Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Filicide motivation

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Filicide motivation:
What motivates a parent to kill his or her child?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Some of the saddest and most confusing news stories you ever hear are those involving the murder of a baby or child by their parent. The biggest question most people ask is "why?". This chapter will attempt to review the literature and explore what motivates filicide, some of the possible reasons why it happens and ways the incidences of it can be reduced.

‘Filicide is the killing of one or more children by a parent, stepparent, or other parental figure’ (Mariano, Chan, & Meyers, 2014). Filicide encompasses both neonaticide which is the killing of an infant in the first 24 hours of life and infanticide which is the murder of a child under twelve months old. Hatters Friedman, et. al., (2005) claimed that filicide was the third leading cause of death in the US for children between the ages of 5 and 14. Homicide is the leading cause of death of children under four. Some of the reasons and motivations behind filicide will be discussed further and explored in greater depth in this chapter.

The act of filicide is not a recent occurrence, in ancient Greek and Roman times a father was legally allowed to murder his own child (West, 2007). Even throughout the rise of Christianity and its increased regard for life, filicides continued and the reasons were usually due to gender, disability, unwanted child, illegitimacy and/or lack of resources[factual?]. Most filicides were overlooked until some time around the 16th and 17th centuries when France and England bought in laws that stated filicide was punishable by death and the perpetrator was guilty until proven innocent[factual?]. Female newborns were openly killed in China until the late 1800s (Koenen & Thompson, 2008). The English Infanticide Acts of 1922 and 1938 recognised the emotional, mental and practical effects of birthing and caring for an infant and outlawed the death penalty in those cases of infanticide. Most Western countries now have laws on filicide that are similar to those for manslaughter (West, 2007).

Figure 1: Age distribution of victims of filicide by gender of offender Source: data from the Australian Institute of Criminology (2003)

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) (2015), approximately 34 babies and children are the victims of filicide each year. This accounts for approximately 18% of homicides in Australia which were classified as filicide (including infanticide) with the majority of victims between the ages of one and nine years old. The AIC (2015) reported that almost 90% of all filicides were committed by one parent/guardian and in 17% of cases also involved the suicide of the parent.

There are significant differences in filicides committed by fathers and those committed by mothers. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (2003), fathers are more than twice as likely to commit infanticide as mothers, but both are more likely to kill their child in its first year of life than at any other time. Figure 1 shows the number of filicide victims from the ages of 1 to over 18 years old. It also shows the gender differences between offenders at each age.

There are many factors that influence parents to commit filicide. One major factor is mental illness, however, there are many other environmental factors that have been identified as having a role in filicide such as parental separation and a history of domestic violence (Brown, Tyson, & Fernandez Arias, 2014). Determining what the risk factors for filicide are would provide an important tool in developing a process for pinpointing those at risk.

Cultural differences and global filicide rates[edit | edit source]

Filicide rates around the world are relatively similar, especially in the developed nations. A study by Putkonen, Amon, Eronen, et. al., (2010) explored the effects of gender, history and mental illness on filicide motivation in a nationwide study of offenders in Austria and Finland. The findings showed that; Filicidal fathers were more than twice as likely to commit suicide at the scene than mothers and were 19.5 times more likely to be abusing or dependent on substances. Mothers were more than twice as likely to have a psychotic disorder (Putkonen et al., 2010).

Another such study was conducted on filicide and mental illness in mothers in Italy by McKee & Bramante, (2010). The study compared the demographics, histories, clinical and offence/forensic factors between mothers with and without mental illness. Those mothers with a mental illness were found to be more likely to be older, unemployed, married and more intelligent at the time of offence than those without a mental illness. They were also more likely to have a history of suicide attempts and have undergone psychiatric treatment in the past. Mothers without a mental illness were more likely to have given birth in a non-hospital setting and their victims were more likely to be younger than those of mothers with mental illness.

Filicide rates in the developing world have not seen much of an improvement over the last two centuries[factual?]. The rates of filicide in China have been continuing to increase and the “butchering, drowning, and leaving to die of female infants ... has become a grave social problem” (Koenen & Thompson, 2008, p. 63). This is mainly due to the cultural belief that females are a burden on the family and society as well as the limitations on how many children each family is allowed to have. The killing of female infants is considered no different to abortion in some parts of India (Koenen & Thompson, 2008).

