Dr. Phillip Resnick is the director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The Time reporter who interviewed him called Dr. Resnick “a leading expert on parents who kill their children.” Dr. Resnick’s observation about fathers was borne out in one of the most recent parental murders of their children.
In late April near Seattle, Washington, Peter Keller killed Lynnettee and Kaylene Keller, his wife and daughter. A study of the parental murder of children commented that fathers’ victims “were typically older than those killed by mothers” and that “The rate of suicide or attempted suicide was quite high, usually around 60 percent.” Kaylene Keller was 19. Peter Keller ended his own life after wiping out his family.
Male on female violence is commonplace; Department of Justice data describes a 24.1% homicide rate for wives killed by their spouses from 1980 to 2008. However, the murder of a son or daughter viscerally knifes through public consciousness. Society’s equilibrium is upset when an individual who is supposed to love their child unconditionally becomes instead the means of their terror and early demise.
According to FBI statistics, mothers and fathers killed 10,331 children under the age of five from 1976 to 2005. The Department of Justice elaborates: “Of all children under age 5 murdered from 1980 through 2008—63% were killed by a parent” (33% fathers, 30% mothers).
A Department of Health & Human Services report, “Child Maltreatment 2010,” provides victim information. Caucasian children were killed most often (43.6%), followed by African-Americans (28.1%), Hispanics (16.6%), Multiple Race (4.4%), Asians (0.9%), and American Indians or Alaska Natives (0.8%). Boys were murdered at a far higher rate than girls: 60.1% vs. 39.6%.
The report also specifies victims by age:
- less than 1 year old––47.7%
- 1 year––14%
- 2 years––11.6%
- 3 years––6.1%
- 4-7 years––11.1%
- 8-11 years––3.6%
- and 16-17––1.8%.
Twenty-five percent of homicides in the first year of a child’s life take place prior to the end of two months, 50% by four months, and two-thirds by the end of the sixth month.
Why Parents Kill
The first psychiatric classification system describing the parental murder of children was not published until 1927. In 1969, Dr. Resnick introduced his influential categorization system to explain causation:
- “Altruism” — In murder cases involving altruism, the parent assumes that death is in “the best interest of the child” because “the world is too cruel.” The parent may be planning to commit suicide and the child cannot be left behind alone. This descriptor also applies to relieving “the suffering of a child…either real or imagined, that the parent finds intolerable.”
- “Acute Psychosis” — This term describes a parent who, “…kills the child with no other rational motive” than the mental illness the murderer is suffering.
- “Unwanted Child” — This refers to perceiving a child “as a hindrance. This category also includes parents who benefit from the death of their child in some way.”
- “Accidental” — This covers situations in which “the parent unintentionally kills the child as a result of abuse.”
- “Spouse Revenge” — This occurs when the crime is a means of “exacting revenge upon the spouse, perhaps secondary to infidelity or abandonment.”
As more researchers have studied this phenomenon additional classification categories have been created. Resnick added victim categories: neonaticide (newborns within the first 24 hours of life––almost always committed by mothers), infanticide (a child older than one day but younger than one year), and filicide (children older than one year).
Mothers who kill their newborns are: “typically younger, are often unmarried, often deny and/or conceal their pregnancies, have a lack of prenatal care, and have no plans for the care of the child….” Ninety-five percent of murdered newborns are not delivered in hospitals.
These women tend to manifest “less depression, psychotic illness, or suicidal attempts than do mothers who have have killed an older child.” They “frequently showed a pattern of powerlessness, poverty, and alienation…” The most common murder method is suffocation.
Typically, women who kill their very young children are in their early 20s and have low rates of employment. Many have psychiatric disorders. The most common methods of homicide are physical beatings and asphyxiation.
One researcher examined mothers admitted to a prison hospital ward and found an “association between maternal filicide and the presence of certain stressors…such as being a survivor of domestic violence, early parental separation, and suicidality.” Maternal filicide perpetrators in psychiatric institutions “were more frequently married…and had a high frequency of unemployment, alcohol use, and personal history of abuse.”
Many murderous mothers received very little mothering themselves as children due to alcoholism, absence, physical or verbal abuse, or mental-health issues.
Another study comments that “…mothers at the highest risk of filicide were often socially isolated, indigent, full-time care providers who may have been victims of domestic violence themselves.” In addition, mothers who kill older children have “high levels of stress and a lack of support and resources at the time of the offense….Motivating factors [include] being the primary caregiver for at least one child, unemployment/financial problems, ongoing abusive adult relationships, conflicts with family members and limited social support…social isolation has also been noted as a factor…”
Fathers who kill their children are mostly in their late 20s, and the most common explanation is the use of “excessive force during punishment [because] the child wouldn’t stop crying, and they were unable to control their anger and frustration.” Males were “often determined to be poor, uneducated, unemployed, and lacking a social support network.” Their victims tend to be older than children killed by mothers.
For male child killers, “Previous family violence is often a co-factor…Perpetrators are likely to have a personal history of abuse in childhood.” Stressors include financial problems, marital conflict or potential breakup, and fear of separation. Many perpetrators are unemployed, and have a below-average education and a low socioeconomic status. Social isolation and/or a lack of social support are also common.
Many male child murderers experienced violence themselves as children, as well as emotional abuse and neglect. Additional factors include substance abuse and impending marital breakup and fear of separation. Furthermore, men frequently “felt a sense of personal inadequacy and had a lack of parenting skills and coping mechanisms.”
Psychosis among homicidal fathers is common — 30% in the general population. In 40% to 60% of cases, men who murder their children are also likely to kill or attempt to kill their spouses.