Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Women Who Kill Their Children

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Women Who Kill Their Children

Article excerpt

Women rarely kill. In Canada, when they do, they most often kill their spouse or lover. The second most frequent target for women killers is other family members, including their children (Silverman & Kennedy, 1987).1 Recent research has focused on the female homicide rate as a component of all homicide (Block, 1985; Browne & Flewelling, 1986; Browne & Williams, 1987; Gillis, 1986; Riedel, 1987; Silverman & Kennedy, 1987; Ward et al., 1969). Meanwhile, a growing literature has turned attention to the circumstances surrounding spousal homicide, with special emphasis placed on the battered woman who strikes out and kills her spouse or spouse surrogate (see, for instance, Barnard et al., 1982; Browne, 1986, 1987; Fiora-Gormally, 1978). Much of the literature on spouse killing is either anecdotal, clinical, or case study, and some is highly ideological (see, for instance, Benedek, 1982; Browne & Palmer, 1975; Chesney-Lind, 1986; Edwards, 1985; Jones, 1980; Star, 1982). In contrast, the cases in which women kill children have received much less attention in the research literature. In what ways these homicides are distinctive from spousal homicides, specifically in terms of the characteristics of offenders and victims, the circumstances of the murders, and the motivations attached to the offenders, will provide the focus of this paper. The insights that are gained by the comparisons should help us broaden our understanding of female-perpetrated homicide.


Rasko (1976, 1981) reports that victims of Hungarian2 women who kill are husbands or lovers 40% of the time and children 20% of the time (excluding infanticide). Like writers before her, she groups spouse and child as "close relationships" and does not concentrate on a differentiation of the two types of victims. Her explanation of the events that precipitate the homicide tends to focus on psychological factors.

The most thorough study of female homicide undertaken thus far was conducted by Totman (1978). She selected only females who had murdered a spouse or child and were incarcerated in California's only facility for women during July to December 1969. While there were 129 female killers in the institution, only 50 qualified as spouse (36) or child (14) killers. Hence, about 13% of those females imprisoned for homicide killed their own children. As in other studies, Totman finds that child killers tend to use their hands to kill the child and tend to be younger than spouse killers. This often-cited study examines a small number of cases from an imprisoned population, and the results should not be generalized beyond that population.

Weisheit (1986) examines 39 women incarcerated for killing their children. While Weisheit seems willing to generalize concerning his child killers, the sample of incarcerated women does not justify generalization beyond the particular prison population in Illinois between 1940 and 1966 and 1981-1983. Nonetheless, he makes some interesting observations about his sample that may be worth pursuing. He reports a change in the marital status of the offender population over time. The group studied in the earlier period were more likely to be married, whereas the majority of the group studied in later years were single. In both time periods, child killers most often killed their children with their hands (beating, strangulation, and suffocation) and, in general, had a low level of education, were unemployed, and were young (the average age was 26). Further, Weisheit suggests a decline in the killing of newborns. Implied here is the notion that, in the earlier period, the stigma and shame of having an illegitimate child was avoided by killing the child.

Other than the articles mentioned, it is rare to find any literature specifically on child killing. There is, however, a related body of research that focuses on child abuse that may, but usually does not, lead to a fatal conclusion for the child (see, for instance, Gelles, 1980, 1985; Hyman et al. …

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