Types of Filicide[edit | edit source]

Mental illness is known to be a big factor in filicide although it is also too simple to define and explain all reasons for filicide. Due to this many researchers have sought to categorise filicide in order to classify and explore each individually. There are two main schools of thought on filicide; that proposed by Resnick in the 1960’s which encompasses five main categories of filicide and the second which focuses more around the child as the victim and the circumstances of the child’s death (Sidebotham, 2013). Resnick’s model is very comprehensive and gives clear definitions of each type of filicide, it also shows specific motives and describes why each type of filicide occurs. The five factor model can be applied to both male and female perpetrators.

Resnick’s five factor model of filicide:

  1. Altruism – child was killed to prevent suffering. Usually caused by depression, anxiety, stress, mental disorders. Mother will claim the act was ‘out of love’ and was unselfish, she is still attempting to be a good mother but doesn’t know what to do.
  2. Psychosis – Parent who has lost touch with reality. Often see’s a ‘sign’ or omen that the child or children need to be killed.
  3. Fatal battering – accounts for the most deaths under the age of 1
  4. Unwanted child – the child is unwanted or the parent is not capable of looking after it or child may be preventing a more highly valued relationship
  5. Revenge – revenge against a spouse or partner based on some perceived wrong doing such as infidelity

The categories developed by Resnick (1969) give a basic framework for some of the main motivations for a parental figure killing their child. There are other motivations, however, which have been identified in later years which should also be included in this evaluation (Wilczynski, 1995). These factors are important to include as they offer insight into how many other motivations might actually play a role in filicide.

  1. Jealousy of or rejection by the victim
  2. Discipline (really a sub-category of fatal-battering)

Key Motivations and Other Factors[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

More on Altruism[edit | edit source]

Altruistic filicides are the most common type of filicide and also perhaps the most intriguing (West, 2007). Altruistic filicides are characterised by the parent murdering a child for ‘their own good’ or ‘out of love’. Parents who commit altruistic filicide commonly state ‘I did it for his/her own good’. The reasons vary from distorted to quite plausible and this type of case is very difficult to adjudicate. Parents who kill out of love truly believe they are doing what is in the best interests of the child and usually have absolutely no guilt or remorse for their actions.

A case of altruism
The Peninsula Hotel New York

One case published in the Daily Mail Australia (2012) (and many other newspapers) was that of Gigi Jordan, a multi-millionairre who was convicted of murdering her eight year old son Jude by administering him a cocktail of prescription drugs in a luxury hotel room. Jude had been diagnosed with autism and his mother claimed he suffered horribly at the hands of his ‘monstrous’ biological father who she claimed was sexually abusing Jude. The father, Emil Tzekov, gave up all custody of the boy in 2001 yet Gigi continually feared Jude would be taken from her. Friends of Gigi explained how she was tormented by Jude’s autism and had taken him to every specialist in the country and felt she had to somehow cure him. Emil was upset to discover Jude’s body lay unclaimed at the coroners office and stated "It's killing me just to know that he's alone in the morgue with nobody even to say, 'That's Jude.’” (The Daily Mail Australia, 2012). He made arrangements to bring Jude closer and claimed that Gigi was a good mother and that nobody would understand her like he did.

It is apparent that Gigi did care for her son and she felt she was doing the right thing for him at the time. She also attempted to kill herself at the scene which indicates that she was not killing him for selfish purposes. It appears Jude’s autism completely confounded her and she could not understand how all the money and medical experts in the country could not do anything for him. Gigi’s friends and family said she had withdrawn over the last two years which indicate very little support for her and Jude.

What about mental health?[edit | edit source]

Psychosis is a major factor in filicide motivation. The reasons for this range from simple, such as depression to complex, such as religion, belief, ‘omens’ etc. Combined filicide-suicide events are most often the product of psychosis and are committed by twice as many men as women (Hatters Friedman, et. al., 2005). The traditional risk factors for violence seem to be unrelated to filicide-suicides and so a new paradigm must be created.

Putkonen, et al., (2010) found that approximately 21% of parents who committed filicide had at least one parent with a mental health or substance abuse disorder and/or a criminal record. Depressive symptoms were found to be most common and almost 50% of parents contacted professionals for mental health issues. This indicates that the mental health of the parents, both male and female, could be a significant predictor of filicide. Depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts and general psychosis were the strongest predictors of filicide for mothers Friedman, et. al., (2005).

