A Meta-Synthesis of Filicide Classification Systems: Psychosocial and Psychodynamic Issues in Women Who Kill Their Children

Marie E. Mugavin


J Foren Nurs. 2005;1(2):65-72. 

In This Article

The Seminal Work: Classification of Filicide by Motive

Resnick (1969) reviewed world literature on child murder from 1751 to 1967, finding relevant articles in 13 languages. He focused on 131 filicides in an effort to classify these murders. The sample consisted of 88 mothers and 43 fathers, and the filicidal acts were classified by apparent motive including altruistic, acutely psychotic, unwanted child, accidental, and spouse revenge.

According to Resnick (1969), two distinct types of filicide are evident: (1) the killing of an unwanted neonate within the first few hours of life and (2) the murder of a child after his/her role in the family has been more firmly established. For the purposes of this meta-synthesis, the term "filicide" will be operationally defined as the killing of a son or daughter older than 24 hours. Neonaticide is the killing of a child less than 24 hours (Resnick, 1969; Heiger, 1986).

It was determined that the most dangerous period for the victims was the first 6 months of life during which symptoms of maternal postpartum depression and psychosis often manifest (Resnick (1969; 1970). The younger the child, the more likely a suicidal mother is to think of him or her as a personal possession and to feel the dyad is inseparable. Older children were more likely to be perceived as defective.

The filicide methods used by fathers were "active" and included striking, squeezing, or stabbing as opposed to mothers who often drowned, suffocated, or gassed their victims (Resnick, 1969, p. 76). More unusual methods included putting sulfuric acid in a nursing bottle and biting to death. One father put his son on a drill press and drilled a hole through his heart. The leading diagnosis for mothers was schizophrenia while fathers were labeled "non-psychotic." However, it should be noted that this study was done as a review of world literature and the diagnostic labels from country to country and decade to decade were notoriously unreliable.

The classifications put forth by Resnick were based on explanations provided by the murderers and were independent of the particular diagnosis. When overlapping occurred in the proposed groups, each case was categorized by the single most important motive. The classifications were identified as follows:

Almost half of the filicides reviewed involved an altruistic motive as the most important factor distinguishing the murder from other homicides. The two subgroups of altruistic filicide are filicide associated with suicide and filicide to relieve suffering.

  • Filicide Associated With Suicide. This category includes parents who claimed they could not abandon their children when they killed themselves, so the children had to die with them. According to Tuteur & Glotzer (1959, as cited in Resnick, 1969), one woman left a suicide note that said "Bury us in one box. We belong together you know" (p. 447). Another cited example was that of a husband and wife who planned to murder the entire family because they could see no way out of their desperate poverty (Resnick, 1969).

  • Filicide to Relieve Suffering. These parents sought to ease the victim's suffering (real or imagined). One couple decided to gas themselves and their 20-year-old- encephalitic son (Carp, 1947, as cited in Resnick, 1969). Bender (1934, as cited in Resnick, 1969) told of a delusional mother who choked her 3-year-old son to death as she was convinced a spell was causing him to grow smaller.

Parents who are under the influence of hallucinations, epilepsy, or delirium fit into this category as well as those cases in which no comprehensible motive could be ascertained. This is the weakest of Resnick's categories and does not include all of the psychotic child murders. According to Resnick (1969), a variety of descriptive explanations have been suggested for these offenses including Kretschmer's "short circuit" reactions (1934, p. 32, as cited by Resnick, 1969) and Wertham's "catathymic crisis" (1937, p. 974, as cited in Resnick, 1969). Catathymic crisis is a clinical condition in which strong, underlying emotionally-charged conflicts eminating from unconscious fears, wishes, or ambivalent strivings bring about a change in an individual's thinking (Schlesinger, 2000; Wertham, 1937). Affective impulse is translated directly into violent action when these conditions are exhibited. Reichard and Tillman (1950) in contrast, hypothesized that the murders represented an attempted defense against the danger perceived during schizophrenic psychosis. Other hypotheses emerged later in the literature which will be discussed under the psychodynamics section of this article.

The victim was murdered because he or she was not desired or was no longer wanted by the parent. Illegitimacy was the reason one girl killed her 16-day-old infant after giving birth secretly in an out-of-town hospital (Matheson, 1941 as cited by Resnick, 1969). Resnick retells a story of a 25-year-old widow of low intellectual capacity who was offered marriage under the condition that she part with her two children. After social agencies refused to place the children, she decided to dispose of them using a hatchet, knife, and gasoline for burning.

In this category, a father's motivation to kill his child is usually related to issues of paternity, financial burden, and potential career impediment (Resnick, 1969).

This category includes fatally maltreated children. These cases are considered accidental because homicidal intent is lacking. Violent outbursts, particularly those corresponding to an overzealous application of discipline are associated with paternal filicide. Mothers generally apply less overtly violent, but equally destructive methods as illustrated by the following story presented in Resnick (1969). When a 3-year-old girl repeatedly took the nursing bottle away from her 13-month-old sibling, the mother expressed her anger and frustration by pouring contents of a peppershaker into the toddler's mouth. The child swallowed the material, started to gasp, and was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival. The mother had been involved in two previous child-battering incidents.

Parents who kill their children in a deliberate attempt to make their spouses suffer fit into this category. Resnick presented the legendary figure Medea, the tortured and tragic Greek sorceress, as the prototype of such a scenario. After killing their two sons Medea tells her unfaithful husband Jason, "Thy sons are dead and gone. That will stab thy heart" (Oates & O'Neill, 1938, as cited in Resnick, 1969).

Resnick (1969; 1970) proposed the term "neonaticide" for the killing of a newborn less than 24 hours old. Young women with immature personalities who do not suffer from psychiatric illness tend to commit this crime. The newborn is often killed in the mother's effort to avoid the stigma of illegitimate childbirth. Compared with other filicides, this type is the least likely to be prevented because of the clandestine nature of the pregnancy. Many of these women concealed their pregnancy and did not seek medical attention antenatally or at the time of birth.

Although the reaction of the spouse is rarely mentioned in the literature, Resnick (1969) reported that a husband's first impulse is to demand a divorce. One husband whose wife had been unfaithful and killed their child found it more difficult to forgive his wife for the infidelity than the murder of his offspring. After introspection, he decided to resume their marriage. Another husband regretted that his wife did not "finish the job on herself" (p. 332). When his 6-year-old asked if his mother would shoot him also (she had killed another son with a shotgun), the father replied, "I don't think so" (p. 332). He continued to keep a gun collection in the home.


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