(KRON) — After the death of a 10-year-old allegedly at the hands of her mother in East Oakland on Monday, many in the community are wondering what could lead a parent to kill their child?
Child murder by parents, otherwise known as filicide, occurs in hundreds of cases each year in the United States, according to Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a medical doctor and Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. She says these killings are not limited to one type of community.
“As with everything else, there are some cases we hear more about, like when multiple children are affected. Across the country, across the world, it’s something that happens, and it’s important for us to be aware if we want to act to prevent it.” Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman
She says it is not uncommon for these killings to be accompanied by a parental suicide or suicide attempt, as police reported in the case of the 10-year-old girl in Oakland. Because of the deep love so many parents have for their children, many could not imagine being in a scenario where they would harm their child.
“It’s so difficult for most of us to understand,” Dr. Hatters Friedman says. Research completed by her mentor, Dr. Phil Resnick, and first published in the 1960s, sheds some light on how these killings take place. Dr. Resnick identified five categories that filicides often fall into:
- Fatal maltreatment — A parent who kills their child in an act of abuse or neglect, commonly there’s been a history of neglect or abuse in the household. The parent may not have planned to kill the child, but it’s the end result of the abuse.
- Unwanted child — When the parent sees the child not as their own person but rather as an obstacle (examples might include the parent prioritizing a new partner who doesn’t want children, or the parent may believe there is another opportunity that the child is keeping them from).
- Partner revenge — This often begins with a major falling out with the parents, which could be the result of infidelity or a custody dispute, and one parent kills the child to emotionally harm the other parent.
- Altruistic — This is a murder out of “love,” and research shows that parents in these killings love their children, but believe they are saving their child from a fate worse than death.
- Acutely psychotic — In this example, a parent could be experiencing acute psychosis, and they may even hear the voice of god telling them to kill their child.
Dr. Hatters Friedman says that it’s important we not let initial biases influence the way we view a filicide case. People often assume that if a mother kills her child, she must be mentally ill because we as a society believe that a mother would never kill her own children. Whereas fathers who are accused or convicted of killing their children are often seen as evil, but it is not that simple.
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“Certain groups of people tend to be vilified by the media, versus other people tend to be treated with understanding. We see this along gender and race lines,” she said. However, not all parents who kill their children are suffering from mental illness, and some had no documented history of mental illness before they took the child’s life.
A myriad of information about a suspect in a filicide case will be brought to light to determine a parent’s sanity at the time of the killing. Interviews with family members, neighbors and doctors who may have treated the parent after the incidents help inform forensic psychologists about the mental state during the killing.
Dr. Hatters Friedman says mothers and fathers could be found mentally ill or not mentally ill when they kill their child. It’s important to keep this in mind as the case makes it way through the court.
Another key thing she encourages is that parents reach out to their communities when they need support. One resource she says parents can look into in particular is their local Child Protective Services office, which will typically offer various kinds of support to parents in need.
“When people see a family member struggling and they are offering help, please keep in mind that CPS is not simply aiming to take children away, like many people fear. I think that’s an important thing that people understand.” — Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman
Though CPS is often a great resource, the high numbers of those in need and low number of staffers can often lead to scenarios where abuse is missed. One example of this is in the case of 8-year-old Sophia Mason, whose family filed a wrongful death petition in Alameda County after the child’s death.
The family alleges that they made several calls and complaints to the Alameda County CPS, because they believed she was suffering from neglect and abuse. Sophia’s mother and her mother’s boyfriend are both facing charges for her death.
If you are a parent and in need of support, please consider reaching out to San Francisco’s 24-Hour Crisis Line for Parents. Callers can reach the TALK Line at 415-441-5437 for counseling and information on where to get medical treatment and supportive services in the city of San Francisco.