Filicide is the act of intentionally killing one’s own son or daughter. Although filicide can refer to the killing of adult offspring, most filicides are murders of children, and, in most cultures, filicide is the most common variety of murder of children under the age of fourteen. In the United States, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice Statistics reports that between 1976 and 2002, 61 percent of children who died as a result of homicide were killed by their fathers (31 percent) or mothers (30 percent). An additional 6 percent were killed by other relatives, and 23 percent were killed by other people, mostly substitute caregivers, often acting in the capacity of parents at the time of the homicide.
II. Historical and Cultural Context
III. Motivational Factors
IV. Cases and Outcomes
This research paper addresses filicide as it affects children with disabilities. It addresses both unambiguous acts of intentional homicide and also more ambiguous acts and omissions resulting in death, such as the withholding of medical treatment or necessities of life, of which others are culpable with the knowledge and consent of parents. No data are available to establish a precise estimate of the relative risk of filicide for children with disabilities compared with the risk for other children. However, the available evidence suggests that the risk of death by filicide is higher, probably three to six times as high, for a child with a disability as for a child without a disability.
This evidence comes from a variety of sources. A large number of studies have been conducted comparing the risk of child maltreatment for children with and without disabilities. These studies generally have concluded that children with disabilities are more than three times as likely to experience child abuse as other children. However, applying this same figure to child homicides would require an assumption that the probability of maltreatment resulting in death is similar for children with and without disabilities. De Haan’s (1997) study of fatal and potentially fatal child maltreatment, however, suggests that children with disabilities may be much more likely to die as a result of maltreatment than other children who experience maltreatment. Although many children experienced abuse categorized as severe, forty of forty-two children (95 percent) who actually died as a result of maltreatment had previously diagnosed disabilities or related conditions. Since children with diagnosed disabilities or related condition comprise only 10 to 15 percent of the general population, this suggests that they may be overrepresented among filicides by a factor of about six times. In addition, thousands of other children with disabilities die each year as a result of withholding or withdrawing medical treatment or other necessities of life, and few, if any, of these cases are included among child abuse or child homicide data.
Lucardie’s (2003) content analysis of news media accounts of 1,967 homicide victims with developmental disabilities found that family members were implicated in 48 percent of all cases. Lucardie points out that the nature of this sample makes a direct comparison with similar statistics from the general population imprecise, but as a rough comparison, this suggests that homicide victims with disabilities are about 60 percent more likely to be killed by members of their own family than other homicide victims. Approximately 88 percent of the implicated family members were parents, while the remaining 12 percent were siblings (8 percent) or extended family members (4 percent). This suggests that about 42 percent of all homicides of people with developmental disabilities of all ages are filicides. When the same analysis was restricted to children fourteen and younger, 70 percent of all homicides were filicides. Restricting the data further to homicide victims age five and younger, 75 percent were filicides, suggesting that filicides make up a larger proportion of homicides among children with disabilities than among other children by about 20 percent.
While the nature of the data upon which these estimates are based requires great caution in their interpretation and more research is required to establish better estimates, these data strongly suggest that filicide is at least three times and probably four to six times more common among children with disabilities than among other children. However, if the deliberate withdrawal or withholding of medical care and necessities of life were to be included in these figures, the relative risk would be much higher. Technically, parents who withhold medical treatment or necessities of life, thereby causing their children’s death, have committed filicide whether or not the death occurs under medical supervision. However, most people view many of these cases as substantially different from typical child abuse and neglect deaths. For example, some people argue that when imminent death is inevitable with or without treatment, withholding medical treatment should not be viewed as ‘‘causing death.’’ However, in many cases, imminent death is not inevitable, and the decision to end the child’s life is based solely on the belief that the nature and extent of the child’s disability makes death preferable to continued life. A classic study by Wall and Partridge (1997) made this distinction very clearly through the analysis of infant deaths in the pediatric intensive care unit of one American hospital. They found that 27 percent of all of these deaths occurred despite every effort being made to avert them, while 73 percent were the result of withholding or withdrawing treatment. While most of the decisions to withhold or withdraw care were based, at least in part, on the belief that death was unavoidable, 17 percent of babies who died of all causes died solely because a decision was made that their lives were not worth living, even though they were expected to survive if treated. This study did not address the nature or severity of disabilities among the children whose deaths were the result of decisions of parents and physicians. However, other studies have found that children selected to die include both those who would be expected to have relatively mild disabilities if allowed to survive and those who would be expected to have very severe disabilities. In addition, this study does not address the parents’ roles as the decision makers who determine whether the child lives or dies, but medical ethics dictate that parents act as primary decision makers. Whether or not these deaths are viewed as socially acceptable or not, they clearly fall within the definition for filicide when they occur with the parents’ knowledge and consent.
