CHILD HOMICIDE: Review of Statistics and Studies – June 2004

CHILD HOMICIDE:

This resume provides selected information on child homicide from six countries: England and Wales, Scotland, Canada, USA, and Australia. The information given is primarily intended to encourage and inform public debate and is of limited extent. Some of the national data for child homicide is not always comparable (for instance, different ranges of child ages applying in different countries), but the general pattern of prevalence, perpetration, methods, reasons, and criminal justice outcomes, is fairly consistent between these countries..

DEFINITIONS:

Filicide:

Killing of own child by a biological parent

Neonaticide:

Killing of own child within the first 24 hours of birth by a parent

Infanticide:

Killing of own child less than 1 year old by a parent

Filicide-suicide:
Killing of own child by biological parent followed by suicide of parent

Familicide:

Murder of own child and other parent followed by suicide

KEY OBSERVATIONS:

· Most children killed are under the age of 5 or 6

· Infants under I year old are the most vulnerable

· Boys are generally at slightly more risk than girls

· Child homicide victims account for 8% to 14% of all homicide victims

· A parent is the principal suspect/perpetrator in 50% to 70% of all family child homicides

· Male parents are responsible for about two thirds of family child homicides and female parents about one third

· Biological fathers are responsible for about 55% of murders of their own offspring and biological mothers about 45%

· Mothers are responsible for the majority of infant deaths

· Children under 1 year old are especially vulnerable to physical assault (fists, feet, shaking, dropping, throwing)

· Children under the age of 6 are more likely to be killed by strangulation or a beating than by other means

· A substantial proportion of family members responsible for family child homicide are classified as mentally ill

· About a half of mentally ill perpetrators of child homicide have a psychotic disorder

· A substantial proportion of parents who kill their children express the belief that they had acted altruistically

· A substantial number of filicides occur following parental separation, primarily by fathers: of these, a substantial proportion then commit suicide and a further significant proportion require psychiatric services

· Male parents who kill their children are generally treated more harshly and unsympathetically by the legal process than female parents: fathers are more likely than mothers to be charged with murder than manslaughter, and more fathers than mothers convicted of manslaughter are imprisoned; convicted mothers are more likely than fathers to be hospitalised or treated rather than imprisoned.

PREVALENCE:

England and Wales:

During the 12-year period 1992 to 2002/03, an average of 78 children per year aged under 16 years were victims of homicide in England and Wales(1), representing an average of 11.5% per year of all homicides. The numbers of child homicides per year ranged from 64 to 99, corresponding to 7.8% to 13.7% of all homicides respectively. In 2002/03, a total of 99 children under 16 were victims of child homicide, about two thirds of them under the age of 5. The total number represented 9.8% of all homicides in England and Wales for that year.

These totals do not include sudden infant deaths (SIDs) or cot deaths unless homicide was suspected. In 2001, there were 231 SIDs in England and Wales. The rates of cot death vary with social class and marital status. In 2001, the rate was 1.28 per 1000 live births among children of single mothers, six times the rate of 0.2 per 1000 for babies of married
couples. The rate for babies registered by unmarried parents living at different addresses was 0.71 per 1000 live births, over three times the rate for married couples.

A report published in April 2004 by researchers from the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID)(2) suggested that as many as one in 10 of sudden infant deaths could be cases of murder or child neglect, amounting to 30 to 40 of ‘covert homicides’ of babies a year in Britain. The number of sudden baby deaths registered in Britain has steadily fallen in recent years. However, the researchers believed that the number of suspected ‘covert homicides’ has stayed about the same, although they admitted that “it is impossible to be certain of the exact figures.” The findings were based on the national Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Death in Infancy 1993-1996, a study of the outcome of some half million births.

Scotland:

In Scotland, during the 10-year period 1993 to 2002(3), an average of 9 children per year under age 16 were victims of homicide, representing an average of 8.2% per year of all homicides.

In 2002 in Scotland, a total of 10 children under 16 were victims of child homicide, half of them under the age of 5. The total number represented 7.9% of all homicides in Scotland for that year.

Canada:

The report Family Violence In Canada: A Statistical Profile 2003(4), gave details in Table 3.7 of the cause of death for known child and youth homicides under the age of 18 committed by family members during the 27-year period 1974 to 2001. A total of 1,326 children and youths were victims of homicide by family members in this period, an average of 49 per year. Of this average, 41 were children under age 12 (84% of the total for under 18s).

