In New York City, a woman tossed her 6-month-old daughter out of a high-rise apartment building, killing her, as her three other children looked on in horror. In Georgia, a father intentionally strapped his toddler into the car seat of a hot SUV, leaving him to die. And in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, a mom was charged with beating her 2-month-old daughter, who had Down syndrome, to death.
STORY: My Husband Killed Our Kids
The details are almost too unbearable to contemplate, let alone understand. But sociologist Myrna Dawson, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, longed to make sense of these crimes and others like them, with the aim of preventing more in the future. And so in one of the most extensive reviews ever of filicide — the killing of a child under age 18 by a parent — Dawson examined Canadian data covering half a century of such cases, representing the longest period ever for a study of its kind.
“I wanted to understand more about how and why they occur and was particularly interested in differences between mothers and fathers who kill their children,” Dawson, a homicide expert and a longtime member of Canada’s first Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The goal was to identify common patterns and changing trends that might highlight priority areas for intervention and research.” Her findings have just been published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
For her study, Dawson looked at cases between 1961 and 2011, during which time at least 1,612 children were killed by their parents in Canada; many more incidents have been reported since then. She examined everything from the parent’s gender, age, and marital status to possible motives, including histories of domestic violence, seeking patterns and trends in order to help figure out strategies for prevention.
According to data published by USA Today in 2014 on the same topic, on average, 450 children are killed every year by their parents. After Northeastern University criminologists applied statistical models to the records, the newspaper found several patterns in the crimes: Three out of four victims are younger than 5, while more than a third are less than a year old; nearly half of all victims died from beatings; fathers are more likely to kill than mothers; and when mothers kill, it will most often be an infant.
Dawson, meanwhile, found particular differences between mothers and fathers who kill their children: There appears to be an increasing trend of more males than females accused of the crime nationwide. Women made up four out of five of the alleged killers who were single and never married, while men represented two-thirds of accused who were divorced, separated, or widowed. More men than women were accused when revenge or jealousy was the motive, and fathers are more likely than mothers to commit suicide after killing a child.
Most accused, overall, were biological parents — but when stepchildren were killed, nine of 10 accused were stepfathers, and those incidents appear to be on an upswing.
Also increasing, Dawson found, are reports of family violence made before the occurrence of a filicide.
“I was concerned to find what appears to be an emerging trend in the role played by relationship breakdown and family violence in these cases,” she says. “We need more public and professional awareness about these contributors so families at risk may be identified earlier. More collaboration and communication between family and criminal courts that may be dealing with these families is also crucial.” Also, interestingly, Dawson believes that the shifting, equalizing gender roles in terms of childcare may be what’s driving up the number of dads who kill. “It is believed that fathers spend more time with children than in the past, arguably increasing their time at risk,” she says.
Dawson’s findings have many similarities to those of a comprehensive U.S.-based study coming out of Brown University in 2014. Lead author Dr. Timothy Mariano mirrored Dawson’s goals, stating at the time, “To know more about the epidemiology of this crime will hopefully help medical practitioners to identify people who are at risk for committing such crimes and that will help us with prevention, which is the ultimate goal of this research.”
Surprisingly, mental illness plays less of a part than some might believe. “Although mental illness is commonly assumed to be a major precursor or motivation for filicide, findings remain mixed,” she says. “Some research shows that many of the cases do not include mental illness as an element. However, other work has shown that a significant proportion of both mothers and fathers were experiencing some type of mental illness or episode.”
But the bottom line with all of the research and findings, Dawson stresses, is this: “We now know that domestic homicides, including filicide, are one of the most preventable types of killings, given that there are often red flags for those trained to recognize them,” she says. “So one key commonality is that many of these cases could likely have been prevented with more professional and public awareness, and increased resources and social support for families or parents in distress.”
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