Historical and Cultural Context
Throughout history and across cultures, the killing of children with disabilities has been a recurrent phenomenon. In Korbin’s 1987 study of the cultural context of child abuse and neglect, she described a list of reasons that legitimized filicide (the killing of children by their parents) in various cultures. For example, some cultures allow the killing of children born out of wedlock, children born as a result of rape, products of adulterous relations, or twins. Birth defects and disabilities were the most widely accepted reasons for killing one’s own child.
While some cultures have required parents to kill children viewed as defective, others simply allowed it. The ancient Greek cities of Sparta and Athens typified this contrast. Sparta required parents to dispose of ‘‘defective’’ babies by casting them from Mount Taygetus. Their Athenian contemporaries, known for being less militaristic and authoritarian, allowed parents to place unwanted babies in urns outside the temple, where they could be taken home by anyone who wanted them. However, since potential parents typically rejected any baby with a perceptible imperfection, the result was often death for children with obvious disabilities.
Medieval changeling legends portrayed children with disabilities as the inhuman offspring of leprechauns or other mythical beings who replaced the parents’ real human children. Parents were encouraged to drown them or throw changelings in the fire. These pagan myths were later incorporated into Christian versions. In the new versions, it was often the devil who replaced human children with his own, or, in a variation on this theme, children with disabilities were believed to be the result of an illicit union between the child’s mother and the devil. Thus, the mother who refused to eliminate her child was sometimes eliminated along with the child.
Martin Luther in his Table Talks described his personal experience with a changeling, recommending that the parents drown their child, and when this recommendation was turned down, praying for the child’s death. Luther’s pronouncement that there is no sin in killing such a child, since it lacks a soul, provided a convenient rationale for killing children with disabilities. While his intentions were unclear in making this pronouncement, it continued to be a rationale for viewing children with disabilities as what he called a subhuman massa carnis (lump of flesh), unworthy of human rights, including the right to live.
With the coming of the scientific age, in which science replaced religion as the dominant paradigm for understanding the universe, religious rationales for eliminating children with disabilities were replaced with ones that claimed a scientific basis. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the eugenics movement claimed to present a scientific rationale for eliminating people with disabilities through a variety of methods, including euthanasia of children with significant disabilities. As late as 1941, C. B. Farrar, editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, published an editorial calling for the killing of children with severe disabilities when they reached the age of five. Farrar suggested that parental attachment to these children was the primary obstacle preventing adoption of a public policy that mandated these killings and that medical professionals must act to eliminate parental attachment to children with disabilities, which he described as a form of mental illness. The Nazi government in Germany had adopted a similar policy about two years earlier. What began with the government-endorsed mercy killing of one child with a severe disability at the request of his father in 1939 led to the mass execution of about 275,000 people with disabilities in Germany before the end of World War II, including thousands of children. Although many parents knew and some approved of these deaths, most thought that their children were only institutionalized and were subsequently told that they had died of natural causes. The skills, equipment, and personnel developed in these euthanasia programs were later redeployed to kill other victims of the Holocaust. For example, mobile gas vans, gas chambers disguised as shower rooms, and massive crematoria were all developed and used against children and adults with disabilities before being used against political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities.
After the euthanasia of children with disabilities was condemned as a crime against humanity in the wake of World War II, the eugenics movement lost much of its support and momentum. However, the emerging discipline of bioethics provided new rationales for the elimination of these children. There have been several primary bioethical arguments in favor of killing children with disabilities.
