or to be confined in prison for many years.
In contrast, when children and adolescents kill their parents, severe mental illness is almost always ruled out. Two competing theories are often argued by the defense and prosecution to win their cases. The defense is likely to maintain that the youth is a prosocial individual who was pushed beyond his limits and killed for reasons of physical or psychic survival. The prosecution is likely to stress that the youth is on his or her way to becoming a dangerously antisocial individual and warrants incapacitation (confinement in an institution to prevent further crime).
Regardless of how young parricide offenders are viewed, they typically do not fare well in the legal system. They are likely to be tried as adults, convicted, and sentenced to prison. The battered child syndrome, unlike the battered woman system, is not recognized in many states. Severely abused children typically are not criminally sophisticated. Thus, they exchange a life of abuse in their homes for a life of abuse behind prison walls.
Legal and Moral Dilemmas in the Twenty-First Century
Findings in the developmental neurophysiology of children subjected to severe and protracted abuse have important legal implications in how society deals with adolescent parricide offenders in the twenty-first century. Studies are increasingly linking extreme neglect and abuse with long-term changes in the nervous and endocrine systems. These changes affect cognitive, physiological, emotional, and social functions. A growing body of research literature indicates that individuals with extensive trauma histories often have difficulty thinking logically and behaving prosocially and are thereby at higher risk of behaving violently than those without such histories. Recent research findings also have indicated that neglect can have profound effects on children’s development, including their ability to bond with others and feel empathy toward them, and to regulate and control strong emotions. These findings are best viewed in the context of recent research findings that have confirmed that the human brain is still developing through adolescence and is not fully developed until an individual is in his or her early twenties.
Advances in science are beginning to challenge fundamental notions of justice dating back thousands of years and may indeed pose a moral dilemma to the public: Should these youths be deemed as responsible for their behavior as other killers who have had different childhood histories, particularly if abuse and neglect have biologically compromised their ability to access higher cortical functions, regulate emotion, connect with other human beings, and respond adaptively to life’s situations?
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