Edition 2- Winter 2009
Men who murder their children
Every ten days a child in the UK is killed by a parent. In the US the largest number of mass killings are within families. Whilst Australian statistics on this issue are yet to be compiled, we know from the headlines that here too children are being murdered by their parents, predominantly fathers, with alarming frequency. This article discusses the recent spate of fathers killing their children and why experts believe it is a trend likely to continue.
There is nothing new about perpetrators of domestic violence threatening to harm or kill children as a means of controlling their partners. And as we know all too well, a high number of children are in fact killed as a result of child abuse by their step/father. In fact the most likely cause of death for a child is at the hands of a parent or stepparent (Cavanagh, Dobash and Dobash, 2007) and the number of parents killing their children is increasing (Stoppard, 2008).
However a new trend is emerging of fathers who may have never previously exhibited physical violence toward their children or their partner suddenly murdering their children in what is purported to be a tragic moment of despair.
Astounding news reports are telling of fathers drowning their children, burning entire families in their homes, stabbing children to death and, in the case that horrified Melbourne earlier this year, throwing a child off the West Gate Bridge.
These reports are frequently accompanied by accounts of the perpetrator as a loving family man and a devoted dad. Indeed, many of these murders are described as a desperate act by a man who simply could not bear to lose his family. Of course, this argument is predicated on the notion that his partner and children are lost to him if they are living without him – worse still with another man – but not if their lives are ended altogether. And in most of these cases access to the children was not being denied. So perhaps it is more about his having lost
control of his partner and children, than them being gone from his life.
There are of course also mothers who kill their children – acts which are no less reprehensible than those by the fathers. But the frequency and the circumstances are vastly different, as are the ensuing community and media portrayals. As Minna Nikunen’s research into news reports of murdering parents showed, ‘It is striking how idealized the image of fathers is’. Although ‘as men or as spouses they may have had some shortcomings’, their fatherhood prior to the murders is often lauded. ‘When mothers commit the same kind of [murder], their motherhood is not praised’ (Nikunen, 2005).
There is no disputing the higher incidence of murder by fathers. In only ‘5 per cent of cases it is the mother who is responsible’ (Martin, 2006), and ‘psychologists agree that the majority of women who kill their children are seriously mentally ill. But fathers who do so rarely are’ (Craig, 2006).
Psychiatrist, Alex Yellowlees, states that there are ‘distinct differences in the minds of men and women who harm their children. Women … tended to be mentally ill, often suffering from postnatal depression. In contrast, men tend to be struggling to deal with feelings of rage, jealousy, revenge and hatred’ (in Martin, 2006).
The current phenomenon of paternal filicide appears to have two variations – the altruistic killer and the vengeance murders.
Killing for Revenge
Those who kill for revenge are no less abhorrent, but perhaps easier to comprehend. Fathers kill children and their mother out of hatred for their ex/partner, or they murder the children and
not their mother because they believe their ex-partner will suffer more by living and experiencing the death of her children.
These murders are almost always precipitated by events in which the father feels slighted – his partner leaving him, moving on with a new relationship, or restricting access to children. Professor Jack Levin, of North-Eastern University in Boston, who is an expert on this issue, states: ‘There’s a catalyst that is seen as catastrophic in the mind of the killer’ (in Kelley, 2009).
The news reports contain a common refrain: ‘He was distraught because of the relationship coming to an end’ (Shaver and Johnson, 2007); ‘[He] reacted badly to the breakup of his marriage’ (Daily Express, 2008); ‘the bottom fell out of his world. He just cracked up’ (Daily Mail, 2007); The ‘breakdown of his marriage was an emotional earthquake’ (Bird, 2008); ‘The final straw … was his belief that his wife was pregnant by another man’ (Bunyan, 2003).
Jack Levin states it clearly: ‘The children are killed because the husband blames the wife and kills everything associated with her’ (in Kelley, 2009). Miriam Stoppard (2008) also explains: ‘the man now hates his wife so much that he will do anything to get back at her’ and forensic psychiatrist Neil Blumberg elaborates: ‘They want to inflict pain like they feel the woman inflicted upon them. … what’s the most horrible thing you can do to a woman with children but kill the children?’ (in Shaver and Johnson, 2007).
