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Filicides account for 15 percent of homicides, study finds

Med School researchers examine data from 90,000 arrests of parents who murdered their children

Movies, television and news media perpetuate several unfounded myths about filicide — the killing of a child by a parent — said Tim Mariano, a third-year psychiatry resident at Alpert Medical School.

Contrary to popular belief, stepchildren and biological children are at equal risk of being victims of filicide. And though very young children are often thought of as filicide’s victims, in reality about one-fifth of victims are adults.

These common misconceptions about filicide are discredited by a recent study conducted by Mariano and other University forensic psychiatrists. The study, published in this month’s edition of the journal Forensic Science International, analyzed over 90,000 filicide cases that took place over a 32-year period.

The researchers, based out of the Med School, used the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reports to compile data on the offenders and victims in filicide cases from 1976 to 2007.

The researchers analyzed the data based on age, gender and race and ethnicity. Filicides made up 15 percent of all homicides during this time, though overall filicide rates declined over the 32-year period, according to the study.

In regard to age, researchers found that one-third of victims were under a year old, and two-thirds were under 6 years old.

The study shows rates of filicidal behavior are equal between fathers and mothers. The researchers also found that African Americans were overrepresented.

Studying filicide is “important as a scientific issue pertaining to how human evolution has left all of us with a particular set of responses and behavioral tendencies,” wrote Grant Harris, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the study, in an email to The Herald.

Just because we have these “natural” inclinations does “not mean in any sense these are correct or appropriate, but surely it’s scientifically important to know about them,” he wrote.

Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, said he found the high rate of filicides surprising since he “had not seen any data” that suggested the rate reached 15 percent. Resnick added that this was one of the only studies he had seen that examined adults killing adult children.

The study also examined the methods parents used to commit filicide. The most common form involved personal weapons, such as using hands or feet, strangling, beating and drowning. Other categories included contact weapons, edged weapons and firearms.

Knowledge of the prevalence and types of filicide “can steer our questions in mental health about what kinds of information we gather to perform a risk assessment,” Mariano said.

In primary care and OB-GYN settings, for example, clinicians could be more aware that fathers are also at risk for committing filicide, since it is commonly — though wrongly — believed that mothers are more prone to committing filicide, he said.

The large dataset presented in this study enhances awareness of filicide and offers new insight into some of its aspects, including stepparent-stepchild relations and differences between genders, Mariano said.

But the paper lacks information about offenders’ psychiatric diagnoses and the eventual outcome of the legal cases, Mariano said. While the researchers examined more than 90,000 arrests for filicide, not all of them necessarily resulted in conviction, he added.

“One of the limitations of the dataset is that it’s largely descriptive data,” Mariano said.

Because this study’s focus is on large sets of demographic data, it does not specifically aid psychiatrists’ ability to clinically treat patients, Resnick said. “It doesn’t lend itself much in the way of prevention,” he added.

The paper included three hypothetical frameworks about factors that might drive filicidal behavior in parents and guardians.

The first, based on psychopathology, posits that low levels of serotonin in the body, which are linked to psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety, could make a person more prone to commit filicide or homicide.

Second, previous animal studies have shown that higher testosterone levels in females and some males are linked to higher rates of filicide. The researchers hypothesized that differences in sex hormones could account for differences in filicidal behavior between the sexes, such as the finding that men are more likely to use firearms than women.

Finally, the “unwanted child” hypothesis suggests that women are evolutionarily predisposed to kill children who are sick or drain the mother’s resources.

The researchers hope these frameworks will prompt future research that will create ways to “identify people at risk for either committing or being victims of filicide, so law enforcement can improve their detection and prevention of this crime,” Mariano said.


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