Filicide is defined as the killing of a child by an individual in a parental role. The literature also differentiates between neonaticide, which is homicide that occurs during the first twenty-four hours of the child’s life, and infanticide, which occurs during the first year of the child’s life. Filicide is a relatively rare occurrence; however, it has still been widely researched. The majority of the research comprises studies done outside of the United States, but it has been studied cross-culturally as well. Despite the rarity of filicide, researchers have adopted a variety of theoretical perspectives to explain this phenomenon, as well as multiple research designs, ranging from single or multiple case studies to large-scale analyses of filicide over time. A variety of research questions have been examined, including how filicide offenders compare to other types of homicide offenders, patterns and determinants in case dispositions, gendered differences in offender characteristics and motives, and filicide typologies such as offenders who commit suicide following the filicide and those who do not. Numerous risk factors for these types of killings have also been identified for both maternal and paternal filicide offenders; however, the majority of the literature continues to focus on mothers who kill their children. A number of theories have been used to explain why filicide may occur, including attachment theory, adaptive evolutionary hypothesis, trauma exposure perspective, parental investment theory, and psychodynamics. The literature reviews classification systems that are used to differentiate between offenders based on their motivations, with altruistic motives appearing to be the most commonly supported by a number of studies. The role of mental illness in filicide cases is also widely explored in the literature. Literature on trends in the legislation and sentencing of filicide cases demonstrates continuous changes to views of and responses to filicide over time. These views and responses have also been linked to representations of these cases in the media by a number of authors. Ways in which gender roles might be linked to social and legal responses to these cases and variations in dispositions are also documented.
General Overviews of Filicide and Its Subtypes
There are a number of articles that provide concise reviews of filicide. Sidebotham 2013; Stanton and Simpson 2002; Jackson 2011; Debowska, et al. 2015; and Mariano, et al. 2014 explore the history of filicide and identify its main characteristics. Porter and Gavin 2010 and Palermo 2002 explore the two main subtypes of filicide, neonaticide and infanticide, and De Bortoli, et al. 2013 reviews international literature on neonaticide. Bourget, et al. 2007 compares maternal and paternal filicide. Gurevich 2010 examines the treatment of filicide in the criminal justice system.
Bourget, Dominique, Jennifer Grace, and Laurie Whitehurst. “A Review of Maternal and Paternal Filicide.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 35.1 (2007): 74–82.
The article examines differences in maternal and paternal filicide. Bourget and colleagues found that a significant proportion of maternal and paternal filicide offenders have a mental illness, a limited support network, and a previous history of abuse. Furthermore, the authors identify differences in the conceptualization and definition of filicide across studies. They conclude that understanding risk factors associated with parental filicide is important in developing effective intervention and preventative strategies.
De Bortoli, Lillian, Jan Coles, and Mairead Dolan. “A Review of Maternal Neonaticide: A Need for Further Research Supporting Evidence-Based Prevention in Australia.” Child Abuse Review 22.5 (2013): 327–339.
This article reviews the international literature on neonaticide, providing an overview of indicators such as concealment or types of “denial of pregnancy.” Active and passive neonaticide are discussed in relation to appropriate interventions. One type of intervention—the Safe Havens law—is described, and its potential effectiveness examined.
Debowska, Agata, Daniel Boduszek, and Katie Dhingra. “Victim, Perpetrator, and Offense Characteristics in Filicide and Filicide-Suicide.” Aggression and Violence Behavior 21 (2015): 113–124.
This article critically reviews research that has examined filicides committed by parents and stepparents. The authors compare the two types of perpetrators on a variety of characteristics, including motivation, demonstrating significant differences across the two groups on various demographic, environmental, and psychosocial factors. Implications of these findings for existing explanations for filicide are discussed.
Gurevich, Liena. “Parental Child Murder and Child Abuse in Anglo-American Legal System.” Trauma, Violence and Abuse 11.1 (2010): 18–26.
This paper explores the prosecution of parental crimes against children in the Anglo-American legal system. Findings suggest that the criminalization of “child abuse” and infanticide has been on the rise, and this has implications for the development of nonpunitive solutions to this issue. The authors conclude that legal processes are increasingly influenced by the changing values of society, which has important implications for legal analysis and reform in North America.
Jackson, Diane. “A Meta-Study of Filicide: Reconceptualizing Child Deaths by Parents.” PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2011.
This dissertation is a meta-analysis of sixty-six international studies of parents who killed their children between 1979 and 2009. With a focus on how filicide is constructed by researchers, the author summarizes the state of research, including whether it is framed as a social problem, common themes identified in findings, and knowledge gaps in the literature. She concludes that research syntheses can contribute to more effective education, practice, and policy.
Mariano, Timothy Y., Heng Choon Chan, and Wade C. Myers. “Toward a More Holistic Understanding of Filicide: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of 32 Years of U.S. Arrest Data.” Forensic Science International 236 (March 2014): 46–53.
This study provides a first comprehensive analysis of US filicide cases over three decades, drawing from arrest records in the United States using the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reports. The authors provide detailed information on a variety of victim, offender, and incident characteristics, as well as trends over time. They locate their results within the larger literature, proposing three filicide categories that may help identify risk and improve prevention.
Palermo, George B. “Murderous Parents.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 46 (2002): 123–143.
This article presents an overview of previous research on neonaticide, infanticide, and filicide. It also provides several case studies to illustrate differing motivations for filicide. The author finds that the cases reveal that all filicides involve elements of destructive emotions and a lack of coping and parental skills. The author concludes that the presentation of the characteristics of filicidal parents should help identify parents who may be a risk.
Porter, Theresa, and Helen Gavin. “Infanticide and Neonaticide: A Review of 40 Years of Research Literature on Incidence and Causes.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 11.3 (2010): 99–112.
This study examines the characteristics of infanticide and neonaticide over a forty-year period. Findings demonstrate that the majority of neonaticide perpetrators do not show signs of mental illness. A subset of infanticides are committed by women during a psychotic episode. This study contributes to a better understanding of individual-level characteristics of infanticide and neonaticide by exploring differences between these two types of filicide, which is important for developing appropriate preventative efforts.
Sidebotham, Peter. “Rethinking Filicide.” Child Abuse Review 22.5 (2013): 305–310.
This article explores the literature on filicide, identifying two main strands of research, proposing a new approach to understanding this phenomenon, and revealing important gaps in the literature. Rather than focusing on singular motives for filicide, the author examines the context that surrounds these crimes and incorporates a broader array of victim and offender characteristics that extend beyond personality-based indicators.
Stanton, Josephine, and Alexandra Simpson. “Filicide: A Review.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 25.1 (2002): 1–14.
This study describes the characteristics of filicide cases and explores the differences in maternal and paternal filicide. It also examines key topics in the literature, such as the fatal maltreatment of a child, the controversy surrounding sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), issues with classification of fatal maltreatment, and mentally abnormal filicide. The authors highlight several different filicide classifications and suggest that more research on filicidal subgroups is required.
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