Fatal battering and desperation[edit | edit source]

In the case of fatal battering of a child (including accidental filicide by maltreatment) , several significant contributing factors have been identified. These are desperation, isolation, a history of substance abuse, domestic violence and low social support (Friedman, et. al., 2005). Desperation can be caused by isolation and lack of support and in some cases the death of the child was not intended, for example, where the child was shaken or dropped. Both intended and accidental filicide are products of the same motivating factors which trigger the violent action/reaction (West, 2007).

The unwanted child[edit | edit source]

The filicide category of the unwanted child is one of the hardest to understand. It encompasses all filicides committed to an infant or child who was unwanted and also those murdered for parental gain. This type of filicide difficult to fathom and raises feelings of disgust and intense horror in most people Neonaticide is often the most common form of unwanted child murder and accounts for the majority of deaths (Brown, Tyson, & Fernandez Arias, 2014).

In certain cultures, the arrival of a baby girl can be viewed as a curse (ABC Australia, 1997). This is because girls are seen to be expensive to raise and do not provide many assets to the family (ABC Australia, 1997). It is a common practice to raise daughters to marry into another family and provide care and contribution to their fortune (Sharma, 2007). As a result, the family of the female does not benefit until a dowry is paid in exchange for their child’s hand in marriage. (ABC Australia, 1997) This can often be little to no value, which is not seen a positive investment. This biased and objectifying nature towards females has resulted in the common phenomena of child killings (Sharma, 2007). Thus, females are more likely to become the unwanted child whose life is valueless.

A closer look at revenge[edit | edit source]

Revenge killing occurs when anger or resentment towards a partner is projected onto the child and is also called retaliation killing (Wilczynski, 1995). This type of filicide is the least common and is more frequently committed by men than women[factual?]. It is most often the result of severe marital conflict and domestic violence. It is often an extreme exertion of power routed in jealousy and sexual possessiveness for men. Women who commit revenge filicide tend to be more frustrated about their sole care of the child and domestic duties.

A Case of Revenge
Yazmina Acar. Source: Sydney Morning Herald (Remeikis, 2012)

An example of a revenge killing was that as published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Remeikis , 2012). A father, Ramazan Acar, posted a message on Facebook that he was going to kill his daughter Yazmina. He knew Facebook was a place where his ex-partner of eight years, Rachelle, would see the message. In later phone conversations with Rachelle she begged him to return Yazmina to her and Ramazan asked her if she had any last words for her daughter. Yazmina told Rachelle she loved her and Rachelle cried and told Yazmina she loved her too before Ramazan hung up. Ramazan called back some time later saying “I killed her to get back at you. I don't care. Even if I go behind bars, I know that you are suffering.” (Remeikis , 2012). Yazmina was later found dead with multiple stab wounds and Ramazan Acar was charged and sentenced to life in prison. While this is an extreme example is shows just how real revenge is as a motivation to kill.

Neonaticide and infanticide[edit | edit source]

Neonaticide is the killing of an infant by a parental figure in the first 24 hours of life, whereas infanticide is the killing of an infant in the first year of life. These crimes are shocking and horrendous but there are many factors, both environmental and psychological that affect this type of homicide. Babies less than 12 months old are more likely to be killed by fatal battering than older children; one reason for this is ‘the unwanted child’ factor. Babies who are born to mothers or fathers who did not want to have a child are at high risk of neonaticide or infanticide. The stress of a newborn can completely overwhelm parents and in some cases a parent kills a baby accidentally or in sheer desperation. Another cause of death by parent in this age group is negligence. Babies require a high standard of care 24 hours a day seven days a week. Parents who cannot cope with the intensity of a new baby may neglect to attend to the baby’s basic needs; both psychological and relationship factors play a role here (Harris & Rice, 2012).

Mothers are much more likely than fathers to commit neonaticide and this is due to a few factors. The first is that the mother may have been a victim of rape and the child was unwanted. Other reasons could be that the mother was unprepared for the birth of a child, she was forced into keeping the child, or the child was otherwise unwanted. The most common methods of maternal neonaticide or infanticide were suffocation or fatal battering and just over half of infanticide cases were precipitated by the infant crying (Mariano, Chan, & Meyers, 2014).

Relevant Psychological Theory[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Evolutionary Theory[edit | edit source]

The first theory that comes to mind when contemplating how the field of psychology might explain filicide is evolutionary psychology (Harris & Rice, 2012). The world around us is full of the result of millions of years of evolution and it can be seen that many animals kill their own young. Some reasons for this may be that there are too many other babies to feed or the parents reject the young for one reason or another. These aspects are part of evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest.