First, the quality of life argument suggests that children with disabilities are doomed to suffer with no potential for enjoyment of life, and therefore parents act in the children’s best interests by ending their lives. Second, the personhood argument says that children must meet some criteria (e.g., minimum intelligence or communication abilities) before they can be considered to be human or to be persons with a right to protection of their lives. The taking of the life of a ‘‘nonperson’’ is therefore not an immoral act, since the life taken has no moral standing. Third, the replaceability argument suggests that even if it is possible for a child with a disability to enjoy life, he or she cannot be expected to do so as much as a child without a disability. Since families have limits to their size, these bioethicists suggest that eliminating the child with a disability can make room for another child with greater potential for a good life. Finally, the burden argument says that even if the child with a disability can be provided with a good life, the actions necessary to achieve this outcome for the child places an unfair burden on parents, siblings, and society as a whole. Therefore, families should have the right to eliminate this burden if they so choose.
Of course, there are many counterarguments to all of these, but one set of counterarguments frequently raised focuses on the unique status accorded disability in the bioethical rationales. For example, all children place demands on their families, and parents of children with or without disabilities may view these demands as burdensome. Yet, society does not generally accept the burden of child care as a rationale for filicides of children without disabilities. Similarly, many children with and without disabilities experience circumstances that threaten their quality of life. Children born in poverty, children who witness domestic violence, children who are abused, and children with disabilities all have disadvantages to overcome. If society views filicide as a compassionate response to one of these circumstances, why is filicide not an appropriate response to all of them?
While prosecutors and detective novels typically present solitary motivations as the sole reasons for crimes, filicides and other crimes that occur within families are typically the product of complex and interacting motivational factors. These factors fall into two major categories. First, there are instrumental factors, which can be understood in terms of desired outcomes for the perpetrator. Second, there are disinhibiting factors, which can be understood in terms of reducing the normal impediments to the commission of an antisocial act. Instrumental factors may include such things as reduced caregiving demands, gaining greater control over one’s own life, or financial gain. Disinhibiting factors include rationalizations that justify filicide, the effects of alcohol or other disinhibiting drugs, depression, or anger. Parents who kill their children may be more significantly different from parents who do not kill their children in regard to disinhibiting factors than instrumental motivations.
Research on the motivations of parents who kill their children (with or without disabilities) suggests that about 50 percent of all cases are altruistic filicides—i.e., they are committed by the parents in the belief that they are acting in their children’s best interests. These cases include so-called mercy killings of children with disabilities, but also a wide variety of other cases. Parents may believe that they are protecting their child from abuse by an estranged spouse or even from their own dysfunctional behavior. They may believe that killing their children is the only way to ‘‘save’’ them from eventually engaging in immoral behavior, having impure thoughts, or leading lives of suffering. The suicidal parent often comes to believe that his or her child is better off dead than surviving the parent’s suicide. Thus, altruistic filicides are characterized by the construction of a rationalization in which killing the child can be viewed as an act of morality and love, rather than selfishness and violence.
These ‘‘altruistic’’ motivations are often combined with other potential motivations and function psychologically as disinhibiting factors that allow the parent to overcome natural reluctance to harm the child. For example, the parent of a child with multiple disabilities may find the caregiving demands overwhelming but is inhibited from eliminating the child through homicide. If, however, the parent comes to believe that the child’s quality of life is so poor that death would be a kindness, killing the child becomes justified or even heroic in the parent’s mind.
It is important to recognize that research repeatedly demonstrates that people with disabilities as a group do not rate their quality of life as significantly different from that of people without disabilities. While it is unquestionably true that some people with disabilities and chronic illnesses think that their lives are not worth living and want to die, it is equally true that a similar proportion of people who do not have disabilities or chronic illnesses feel the same way about their lives. Therefore, a parent’s belief that the quality of life of a child with a disability justifies ending the child’s life is always a reflection of the value that the parent places on the child’s life and not the value that the child places on his or her own life.
