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

Expanding the Breadth of Filicide Classification Systems

Con-text is critical to understanding the composite behaviors surrounding a maternal filicide. While classifications are helpful in providing broad groupings, they cannot adequately address the range of factors found in an individual case (Lewis & Bunce, 2003; Smithey, 1997). According to Pruett (2002), the value of a classification system related to maternal filicide would be greatly enhanced if the social and systemic forces that surround such events were tracked and incorporated into a more complex schema. In large part, sociological indicators were low priorities in etiological classification systems fashioned from the clinical psychiatric perspective (Smithey, 1997). Consequently, the prevailing models are unidimensional in scope, resulting in narrow explanations that emphasize psychopathologic and/or biopathologic factors. To broaden the scope of the models and gain a fuller understanding of filicide, a psychosocial dimension is required.

A multitude of psychosocial factors predispose a mother to acts of violence. Ultimately it is the socialization experience, economic deprivation, and lack of interpersonal support that render a mother vulnerable to violent outbursts toward her child (Gauthier, Chaudoir, & Forsyth, 2003; Smithey, 1997). Although the murder of a child elicits sorrow, fury, and revulsion, the perpetrator of the crime is also often a victim (Smithey, 1997; Spinelli, 2003). Images of a defenseless child killed by the person he or she relied on for survival subsume the representation of a mother who is potentially insane, isolated, and the victim of multiple traumas.

The socialization of filicidal mothers is variously characterized by physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by family members and romantic partners. In general, the biological fathers of the children are abusive and antagonistic, providing minimal economic support. As a result, many of the mothers are left to garner their own resources for survival while simultaneously raising children. They may resort to substance abuse to cope with the resultant stress. The substance abuse often precedes an intensive interchange between mother and child (especially fatally maltreated children) and renders her incapable of accurately judging the child's or her own actions and intentions (Smithey, 1997).

The most confounding aspect of classification relates to mental illness. Many psychoanalytic writers have emphasized that violence is not a unitary phenomenon and that various core complexes, motives, and fantasies warrant exploration and understanding (Glasser, 1986; Perelberg, 1995, as cited in Kunst, 2002). Kunst (2002) sought to develop an understanding of complex psychodynamics from an object relation's perspective. She delineated two broad conceptual categories of psychosis in filicidal mothers: psychopathic and psychotic.

The aim of the psychopathic mother is sadistic (Glasser, 1986 as cited by Kunst, 2002). The child was never wanted and is killed either as an unintentional result of child abuse or in the mother's deliberate, vengeful effort to make her spouse suffer (d, 1979; Resnick, 1969). Although the women are psychologically disturbed, they are typically found guilty of murder or manslaughter and sentenced to state prison.

The psychotic mother's crime has been termed "pathological filicide" (Bourget & Bradford, 1990; Kunst, 2002). The violence is considered self-preservative, aimed at managing a perceived threat of danger to the self or child (Fonagy & Target, 1995; Glasser, 1986; Mitchell, 1993 as cited in Kunst, 2002). Major mental illness including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression are often factors. When the mother becomes acutely psychotic, she experiences profound delusional anxiety involving perceptions of imminent, cataclysmic danger.

Kunst (2002) further categorizes psychotic women as disorganized and organized. Disorganized filicidal women are phenotypically vulnerable to psychosis, particularly schizophrenia (Kunst, 2002). Their early life marked the beginning of a chronic, degenerative course of psychic difficulties. The result was a poorly formed ego that is prone to the advancement of psychotic defensive organizations and an underlying vulnerability to schizophrenia and other organic brain disease.

The filicidal act carried out by these women as adults is not provoked by feelings of hatred or contempt for their own children, but is the result of preoccupation with their own vulnerability and terror. They often find it too hard to consider the reality of their crime and are unable to properly mourn the children. Such a task is almost impossible because it requires capacities for thinking and integrating that are far beyond their reach.

The organized type is characterized by a premorbidly integrated ego that becomes temporarily but severely fractured. An internal drama is enacted in a tragic although psychically meaningful way during the crime. This woman bears a better prognosis with treatment. Organized psychotics are more likely to have been married, educated, and successful in the workplace (Korbin, 1989; Kunst, 2002).

For many, the crime reflected the first psychotic episode in their lives. They suffered from mixed psychiatric conditions such as depressive disorders, character pathology, and substance dependence with psychosis emerging later in response to severe psychic and environmental stress. Ego development in the mothers proceeded normally and as opposed to the disorganized types, these women had developed basic mental capacities allowing them to manage conflicts in more organized, although pathological ways (Kunst, 2002).


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