Harris and Rice (2012) outlined how selectionist thinking could help explain child abuse and maltreatment. They described how behaviours seen as deviant, disturbed and self-destructive could be explained and understood as adaptive or at least as a side effect of adaptation. The authors hypothesized that gaining an evolutionary understanding could also assist in recognizing the risk factors for filicide and child maltreatment and addressing them before they become a problem.

Life History Theory is the theory that outlines the trade-offs organisms make in order to balance the allocation of energy between functions such as reproduction, parental care, longevity and development (Harris & Rice, 2012). It is thought that these allocations rely on both environmental and internal factors and circumstances. This theory helps to explain why animals and humans attack or kill their own young and may only kill one or two and keep one or two. They may feel they only have the energy and resources to nourish and raise a few of their offspring, perhaps this could also be linked to the ‘unwanted child’ category of Resnick’s (1969) five factor paradigm.

Drive Theory[edit | edit source]

The drive theory of motivation was first developed as part of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Drive theory is one of the most controversial and widely disputed theories although it does raise some important points that are relevant to filicide. The basis of drive theory is that people take certain actions based upon tension caused by their unmet internal needs (Yahalom, 2014). It therefore stands to reason that drive theory could help explain some aspects of filicide such as the categories of unwanted child and fatal battering. An internal unmet need such as a need for time away from the child or a need to maintain a relationship other than that with the child or a fear of rejection by the child could all be partially explained by drive theory (Yahalom, 2014).

Humanistic Theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The humanistic perspective was first proposed by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers and focuses on each individuals drive towards self-actualisation. Maslow developed the theory of motivation and is extremely widely known for his hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1968). This theory divides human needs into several categories, the most basic levels of the hierarchy pertaining to food, shelter and sex must be satisfied before moving on to the higher levels.

The humanistic approach could help increase the understanding of filicide. It could be hypothesised that if the most basic needs of the individual are not met, or not perceived to be met they may take drastic measures to restore or fulfill their own needs (Maslow, 1968). In cases where filicide is committed due to an unwanted child or where the child is jeopardising a more highly valued relationship the parent could be attempting to restore that relationship. On Maslow’s hierarchy this could pertain to the level of ‘love and belonging’ (see Figure 2).

In the case of altruistic filicide it is possible that the ‘safety and security’ level of Maslow’s hierarchy has not been met (Maslow, 1968). For example, in the case of the millionaire mother Gigi murdering her son Jude, she was said to have felt as if Jude was going to be taken from her and that she felt that due to being unable to cure Jude’s autism, she was unable to keep him safe. She also stated how she killed Jude to keep him away from his biological father who she accused of sexually abusing Jude. Maslow explained how the individual must satisfy the lower levels of the hierarchy before moving on to the higher levels. Gigi felt unstable, insecure and unable to care for Jude in the way she wanted to and this could have easily prevented her from moving on to the higher level of love, belonging, satisfaction and so on (Maslow, 1968). This is just one example of how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs could help define some forms of filicide.

A summary of risk factors[edit | edit source]

It is important to understand the risk factors for filicide in order to identify potential offenders and victims. In order to develop systems that can help identify those at risk it is first important to fully understand the motivations behind filicide. Resnick’s (1969) five factor model and others that have been developed give a basic framework of motivations which allow us to determine some of the basic risk factors. The main risk factors for both paternal and maternal filicide as outlined by Friedman, et. al., (2005) are; marital status, depression, previous suicide attempts, employment status, a history of domestic violence and substance abuse; and perceived lack of social support. Other risk factors have been outlined by Koenen and Thompson (2008) which include poverty, childhood trauma, limited education, age, poor attachment and post-natal depression.

Management strategies[edit | edit source]

Despite the common idea that filicide is not understandable or preventable there are ways that have been found to be helpful in the knowledge and reduction of such crimes. Koenen and Thompson (2008) conducted a review of filicide and the current knowledge around risk factors and prevention methods. Filicide rates have declined significantly over the last two centuries as the result of better contraception, obstetric care, better mental health diagnosis and treatment and a wider acceptance of single mothers. Cultural beliefs in developing nations do seem to have an effect on filicide rates and addressing these beliefs could help reduce filicide in those countries (Sidebotham, 2013).