In 2001, 69 children and youths under the age of 18 were murdered, representing about 12% of total homicides in Canada in that year.

USA:

According to a US Bureau of Justice Statistics report(5) on infanticide, during the 25-year period 1976 to 2000, an average of 638 children each year under the age of 5 years were victims of homicide.

Based on 14,069 of such victims in the period, 55% were male and 45% female. Most of the children under age 5 murdered in the US in this period were therefore male.

In 2001, the total number of victims under the age of 18 was about 1,300, according to a report Child Maltreatment 2001 by the US Department of Health and Human Services(6). Children under the age of 1 year were the most vulnerable, accounting for 41% of the total. Children aged 1 – 5 years accounted for a further 44%, making a total proportion of 85% for children under age 6. Children and youths aged 6 -17 accounted for 15%.

A further report from the same source(7) offered several general conclusions;

Many researchers and practitioners believed that child fatalities due to abuse and neglect were under-reported. Recent studies in Colorado and North Carolina estimated as many as 50 to 60% of deaths resulting from abuse or neglect were not recorded. These studies showed that neglect was the most under-recorded form of fatal maltreatment.

Australia:

A report Children as Victims of Homicide, published in March 1996 by the Australian Institute of Criminology(10), gave some statistics for child homicide in Australia for the period July 1989 to December 1993.

The study found that during this period, there were 108 known child homicide incidents resulting in the deaths of 126 children under the age of 15, this number representing about 8.5% of all homicides in this period. 25 of the incidents (20%) involved multiple victims – sometimes the mother, sometimes another child. In almost all these 25 cases, the offender was male.

The total of 126 children comprised 58 boys and 67 girls (and one child whose sex was unknown).

In Australia, as elsewhere, there is an enhanced risk for children under the age of one year. For those under this age, the number of deaths by homicide equals or exceeds the number of deaths caused through motor vehicle accidents, accidental poisonings, falls or drownings. For infants under 1 year of age, one of the biggest single categories of death (20% in 1991) is ‘Sudden Death, Cause Unknown’ (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1988 – 1991).

Alder and Polk (2001)(9) gave child homicide rates for Australia for the decade 1July 1989 to 30 June 1999. These are shown in Figure 2 overleaf.

METHODS/CAUSES OF DEATH:

Canada:

During the 27-year period 1974 to 2001(4), children under age 6 were more likely to have been killed as a result of strangulation or a beating than by other means. In contrast, older child victims were increasingly likely to die as a result of a shooting, from 32% of victims aged 6 – 8 to over 50% aged 15 – 17.

The cause of death for victims under age 18 by family members during this period was given in Table 3.7 (of ref 4).

USA:

According to the report Murder in Families(8) for homicides in 1988, when parents killed their offspring under the age of 12, they rarely used a firearm or knife. These weapons were responsible for only 7% of offspring victims under this age.

Strangulation, use of a blunt instrument, and pounding with fists or feet were among the more frequent methods of murder when firearms or knives were not used.

Of the total 84 murders of offspring under age 12, one or more reasons were identified for 62 of the victims.

The most frequent method of murder was beating, punching with fists, kicking, throwing, pushing, slapping, hitting (with belts, hammers, wooden brushes), and striking the body against furniture (eg. shower head or walls).

Dahlia Lithwick in an article When Parents Kill(19) posted in March 2002, reported that a study by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) showed that while the victims of maternal killings were almost always found either in or close to the home, fathers tended to dispose of bodies further away.

Patricia Pearson (1998) in her book When She Was Bad (20) reported that police investigators and academics guess that 10 to 20% of the six to eight thousand sudden infant death (SID) cases recorded each year in the US conceal accidental or deliberate suffocation.

Australia:

Information on methods used in cases of child homicide was given in the March 1996 Children as Victims of Homicide publication(10) for the period July 1989 to December 1993.

Infants under 1 year old were especially vulnerable to assault (fists, feet, shaking, dropping, throwing). About half of all assault victims under the age of 15 were in the under-one-yearold group, while older children were more often the victims of firearms or knives.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE OUTCOMES:

The report also concluded that the urban county data used for the study provided little support for criticism that the police and courts treated family violence generally less seriously than other violence. In several important respects, the criminal justice outcomes of family murder defendants were about the same as those of other murder defendants. However, this was not the case with offspring murder. Defendants charged with offspring murder were less likely to be convicted of first degree murder, less likely to be convicted of voluntary / nonnegligent manslaughter, less likely to be jailed for life, and more likely to be convicted for a less serious violent offence.

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