Attitudes and beliefs that are common in a society or culture may support or conflict with the construction of such parental rationalizations. In one high-profile case, a parent indicated that she killed her children to spare them from suffering through their parents’ divorce and her own intended suicide. In another, a mother indicated that she killed her children to spare them the difficulties that they would suffer growing up with a mentally ill mother. In a third high-profile case, a father indicated that he killed his daughter to end her suffering associated with having severe and multiple disabilities. The media and general public overwhelmingly attacked the first two parents as lying about their motivation or being out of touch with reality, while the third was enthusiastically supported as having taken heroic action. Research demonstrates that parental divorce, having a mother with a major mental health problem, and having a disability all pose real challenges for children, but society condemns the first two rationales for filicide while responding to the third with considerable sympathy and support. In this way, the social condemnation of some filicides and the social endorsement of others selectively encourages parents of children with disabilities to carry out filicides. In some cases, the children killed in so-called mercy killings had very severe disabilities, but in others the disabilities were very mild but were exaggerated in the parent’s mind.
Displaced anger is another common motivational factor for filicide. The filicidal parent who acts from displaced anger often explicitly or implicitly sends a message of ‘‘look what you made me do’’ to the actual source of his or her anger. The filicide of a child by one parent as a means of hurting the other parent is not uncommon, in cases involving children with or without disabilities, and is particularly likely to occur when the source of the parent’s anger is unavailable or viewed as too powerful to attack directly. A father who was enraged at his wife fatally stabbed his daughter, who had severe and multiple disabilities, after his wife had left the house to escape his rage. A mother who was struggling to manage the behavior of a preschooler with a severe behavior disorder beat him to death while her husband was away for a weekend golf trip. In some cases, the violence directed toward the child may stem from displaced anger toward nonparents— in the case of children with disabilities, these may be professionals and caseworkers in health care, education, or social service or even society in general. In this case, the act may communicate ‘‘I killed my child because you did not provide the support that I needed to be a better parent.’’ A father, angry when doctors refused to provide the treatment he felt was necessary for his child, threw the child from a sixth-floor hospital window. A mother who was angry and depressed after being told that a government agency would not provide more funding for her son’s program, killed her son and herself with motor vehicle exhaust. Filicides that are motivated by displaced anger are particularly likely to be accompanied by suicide, for which displaced anger is often a motivational factor.
The elimination of an unwanted child is a common motivational factor in filicides, particularly in the killing of neonates with or without disabilities. However, this motivational factor is often present in filicides of children of all ages, and appears to be particularly relevant to older children with disabilities, while it becomes less common with age for children without disabilities.
Fatal child abuse and extreme forms of punishment also apply to children with and without disabilities. Because children with disabilities often are more dependent at later ages and may have more difficulties with developmental challenges such as toilet training, this motivation appears to be particularly relevant to this group. Children with intellectual or behavioral disabilities may be particularly vulnerable because they have difficulty learning how to avoid the rage of an irrational parent.
Parents of children with disabilities have also committed filicide to prevent detection of other crimes, typically abuse or neglect. These children are particularly likely to be reported as missing or to die in ways that have the potential to conceal evidence (e.g., fire).
Financial gain is an uncommon motivation in filicides, but it has occasionally been a prominent motivation in the filicides of children with disabilities. This may be a particular concern when infants and children who sustain serious lifelong disabilities as a result of medical negligence or motor vehicle accidents receive large settlements to compensate for a lifetime of care. Eliminating the child frees the settlement money to be used for other purposes. After a divorce, the noncustodial parent, who may be expected to contribute a large amount to support a child with a disability, may be particularly likely to be motivated by financial circumstances.
Finally, many filicidal parents are motivated by their need to feel like they are in control of their own life circumstances. This motivational factor is very common in so-called mercy killings, but also is a significant factor in many other varieties of filicide. Parents of children with disabilities may be particularly challenged by feelings that their lives are out of control. They may face uncertainty about their children’s health and future or feel that life is a chaotic series of crises. They may feel frustrated by their inability to meaningfully improve the quality of their children’s lives, and threatened by the specter of impending death. Paradoxically, killing the child appears to bring these challenges under control for some parents. Like falling on one’s own sword to thwart the enemy or quitting one’s job in order to avoid being fired, killing the child creates the illusion that the parent is in control of the situation.
