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When Parents Kill: Filicide Usually Accompanied by mental illness

July 22, 2010

ResearchBlogging.org

There are some commonalities that almost everyone in the autism community can get solidly behind and that is the issue of filicide. Too many children in this country are killed by their parents. One such murder alone is too many. Of course, our attention is brought to bear when we hear autism in conjunction with a child murder.


A Dallas woman murdered her two young children because, according to her 911 call, they were autistic. While our attention is focused on this case, as parents in the online community argue that media attention is on this case because of autism, and speculation amongst some parents runs to the paranoid (“Make autism parents look crazy and that’s why they have autistic children. This all feels like one big CIA human experiment.”), it’s important to consider larger societal issues regarding filicide.


What kind of people kill their children? Is this really about the autism, the disability, and an inability to cope because of the situation? Or is there something else at work here?


Farooque and Ernst (2003) examined filicide and some of the conditions that appear to be involved in cases. They note that the US Justice Department reported that in 1999 there were over “1000 children died as a result of maltreatment where the alleged perpetrator was the child’s parent.”


The literature on filicide actually goes back a ways; Farooque and Ernst point out that Resnick in 1969 set out a classification system for why parents kill their children and note that intellectual impairment of the perpetrator was not part of the classification system. Indeed, they note “Nearly forty years later, it is apparent that
these constructs have added little to the understanding of the etiology of filicide and, more importantly, have often distracted investigators from more mundane and practical factors such as intellectual capacity and/or substance abuse of the perpetrator.” If categorizing why parents say they do despicable acts isn’t adequate as explanation, examining the mental health of the perpetrators can at least provide a window into the act.


According to  Farooque and Ernst, “Maternal mental illness has been found to be especially important in the incidence of filicide.” Faroouque and Ernst summarize the current state of knowledge on filicide thusly: “mental illnesses, including psychotic symptomatology and affective illnesses, were frequently found in both male and female perpetrators of filicide.”


Farooque and Ernst expanded their study to also examine the intellectual capacity of individuals who committed filicide during an eight year period. Their findings are interesting:

 Only one of the 19 cases revealed an Antisocial Personality Disorder while 10 of the 19 cases satisfied the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse/dependence. Two of these were intoxicated at the time of the crime. Only five subjects were psychotic at the time of the crime. On the other hand, eight of the 19 had some level of mental retardation. Of these, four scored in the borderline range (70-84) and four were in the range of mild mental retardation (55-70) based on DSM-IV criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2001).1 We also found a positive relationship between borderline or mild mental retardation and evidence of child neglect by the perpetrator prior to the filicide event. Eight subjects revealed evidence of having perpetrated child neglect/abuse and, of these, seven satisfied the criteria for borderline or mild mental retardation. These subjects were significantly younger than those with normal intelligence.

Hatters Friedman et al. (2005) found that “Over three-fourths of our filicide-suicide offenders had evidence of mental illness. Less than two-thirds of those with mental illness had been in mental health treatment.” 


It would be convenient to twist this most recent filicide as an indictment of particular ideologies within the autistic community (indeed, this has already begun). The blame for these two children’s murders does not rest in the autism community or in one particular faction of it. It does not rest with the public service announcements created by Autism Speaks (as some at Age of Autism would like to suggest). It doesn’t rest with neurodiversity advocates. It doesn’t rest with those who would cure autism at any cost. The blame rests squarely on the mother’s shoulders.


There isn’t enough information about this mother, her exposure to the autism community, her mental health, her level of support, period to answer why she did this act, what led her to that monstrous act. Is it more than likely, based on the research that has been done on filicide, that she is mentally ill? Yes. Does her lack of affect in the 911 call suggest mental illness? Yes. Can you be mentally ill and intentionally premeditate the murder of your children? Yes. Should she be held legally responsible? Yes, one way or another, she should be held accountable for her actions. They are reprehensible and without defense. Looking for other people to blame to further one’s own ideology is irresponsible.


We do, as a society, need to do a better job of providing support to families, at providing education, and appropriate mediations. Was this a family in need of better support? What access to services were there? Was there a history of mental health issues? Speculation is pointless. Waiting for the facts in the case make sense here. What does seem clear is that the mother did do this. What is clear is that this is an unacceptable act. 


So, leaving that aside, what do we know about parents of autistic children, coping-wise? Pottie and Ingram (2008) found that the severity of autistic symptoms was not correlated with parental daily mood. They found that in “terms of significant predictors of daily positive mood, on average, 10 coping responses were found to predict daily positive mood.” Pottie and Ingram found that “higher levels of daily positive mood were predicted by” the following type of coping: “Seeking Support coping,” “Problem-Focused coping,” “Positive Reframing coping,” “Emotional Regulation coping,”  and “Compromise coping” while “lower levels of daily positive mood were associated with “Escape coping,” “Blaming coping,” “Withdrawal coping,”  and “Helplessness coping.” 


In other words, how parents choose to cope is more important than the severity of the situation they are dealing with. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you’re feeling under-supported, then you need to reach out, you need to let people know. And we need to be there, be ready and willing to offer our shoulders and our time to those who are struggling.

Farooque R, & Ernst FA (2003). Filicide: a review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95 (1), 90-4 PMID: 12656455

Hatters Friedman S, Hrouda DR, Holden CE, Noffsinger SG, & Resnick PJ (2005). Filicide-suicide: common factors in parents who kill their children and themselves. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33 (4), 496-504 PMID: 16394226

Pottie, C., & Ingram, K. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22 (6), 855-864 DOI: 10.1037/a0013604

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