Mothers Who Killed or Attempted to Kill Their Child: Life Circumstances, Childhood Abuse, and Types of Killing

By Haapasalo, Jaana; Petäjä, Sonja | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Mothers Who Killed or Attempted to Kill Their Child: Life Circumstances, Childhood Abuse, and Types of Killing


Haapasalo, Jaana, Petäjä, Sonja, Violence and Victims


The objectives of the present study were to examine the life circumstances, childhood abuse, and types of homicidal acts of 48 mothers who killed/attempted to kill their child(ren) under age 12 between 1970-96 in Finland. Data on the mothers' life stresses, psychological problems, and childhood abuse were collected from mental state examination (MSE) reports. The cases were divided into 15 neonaticides and 33 mothers who killed an older child. Childhood abuse was documented in 63% of the mothers' MSE reports. Qualitative analysis identified neonaticides, joint homicide-suicide attempts, impulsive aggression, psychotic acts, postpartum depression, and abusive acts. Nonlinear principal components analysis showed that different variables were related to the neonaticide and non-neonaticide cases. We concluded that despite differences in the psychosocial profiles of neonaticides and other maternal homicidal acts the cycle of violence perspective can be applied to both cases, even though it may not be a sufficient explanation for maternal child killings.

In the past decades, not only has homicide been one of the leading causes of death among children in the United States but the rates of child homicide have even been on the increase (Sorenson & Peterson, 1994). The child homicide rates are likely to vary to some extent across cultures. In Finland-where the present study was conducted-2% of all deaths of children under the age of 15 years resulted from homicide in 1995, and in 70%-80% of child homicides in recent years the perpetrator has been a family member (Statistics Finland, 1996). About 20 years earlier, comparable incidences of child homicide were found in the U.S. (3.8%; Christoffel, Anzinger, & Amari, 1983) and Sweden (1.5%; see Somander & Rammer, 1991). Moreover, neonaticides have not disappeared from modern society despite contraception, legal abortion, and improved living conditions. They still occur, which raises the issue of other than societal and cultural explanations. This leads to the question of what the psychological aspects of child killings might be.

Risk Factors of Parental Homicidal Behavior Against Children

Most studies of parental homicidal behavior toward children have targeted the prevalence of killings, methods of killing, and demographic characteristics of parents and their victims (Pitt & Bale, 1995). Yet a theoretical model of the psychological processes underlying parental homicidal acts against a child is lacking. Homicidal behavior toward a child includes both attempted and completed child killings. From a psychological viewpoint, there appears to be no compelling reason to treat them as separate phenomena. The psychological dynamics of killings and attempted killings are likely to be highly similar. Surviving or dying of a homicidal attack may depend on many fortuitous factors.

Studies suggest that children are most often killed during the first years of life, another statistical peak occurring in adolescence (e.g., Christoffel, 1984; Christoffel et al., 1983; Crittenden & Craig, 1990; Fornes, Druilhe, & Lecomte, 1995; Jason, 1983; Marks & Kumar, 1996). Some child deaths are preceded by prolonged child abuse and neglect (Copeland, 1985; Crittenden & Craig, 1990). In general, men kill children more often than women, but mothers are more frequently perpetrators than fathers during the child's first years of life (Fornes et al., 1995). This may ensue from the fact that mothers tend to spend more time with their infant children than fathers. In comparison to fathers, a mother is also more likely to treat a child as an extension or an inseparable part of herself, which may increase the risk for killing a child in a joint homicide-suicide (Myers, 1970). Crittenden and Craig (1990) studied 171 cases of children under 13 years killed in one county from 1956 to 1986 and found that mothers were perpetrators in 86% of neonatal deaths and in 39% of infant deaths.

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