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Read a news story about a parent who has murdered their own son or daughter, and "monster" is bound to be among the first words that enter your mind. What could motivate someone to commit this complex act?

Filicide — when a parent murders their own child — is perhaps the most intimate crime around, as well as one of the hardest to understand. Most people find the thought of filicide so repulsive that they simply declare mothers and fathers who take take their own kids' lives "monsters". The uncomfortable truth is, however, that parents who end up killing their own children are people — feeling, thinking, complicated people, just like everyone else. Better understanding what motivates parents to murder their offspring is key to preventing such homicides.

 

So what, exactly, leads moms and dads to kill their children?

 

Filicide: A Cold Look At The Facts

With an approximate 500 cases in the US annually, filicide is certainly a large concern. Despite the fact that murder cases in which children were robbed of their lives by the very person expected to nurture them make up only 2.5 percent of total homicide cases, it's important to note that parents and step parents are the most common perpetrators in murder cases involving young children.

A paper published in the journal Forensic Science International in the year 2014 took a close look at 15,691 filicide cases in the US, spanning 32 years, with the ultimate goal of preventing murders in which parents kill their own children.

The study found that:

  • Children under the age of seven made up the majority of filicide cases (72 percent), with a third being less than 12 months old.
  • Ten percent were aged between seven and 18.
  • Sixteen percent of those killed by their parents were adult children.
  • Fathers were accused of killing their children in 57.4 percent of all filicide cases.
  • Mothers and fathers kill their infants (under a year old) in nearly equal numbers.
  • Fathers are much more likely than mothers to murder adult children, being the accused in 78.3 percent of such filicide cases.

The most common filicide scenario is a father killing his son, the study found, with stepmothers murdering stepchildren of either gender being the least likely scenario. Stepchildren being murdered by stepparents only made up 11 percent of filicide victims, proving the old "evil stepmother" scenario fairy tales have familiarized us all with partly wrong.

Younger children are more likely to die at the hands of a parent, quite literally, while older children who are killed by a parent, those would would be able to defend themselves attempts to strangle or beat them to death, are much more likely to succumb to firearm injuries.

Though interesting, these stats tell us little about the kind of parent who commits filicide, or what their motives might be. Both the lead author of this study, Dr Timothy Mariano, who was a third-year psychiatry resident in the Alpert Medical School of Brown University when the paper was published, and others have their theories.

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