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Andrea Yates, Deanna Laney, and Dena Schlosser. What do these three women have in common? They all were convicted of killing their children. In 2001 Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub. Yates said she killed her children because of the fact that she was a bad mother her children were going to hell and she could not live with the knowledge that her children would be destined to a life of damnation. In 2003 Deanna Laney took a large rock and smashed the skulls of her three children. Laney killed her children because she thought God was telling her to do so and if she did not obey she would be banished to a life in hell. In 2004 Dena Schlosser cut off the arm of her ten month old daughter and offered it to God as a sacrifice. Schlosser cut off the arm of her daughter, which lead to her death, because she felt God commanded her to do so. These three women have remarkable similar episodes of filicide involving delusions and all were diagnosed with depression and postpartum depression/psychosis (Knabb, J., Welsh, R., Graham-Howard, M., 2012, p. 529). Filicide is usually accompanied by mental illness such as postpartum depression/psychosis (Koenen, M., A., Thompson, Jr., J., W., 2008, p. 61).
One of the main precursors to filicide seems to be postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Postpartum depression usually occurs very shortly after the child is born. According to Bartol and Bortol (2014) the symptoms of postpartum depression are “…depression, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue, suicidal thoughts, apathy about the newborn, and a general loss of interest in daily living” (p. 274). Postpartum depression does not seem to be entirely related to childbirth. Postpartum depression seems to be more of a clinical form of depression that existed in the mother long before she gave birth. The mother might even have a history of depression that coupled with the changes of giving birth, hormonal and lifestyle, could have brought on the postpartum depression. The new responsibilities, the changing hormones, the different lifestyle, feelings of being overwhelmed, constant tiredness, and previous depression can all lead to postpartum depression. Postpartum depression does not usually to lead to filicide (p. 274). On the other hand, postpartum psychosis usually leads to filicide if left untreated. Postpartum psychosis is similar in style to postpartum depression but adds the element of mental disorders. Postpartum psychosis is more of a mental disorder. It usually is accompanied with bipolar disorder. People suffering from postpartum psychosis usually see or hear hallucinations, have grand delusions, are highly disorganized in their thought and in their life, neglect themselves and their children, and sometimes suffer from amnesia (Knabb, J., Welsh, R., Graham-Howard, M., 2012, p. 531). With postpartum psychosis a person may think that they are being commanded by God to kill their children or that some terrible fate is waiting for them. The only option they see is to kill their children so they are protected from such a fate.
Historical Overview of Filicide
Mothers and fathers have been killing their own children for as long as the human race has existed. Archeological evidence shows that filicide was a common practice in ancient societies, medieval times, and the pre-industrial world (p. 530). When twins were born ancient tribes would kill the weaker of the two if they could not support both of them. The Asian culture favors males and female newborns were killed during the 1800’s (Koenen, M., A., Thompson, Jr., J., W., 2008, p. 62). Today, filicide is a popular practice in cultures that regulate how many children you can have. Parents will kill newborn females until they give birth to a son. Other reasons for committing filicide are for protecting their children from a fate much worse than they are experiencing currently, preventing them from dealing with a disease or illness, the parents own selfish reasons, or for a multitude of other reasons. The killing of children by their mother or father is known as filicide (Bartol and Bartol, 2014, p. 272). There are several forms of filicide with many different motivational factors. The most common types of filicide are maternal filicide, paternal filicide, infanticide, and neonaticide. Mental illness sometimes accompanies filicide but not always. Men and women are both equally capable of committing filicide even though men tend to be more violent, (Szegedy-Maszak, 2002). Maternal filicide is the killing of children by the mother. Paternal filicide is the killing of children by the father. Infanticide is killing of a child by a parent when the child is less than one year old. Neonaticide is the killing of a child who is less than twenty four hours old.
Classifications and Motives
It has been noted through many studies that there are several different categories of filicide. The motivation for each one is different and unique. The different categories of filicide, according to Ania Wilczynski (1995), are retaliation killing, jealousy of the victim, rejection by the victim, an unwanted child, discipline, altruistic, psychosis in the parent, Munchausen syndrome by proxy, sexual or ritual abuse killing, self-defense, and unintentional killing (p. 366). Parents also commit filicide for unknown reasons or motivations that have yet to be determined through study and research.
Retaliation killing takes place when one person is very angry with another person, a household pet, or an object. This anger is so great that they direct the anger at the easiest possible route. The anger, or retaliation, typically is directed at the person’s child who takes the full force of the anger. The child, not being able to defend itself is beaten till they are dead. Psychologists have noted that severe marital problems and domestic violence are common precursors to retaliation killing. One parent is so angry and upset at their spouse they take it out on their child, who is an innocent bystander. Men generally committed this type of filiciade killing as a way to reinforce their power and dominance in their relationship. On the other hand, women were found to commit this type of filicide when they feel threatened, due to a lack of power in their relationship, and are struggling to gain power and position within their relationship (p. 366).
Jealousy of the victim and rejection by the victim go hand in hand. Where there is jealousy there is usually rejection. Where there is rejection there is usually jealousy. The jealousy or rejection festers deep down within a person and almost creates a temporary psychotic state of mind. This form of filicide is usually committed by the male parent. He is typically jealous by the attention his child gets by the mother and other people or feels rejected by his child. This rejection could be a cause of previous situations that involved abusive behavior directed towards the child who wants nothing to do with their abuser (p. 367).
Filicides committed from having an unwanted child or baby are usually committed by women (usually the mother). They either do not want the child after it is born or they had an unplanned pregnancy or the child was never wanted from the start. Another common reason for committing this type of filicide seems to be conflict between very young parents and their parents on what to do with the new born baby. They see killing the unwanted baby as the only option to make everything back to normal (p. 367).
