Infanticide is the killing of an infant or young child(ren) by a parent or stepparent; however, specific terminology varies with the age of the victim. Murders occurring within 24 hours of birth are referred to as neonaticides. Those committed after the first 24 hours but prior to 1 year of life are labeled as infanticide. And, the murder of a child more than 1 year of age is referred to as filicide.
In the United States, mothers commit the majority of filicidal acts. Fathers are more likely to kill older children, and as a result of physical abuse. Homicide is the leading cause of death resulting from injury for infants less than a year old. Slightly more males under the age of 1 are killed than females. In 2000, 10.3 and 7.8 per 100,000 males and females were killed, respectively. According to FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports, from 1976 to 1991, deaths of children less than 1 year of age increased while the number of older children (i.e., ages 1 through 4) remained relatively constant. The number of deaths of children less than 1 year of age became stabile between 1991 and 2000.
Although alternative labels have been offered, the act of infanticide is not a new phenomenon. Documents of cases of parental child murders can be traced throughout history due to superstitious beliefs, poverty, and overpopulation. In ancient Greece, children with birth defects were destroyed in fear of the cost they would incur the state. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, Christian doctrines and Protestant churches strongly enforced laws against killing a child. More recently, for hundreds of years, female infanticides were prominent and socially accepted in India and China. Impoverished Indian families feared they would be unable to fulfill their daughter’s responsibility of a marriage dowry. In China, food and medicine were sparsely available, and it was better thought to invest time and money in raising a productive male than a consuming female.
Child murder is relatively uncommon; however, the majority of child deaths are at the hands of parents (or stepparents). The unthinkable act of infanticide has received a growing amount of media attention. Highly publicized cases have lead to a growing interest by the public and law enforcement agencies alike. In an attempt to determine causality, many researchers have categorized different types of infanticidal acts: accidental, acutely psychotic, altruistic, spouse revenge, and unwanted child(ren).
Accidental deaths are typically those that result from physical punishment gone too far. Acutely psychotic cases, the most common, usually result from mental illness. Parental psychosis can range from severe depression to delusions. Altruistic cases are those where the parent believes killing the child is the merciful way to protect them from current hardships (e.g., economic struggles, abusive spouse). Spouse revenge cases are attributed to the desire to hurt the husband or wife by inflicting death on the child. Unwanted children deaths typically result from teenage pregnancies and low socioeconomic families. Neonaticides are most frequently the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Young (or teenaged), single, uneducated women offer the highest risk in this category. Because the majority of neonaticide victims are born outside of a hospital, the prevalence is probably underrepresented.
Such births can lead to obstetric complications and accidental death. Inadequate social support, and possible embarrassment by the church and family, might contribute to the prevalence of neonaticides.
Circumstances vary for each parent, child, and case; however, the most common methods of killing an infant include battering, maltreatment, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, and death by firearm. Stabbing, mutilation, and death by fire are the least common. Infanticide is most often viewed as a crime of desperation or result of mental illness rather than a premeditated, malicious act. The legal systems employed in England and Canada offer statutes that address infanticide as a result of postpartum depression, thus leading to lessened sentencing. Conversely, in the United States, mental disease or defect is not in itself cause for a just defense. A better understanding of the pathology and criminal nature of perpetrators is necessary to provoke early prevention and provide help to those who need it.
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