It is imperative that the risk factors described earlier in the chapter are used to determine if parents are at risk of committing filicide and intervening before it happens. In the majority of cases treatment of mental health, increased support and increased education are all ways of reducing the prevalence of filicide. One other way is to introduce a system of anonymous childbirth or instant adoption like that used in France. This type of system allows mothers to enter any public hospital without identifying themselves, give birth and then legally abandon their baby who becomes a ward of the state and is then adopted out. Fast action by child protection agencies is also a key factor in reducing filicide rates (Koenen & Thompson, 2008).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Many aspects of filicide have been discussed in this chapter. Focusing mainly on the five factor

Newborn baby

motivational model created by Resnick (1969) the main types of and motivations for filicide were identified and explored. The five factors of filicide motivation are: altruism, psychosis, fatal battering, unwanted child and revenge. Each of these categories was then expanded upon and the main risk factors for filicide were identified. These are; poverty, education, marital status, parental relationship, history of substance abuse and/or domestic violence, age, attachment, social support, mental health problems/psychosis, depression, a history of depression and suicide attempts. Each of these risk factors provides an opportunity to reduce the prevalence of filicide and change the future.

Creating better post-natal educational programs and support networks is one area that could greatly improve. Providing better mental health care and recognising the signs and symptoms that prelude filicide can help reduce its prevalence. Human culture has a long way to go before changes in filicide rates will be seen but it is possible to make a difference in this area. Saving children and giving families the best chance of living happy and cohesive lives should be the ultimate goal.

See also[edit | edit source]

Infanticide Motivation

Illegitimate Children and Emotion

Leaving Violent Relationship Motivation for Women

Revenge Motivation

Murder motivation

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Institute of Criminology. (2003, June). Family Homicide in Australia. Retrieved October 21, 2015, from Australian Institute of Criminology:

Australian Institute of Criminology. (2015, April 24). Homicide in Australia 2010 to 2012. Retrieved from Australian Institute of Criminology:

Brown, T., Tyson, D., & Fernandez Arias, P. (2014). Filicide and parental separation and divorce. Child Abuse Review, 23, 79–88. doi:10.1002/car.2327

Friedman, S. H., Hrouda, D. R., Holden, C. E., Noffsinger, S. G., & Resnick, P. J. (2005). Filicide-suicide: common factors in parents who kill their children and themselves. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33(4), 496-504. Retrieved October 10, 2015

Harris, G. T., & Rice, M. E. (2012). Filicide and child maltreatment: Prospects for ultimate explanation. In T. K. Shackelford, & V. A. Weekes-Shackelford, The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War (pp. 91-105;). New York: Oxford University Press.

Mariano, T. Y., Chan, H., & Meyers, W. C. (2014). Toward a more holistic understanding of filicide: A multidisciplinary analysis of 32 years of U.S. arrest data. Forensic Science Interrnational, 236, 46-53. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2013.12.019

Maslow, A. (1968). Toward a Psychology of Being (2nd ed.). Oxford, England: D. Van Nostrand. doi:10.1037/10793-000

McKee, G. R., & Bramante, A. (2010). Maternal filicide and mental illness in Italy: A comparative study. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 38(3), 271-282. doi:10.1177/009318531003800303

Putkonen, H., Amon, S., Eronen, M., Klier, C. M., Almiron, M. P., Cederwall, J. Y., & Weizmann-Henelius, G. (2010). Child murder and gender differences – A nationwide register based study of filicide offenders in two European countries. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(5), 637–648. doi:10.1080/14789941003721050

Remeikis , A. (2012, February 24). Seeking to understand the inexplicable. Retrieved from Sydney Morning Herald:

Resnick, P. J. (1969). Child murder by parents: A psychiatric review of filicide. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 126(3), 325-334. Retrieved October 15, 2015

Sidebotham, P. (2013). Rethinking Filicide. Child Abuse Review, 22(5), 305-310. doi:10.1002/car.2303

The Daily Mail Australia. (2012, August 20). I saved him from a 'life of horror': Millionaire mother claims she killed her autistic son to protect him from 'sexual abuse at the hands of his monstrous father'. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from The Daily Mail Australia:

West, S. G. (2007). An Overview of Filicide. Psychiatry, 4(2), 48–57. Retrieved September 27, 2015

Wilczynski, A. (1995). Child killing by parents: a motivational model. Child Abuse Review, 4, 365-370. Retrieved October 10, 2015

Yahalom, J. (2014). Freud and Epicurean philosophy: Revisiting drive theory. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 50(3), 395-417. doi:10.1080/00107530.2014.922859

External links[edit | edit source]

Psychiatry online, An overview of filicide