Academic journal article South African Journal of Psychiatry

Case Series of Females Charged with Murder or Attempted Murder of Minors and Referred to Weskoppies Hospital in Terms of the Criminal Procedure Act over a Period of 21 Years

Academic journal article South African Journal of Psychiatry

Case Series of Females Charged with Murder or Attempted Murder of Minors and Referred to Weskoppies Hospital in Terms of the Criminal Procedure Act over a Period of 21 Years

Article excerpt

Background

It has been reported by Herjanic et al. (1) that female offenders suffering

from 'affective disorder and neuroses' [sic] were charged with more serious crimes compared to those with schizophrenia or a personality disorder. Herjanic reports findings by Resnick (2) who found a high incidence of depression among mothers who commit child homicide. Herjanic also reports findings by West (3) that maternal homicide of small children was the most common type of crime in depressed women. Depression with psychotic features is indicated to be associated with filicide most commonly. The onset of the symptoms is subtle and proceeds unnoticed until florid mood symptoms develop, usually accompanied by psychotic symptoms and utmost aggression. (1)

The Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ann Arbor, Michigan, studied a sample of 55 women who had murdered their children. (4) The Center reported that 29 women were psychotic and 26 were not. The psychotic subgroup was older; were more often married or had been married; had a high school or higher level of education; were unemployed; and were not first-time parents. About half of the sample were raised in single-parent families and had been sexually abused. Few of either the psychotic or non-psychotic subjects had a criminal history and none had a history of violent offences. (5) The most common diagnoses in the psychotic group were schizophrenia and depressive disorder with psychotic features. Personality disorders were also found in this subgroup. The psychotic women had a history of psychiatric hospitalisation and ongoing out-patient treatment. They were reported to have made suicide attempts and had previous homicidal ideation towards their children. (5) Psychotic women were more likely than non-psychotic women to kill multiple victims. They commonly voiced concerns about their children to family and their psychiatrist less than two weeks before the homicide. About one third of the sample reported severe conflict with their children's fathers before the crime. Many of the women had multiple, severe stressors. These included financial difficulties, housing problems, ongoing domestic violence, worsening mental illness, limited social support, conflict with family members other than sexual partners, and were primary caregivers for at least one young child. Filicidal mothers typically killed young children (75% of their victims were under six). Children under one were most often victims. Beating and suffocation were the most common methods used by women to kill their children. Multiple researchers have noted the prevalence of serious mental illness, particularly depression and psychosis, among filicidal mothers. This study was among the first involving a relatively large sample of filicidal mothers in the United States of America. (5)

A study by Putkonen et al. (6) in Finland suggested that neonaticide can be preventable and is more heterogeneous than previously thought. Their sample consisted of 32 women who had concealed their pregnancies prior to their crimes. Among the motives for the concealment of pregnancy were: fear of others' reactions; fear of abandonment; inability to rear the child; unwanted child; getting rid of baby without anyone's knowledge; and denial of pregnancy. Motives for the crime were: either unclear or not known; unwanted child; a "panic" situation; fear of abandonment; and inability to cope with the child. Of the 32 subjects, 26 committed the crime in their home, 16 of these in the bathroom. Suffocation was the most common active method followed by strangulation and drowning. (6)

A study carried out by Friedman in Ohio evaluated a large number of factors among 39 mothers who killed their children and were found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI). (7) The majority of these mothers were married, had a high school education, and some were unemployed primary caregivers in their late 20s. Just over half the children who survived a murder attempt were infants under one year old. …

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