Another form of filicide is when a parent disciplines a child for something that the child has done. This discipline can be for a number of reasons. The usual reason is the child was being annoying or disobedient. The discipline is generally to physically harsh which leads to the killing of the child. Men mostly commit this form of filicide to get the child to straighten up and then they take the discipline too far (p. 368).
Altruistic filicide is usually committed by the mother of the child. She feels that the killing is the best possible outcome for their child for a number of reasons. The most common reasons are the child either has a disease or the mother feels she has failed to give the child what they deserve. The mother kills the child with a disease or illness so that they will not have to suffer anymore or in the future with the disease or illness. When the mother kills her child, based on her own perceived shortcomings, she believes her child will have a terrible life instead of the life the child deserves. (p. 368). The mother is simply taking away any chance their child will have to suffer whether it is real suffering or a delusion the mother has.
To go along with altruistic filicide some parents, both men and women, are deemed as psychotic at the time they kill their child and see it as a necessity for their child. Sometimes the parent thinks that killing their child will save them from some sort of horrible fate (p. 368). The case of Andrea Yates is an excellent example of this form of filicide. Yates believed that by drowning her five children she was saving them from a lifetime of damnation due to her being an inadequate mother to them. She thought that her children were not developing properly and that Satan himself had something to do with it (McLellan, F., 2006, p. 1951).
Another rare form of filicide is death of a child caused by Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) is when a parent intentionally makes their child sick or takes their child to the doctor and tries to fake symptoms in their child to get treatment for some sort of disease or illness that is perceived to exist in their child (Bartol and Bartol, 2014, p. 270). This is a form of child abuse that goes too far and result in the death of a child. The child may be infected with a disease that ultimately kills them or the mother seeks unnecessary medication and treatments for her child that also might kill them. Mothers are more likely to commit this form of filicide.
Some child killings are the result of sexual or ritual abuse. When a child is sexually abused the parent may accidentally kill the child during the abuse or kill the child to prevent them from telling anyone about the sexual abuse. In ritual abuse killings, such as cult sacrifices, a child is killed in a ritualistic manner. The child becomes the sacrifice and is killed in a ritual for the cult (Wilczynski, 1995, p. 368). These forms of filicide are committed by either mother or father.
In a rarer form of filicide self-defense has been declared as the reason that a parent has killed their child. It is one of the hardest defenses to use in the parental killing of a child because a child is not as strong as a parent and has much less resources when it comes to self-defense against an adult (p. 369). The original intent of the parent is self-defense and nothing more. As the altercation continues the parent changes their intent on defending them self at all costs. They get caught in the moment of high emotional arousal and accidentally kill their child. If a child is truly aggressive and harming a parent then it might be ok to classify the killing as self-defense but whether the parent used adequate self-defense against a child is for the courts to decide. Because this is such a rare form of filicide it is not known if men or women commit this type of filicide more than the other (p. 369). Both men and women are susceptible to committing self-defense filicide but it would seem that men’s natural tendency towards aggressive behavior would make them better suited for this form.
A more common form of filicide today is where the parents have absolutely no intent to harm or kill their child. This form is much more common for families that are poorer and disadvantaged. Due to the nature and living conditions of these types of family situations basic necessities for survival, food and water, may not be readily available for a baby or child and thus causing them to die of neglect or maltreatment (p. 369).
There is also forms of filicide that we simply do not know what the motivation was or why the parent chose to kill their child. Whether due to an undiagnosed mental illness or other unforeseeable circumstances some parents commit filicide and keep the reasons and motives a secret to everyone else.
Throughout history filicide was thought to only be committed by the mother of the child. Historically, women have been the majority of people convicted of committing filicide but in more recent times men have been convicted too (Liem, M., Koenraadt. F., 2008, p. 167).
Unmarried, younger women tend to commit neonaticide, the killing of a child less than twenty four hours old by the mother. There are many reasons as to why they commit neonaticide but the main reasons seem to be that they did not want the baby in the first place (Bourget, D., Grace, J., Whitehurst, L. 2007, p. 76). They hid their pregnancy from everyone and want nothing to do with the baby. Mothers who are very young, such as highschool age, can be motivated by fear to commit neonaticide if they have no strong support system in their life, poor education, and live a poor lifestyle. Married women who have a high level of stress and no support are likely to commit infanticide, the killing of a child one year or younger, or filicide. Married women who commit filicide or a version of it tend to have some form of mental illness such as postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. These women usually kill older children when committing filicide (p. 76). Drugs, alcohol, and mental illness seems to be in the history of women with postpartum psychosis (p. 77).
Maternal Filicide and Mental Illness
When mothers commit filicide it is not uncommon for them to have been previously diagnosed with a mental illness. If they have not been previously diagnosed they most often are diagnosed with a mental illness after they commit filicide. The most common mental illnesses, as previously mentioned, are depression in the form of postpartum depression and psychotic behavior in the form of postpartum psychosis. In discussing mental illnesses associated with maternal filicide (Bourget, D., Grace, J., Whitehurst, L. 2007) state several other mental illnesses that could be prevalent with maternal filicide: schizophrenia, psychosis, psychotic disorder, paranoid disorder, major depression, major depression coupled with psychotic features, anti-personality disorder (p. 77). Mental illness seems to greatly influence maternal filicide by distorting the view the mother has on her child, life, and the world.
Filicide and the Law
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Wilczynski, A. (1995). Child Killing By Parents: A Motivation Model. Child Abuse Review. Issue: Special, P. 365.