Cases and Outcomes
Most filicides of children with disabilities often receive minimal attention from the public or news media. A few cases emerge periodically and become prominent locally, nationally, or even internationally. Cases that receive greater attention appear to fit a few specific patterns. First, some cases receive attention because they involve extreme violence against a particularly vulnerable child. For example, in 1996, the common-law stepfather of Matthew Brent Richmond immersed him in scalding water to punish the twelve-year-old, who had developmental disabilities, for a toileting accident; the case received widespread press coverage and led directly to changes in Ohio law expanding the death penalty to murders of children.
Second, cases in which the defense suggests that the parent had diminished responsibility due to the extreme stress associated with raising a child with a disability may receive substantial widespread public attention if the prosecution argues against this defense. This was the major defense offered by the mother of Casey Janine Albury who strangled her autistic seventeen-year-old daughter in New Zealand in 1997. The mother had tried unsuccessfully to push her daughter off a bridge before strangling her. Widespread public opinion, however, portrayed the mother as victim because she had had to care for a difficult child. The mother was sentenced to only four years in prison but appealed the sentence as being too harsh; she eventually served only four months in jail.
Third, cases involving parents who have claimed that they killed their children to free them from suffering resulting from or associated with their disabilities have received considerable public attention. In many cases, the distinction between these mercy-killing defenses and the previous category of diminished responsibility is unclear, because both claims are made. In many cases, the parent initially claims that the motivation was rational compassion but later acknowledges that his or her judgment had been impaired by stress or depression. In a few cases, the parent presents a defense based solely on the argument that killing the child was right or necessary for the good of the child. In 1993, twelve-year-old Tracy Latimer was killed in Saskatchewan by her father, who argued that killing her was necessary to prevent her from further suffering. Repeated trials and appeals followed over the next six years. Eventually, her father was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence without a chance of parole for ten years. More than 2,000 newspaper articles were published about this case during these trials and appeals. Although the original charge of first-degree murder was downgraded to second-degree murder, of which Robert Latimer was convicted and given the lightest sentence possible under the law, polls overwhelmingly indicated that the public believed that even the minimum penalty was too harsh.
Finally, cases that involve children initially reported as missing often receive considerable public attention. In 1984, the father of Louise Brown reported that the family car had been stolen with his infant daughter, who had Down syndrome, in the car. The media and the public responded with a flurry of activity in a desperate search to find the missing baby. Eventually, it became apparent that her father had killed Louise Brown and the father’s brother had helped dispose of the body. The defense focused on diminished responsibility of a remorseful father, and the court was sympathetic. The judge pointed out that the father had acted under extreme stress in the extraordinary circumstances of adjusting to his daughter’s disability and was no threat to society. The father was portrayed as victim, as a loving father whose emotions had gotten the better of him under difficult circumstances. He was sentenced to five years for manslaughter and perverting the course of justice. He was released after serving less than two years. The case returned to the headlines in the 1990s, when Louise Brown’s father killed his brother by stabbing him sixty-three times. This time, Brown’s defense portrayed him as a loving brother whose emotions had gotten the better of him under difficult circumstances when his brother attacked him for swearing in front of his children. The court, the media, and the public were less sympathetic with these arguments of diminished responsibility of a remorseful brother, and Paul Brown was sentenced to life in prison.
Filicide, the act of a parent killing his or her own offspring, is the most common form of child homicide. Children with disabilities appear to be at least several times more likely to die as a result of filicide, but no precise estimate of their relative risk is available. Many interacting motivational factors appear to play a role in filicides of children with disabilities. Most instrumental motivations are similar to the motivations that lead to filicides of children without disabilities but may be intensified by the disability. For example, many filicidal parents of children with or without disabilities kill their children to escape from the responsibilities of caregiving. This motivation may be more intense and more enduring, however, in the case of a parent of a child with a disability, because the child requires much more care at perhaps high levels for many more years than a child without a disability. Disinhibiting factors may be much stronger for parents of children with disabilities because society encourages beliefs that support rationalizations for killing such children.
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