Child murder by parents is an upsetting topic for both the public and clinicians. It is even more distressing when a mother kills her child than when a father does because we expect mothers to love and protect their children at all costs.
The term filicide refers to the homicide of a child by a biological parent. Stepfathers kill their stepchildren at much higher rates than do biological fathers.1 Infanticide commonly denotes the murder of an infant during the first 12 months of life but is a less precise term. Infanticide laws exist that reduce the penalty for a mother who kills her child in the first year of life in more than 2 dozen countries (not including the United States).2,3 The Table presents the 5 parental motives for child homicide.4
The 2 most famous cases of maternal filicide in the United States are those of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates. On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith reported that her 2 sons (aged 14 months and 3 years) had been kidnapped by a black carjacker.5-7 After 9 days of searching by law enforcement, she revealed that she had rolled her car into a lake with her sons strapped into their car seats. She said that she had planned to drown herself with them, but she changed her mind at the last moment.
If her account is taken at face value, her act would be considered an altruistic extended suicide. During her trial, her turbulent life came to light, which included the suicide of her father, prolonged molestation by her stepfather, and her depression and suicide attempts.7 According to the prosecution theory, her motive was that of unwanted child; she wished to rid herself of her children to increase her chances of having a relationship with a man who did not want to marry a woman burdened with children. The jury spared her life but sentenced her to life in prison.6
Andrea Yates called 911 to request police assistance on June 20, 2001.8 She told police that she had killed her 5 children and she led them to their bodies. Ms Yates experienced both depression and psychosis. She believed that her house was bugged, television cameras were monitoring her home, and that Satan was literally within her. She became convinced that her children were not righteous and would ultimately burn in hell. She believed that she needed to kill her children before the age of accountability to save their souls. Her motive was clearly altruistic. She was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity.8
Similar numbers of filicides are committed by mothers and fathers. Research findings vary based on the sample studied. Samples from administrative records consist of cases with information from coroners’ reports or law enforcement data. These are the most accurate because they include all cases of filicide within a jurisdiction. However, certain information may be unavailable; for example, perpetrators may not have been psychiatrically evaluated. The filicidal mother in these samples often served as her child’s primary caregiver and experienced financial difficulties. Some had a personal history of abuse. Although some of these mothers were primarily abusive or neglectful of their children, others suffered from mental illness.9
Mothers studied in psychiatric populations (who were psychiatrically evaluated and/or had psychiatric dispositions) often were unemployed and had a personal history of physical abuse. As expected, mental illness was pervasive, including psychosis, depression, and suicidal ideation.9 Mothers from correctional population studies were often unemployed, under-educated, and unmarried victims of abuse with little social support; some had a history of substance use or mental illness.9
Fathers and mothers kill their children for similar reasons.4 How-ever, fathers are approximately twice as likely as mothers to commit suicide after filicide (40% to 60% vs 16% to 29%).10,11 Thus, mothers are more likely to stand trial, which may partially account for why we more frequently hear about mothers who kill. Fathers are much more likely than mothers to commit familicide (killing the entire family).10 After filicides, fathers are more often incarcerated, whereas mothers more frequently receive a psychiatric disposition.12
Neonaticide is the murder of an infant in the first 24 hours of life.13 Neonaticide is distinct from other filicides.14 Almost always, this crime is committed by the mother, acting alone. Suicide in conjunction with neonaticide is extremely rare. True neonaticide rates are hard to ascertain because no one knows how many newborn babies are disposed of without discovery.
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Friedman SH, Horwitz SM, Resnick PJ. Child murder by mothers: a critical analysis of the current state of knowledge and a research agenda. Am J Psychiatry. 2005;162:1578-1587.
Friedman SH, Sorrentino RM, Stankowski JE, et al. Psychiatrists’ knowledge about maternal filicidal thoughts. Compr Psychiatry. 2008;49:106-110.
Stanton J, Simpson A, Wouldes T. A qualitative study of filicide by mentally ill mothers. Child Abuse Negl. 2000;24:1451-1460.