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

Categories, Classification, and Context of Filicidal Mothers

Research on filicidal mothers has placed an emphasis on categorization of offenders (Bourget & Bradford, 1990; Bourget & Gagne, 2002; Cheung, 1986; d'Orban, 1979; McKee & Shea, 1998; Resnick, 1970; Resnick, 1969; Scott, 1973). Filicide classification systems, beginning with Resnick (1969), are reminiscent of Gibson and Klein's (1961) categorization of homicide by motive which is divided into four groups including mercy; insanity and/or suicidal despair; violent rage; and quarrels.

Although Resnick's (1969) approach was significant at the time and remains important today, it has limitations. Credibility is called into question when a classification system is based on motive. The issue is primarily that of subjectivity. Classification itself is inherently subjective and calls for retrospective decision-making regarding subject categorization. The result is information that has been interpreted several times over beginning with the real, perceived, or psychotic interpretation of events by the subject and then again as the researcher engages in a projection of self onto the mother's subjective explanation of the given scenario. According to Scott (1973), this manner of engagement lends itself to outcomes that are often over-determined or defensive.

Additionally, subjective meanings derived from both the participant and the researcher are historically and socially negotiated. It has been suggested that knowledge is conjectural and anti-foundational and that absolute truth can never be found (Creswell, 2003). Within that context, evidence established in research is always imperfect and fallible. For that reason, quantitative researchers do not prove hypotheses, but instead indicate a failure to reject, and qualitative re searchers impose checks such as triangulation, member checks, and external auditors to clarify bias and lend to validity. These thoughts are brought to the forefront to underscore the fact that human perceptual errors and inadequacies are consistently a threat to the quality of information obtained by an investigator (Polit & Beck, 2003) and further emphasize the importance of conducting a foundational study to examine inter-rater reliability when assessing filicidal women and fine tuning classification systems.

Clinical subjectivity is evident in many category names. Lewis and Bunce (2003) argue that the existence of altruism as a motive for filicide is controversial. One author declared, "I think there is no doubt that the statement 'That was best for the children' is only an expression of the fact that the perpetrator himself or herself thought that the infanticide was the best way out, that is to say that the act was ego-syntonic" (Harder, 1967, p. 237 as cited in Lewis & Bunce, 2003). The term "accidental"is also nebulous because an accidental murder will carry a lesser penalty than one that is premeditated (Douglas, Burgess, Burgess & Ressler, 1992). De termination between the two is a highly subjective process. The majority of mothers, even many of those who are psychotic, claim they did not intend to kill their children.

As previously examined, severe psychosocial stressors often plague women who commit filicide. They include financial and housing problems; domestic abuse; deteriorating mental health; limited social support; conflict with family members and sexual partners; and serving as primary caregiver for at least one young child. Perhaps because of, or in addition to these stressors, one in three of the women who participated in Lewis and Bunce's (2003) study evaluating the impact of psychosis on maternal filicide had severe conflict with the father of their children within days of the filicide. The existence of such a conflict alone cannot be considered evidence of revenge-based motive.

This issue beleaguers the revenge category and underscores the difficulty of neatly fitting an individual into a designated "slot." Revenge is difficult to discern because in practice one cannot tell if it was the real or only impulse behind the crime. The composite interaction of psychosocial stressors precludes a straightforward conclusion that, because a woman had fought with the father of her child or had found out that he was unfaithful before the filicide, her motivation to kill her child was revenge. Particular care should be applied before complex motivations such as revenge are attributed as sole motive to women acting in such a primitive, regressed, potentially psychotic way. According to Scott (1973), the majority of murderers commit crimes when their inhibitions are diminished and discretion, reason, sympathy, and self-criticism are at bay. The individual is acting at so primitive a level that sophisticated motives such as revenge and altruism may not be manifest. The stress of ongoing indecision, as well as passion, need, the prospect of deprivation, and loss of love or status may prove to be specific triggers or even mitigating factors in the crime.

Resnick's (1969) acute psychosis category was divided on the basis of motivation and may have caused some confusion as it included acute psychiatric illnesses such as post-ictal confusion, toxic delirium, and Wertham's catathymic crisis which are not uniformly defined as psychosis in all parts of the world. The work, based on a review of filicide in world literature, was remarkable in its breadth but left future researchers having to work through the tangle of varied culture-specific interpretations of subject behaviors.

Lewis and Bunce (2003) offered composite case studies which underscore the difficulty in categorizing filicidal women and the inadequacy of existing systems in the literature. In one case, a mother was schizophrenic with auditory hallucinations, but killed her children when enraged with her husband. An altruistic psychotic motive was presented as she alleged her children would be better off in heaven. But the mother also said she could not wait to see her husband's face when he found out about the crime. In this case, it could be postulated that the woman killed her child for any number of reasons including altruism, revenge, or mental illness depending on the perspective of the investigator and the classification system to which he or she adhered.

Another example involved a mother with a history of battering who beat her child to death after a fierce battle with her husband over custody of the child. The woman did not want her husband to have the child despite feeling overwhelmed with the caretaking role. This could be interpreted as the mother trying to hurt her husband by killing the child, that she did not want the child, or that the child's death was a result of intense anger and stress-related violence (Gauthier, Chaudoir, & Forsyth, 2003; Lewis & Bunce, 2003).

Most investigators recognize that their own background shapes their interpretations. Ideally, they position themselves in the research to acknowledge how the analysis flows from personal, cultural, and historical experiences. The result, in the context of filicide research, has been the development of a splintered foundation that at present does not reflect the level of expertise cultivated by legal and medical professionals who are committed to helping filicidal women and those who are at risk for committing the crime.

A vivid reflection of the lack of coherence and subjectivity inherent in current classification systems is manifest in filicide jurisprudence in the United States (Oberman, 2003). Sentences for the mothers vary significantly from probation with counseling to life imprisonment. Efforts by the court system to address cases of mentally ill women, for instance, rely heavily on scientific knowledge that is accepted by the medical community (Frye vs. United States, as cited in Spinelli, 2004). Vital judicial evidence used to validate the existence of a clinical phenomenon is derived from and validated by peer-reviewed literature. Descriptive symptoms that provide the makeshift base on which the current classification systems are founded leave expert witnesses with few scientific tools to employ (Spinelli, 2004).

Germane to advancing the identification, intervention, prevention, and treatment of women at risk for filicide, is a robust and coherent classification system. Establishing such a system is paramount because it would strengthen research and education efforts, facilitate early intervention, and help achieve prevention (Spinelli, 2004).


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