There are a litany of headlines: ‘Murdered his three-year-old daughter in revenge for his wife’s affair’ (Vallely, 2006); ‘Father killed children to punish estranged wife’ (Glendinning, 2003); ‘Father kills five children over wife’s affair’ (Australian Associated Press, 2009); ‘Father suffocated his two young children as revenge on their mother who he feared was cheating on him’ (Hull, 2007).
Dr Vince Egan, a forensic psychology lecturer, asserts ‘these men are thinking "How do I get back at somebody if I cannot otherwise upset them, because they care so little about me"’ (in The Scotsman, 2009).
This motive is incredibly blatant in some cases, where the father actually tells his estranged partner that he is killing the children to exact revenge against her. A father who drowned his three sons had vowed to kill the boys to pay back his wife, so that she would ‘suffer for the rest of her life’ (News.com.au, 2007).
Amy Castillo, whose children were subsequently murdered by their father during a court ordered visit, had written in a court petition for a protective order: ‘He has never actually hurt them, but did tell me that the worst thing he could do to me would be to kill the children and not me so I could live without them’ (MSNBC, 2008). Iain Varma rang his wife to tell her he was about to kill the children and himself, after learning of her affair (Daily Mail, 2007), and a father who suffocated his three-year-old daughter as revenge for his wife’s infidelity sent her a text message saying "Now you have the rest of your life to deal with the consequences"’ (Pearson, 2008).
Psychologist, Dr Tony Black, also believes that ‘what many child-killers are dealing with is their reaction to their wife leaving them. They struggle with feelings that are a cocktail of rage, jealousy, revenge and hatred’. Disturbingly though, Dr Black continues ‘they are people who lack strategies for giving vent to the turmoil in the way that many women can … cutting the sleeves from their unfaithful husband’s suits, destroying his favourite CDs, giving away his fine wine – attacking whatever he values’ (in Vallely, 2006).
Edition - Winter 009
Describing men’s CDs as analogous to women’s children is disturbing on many levels, including the assumptions that men value these types of items above their children, that women value nothing in their lives other than their children, but most of all, that children are objects to be possessed and controlled – or destroyed.
However, as discussed earlier, this mindset does permeate many of these cases. Quotes such as: ‘If I can’t have my children, you’re not going to have them either’ (Stoppard, 2008) and ‘These children are mine and they go with me’ (in The Scotsman, 2009) show that children are indeed seen as possessions by these fathers.
However, while custody issues are frequently cited as the catalyst for these killings, with fathers preferring their children dead than in a separate home, they are not the only ‘possessions’ he fears he will lose. Frighteningly, a report in
The Scotsman (2009) exposed a common feature amongst child murders as being preemptive revenge against a wife who might be planning to request a large divorce settlement (my emphasis).
Robert Farquharson, who was found guilty of drowning his three sons in a dam was reportedly ‘bitter that in their separation she had taken the good car, and had also moved on with another man. And maintenance payments had left him financially strapped … "There’s no way I’m going to let him, her and the kids live together in my house and I have to f---ing pay for it and also pay f---ing maintenance for the kids"’ (in News.com.au, 2007).
Child support is increasingly cited as the reason for filicides, most notoriously in the recent US case where Danny Platt, who owed his estranged wife money confessed to killing their 2-year-old son over the child support dispute. According to
Sky News (2009), Platt had recently been ordered to pay child support and ‘had said he would kill either his wife or his child before he paid’. Also in the US, Cameron Brown has this month begun retrial for murdering his daughter by throwing her off a cliff, allegedly to avoid paying child support (Associated Press, 2009).
In cases such as these, the fathers are detached enough from the children to see them as simply a problem which can be disposed of. The more frequent killings however, are by fathers who have hitherto been active in their children’s lives, and yet are still able to view them as objects – a means to an end. Professor Levin is cited as saying: ‘He doesn’t hate his children but he often hates his wife and blames her for his miserable life. He wants to execute revenge and the motive is almost always to "get even"’ (in Stoppard, 2008). Dr Egan believes this is ‘a phenomenon that is likely to continue as increasing numbers of families experience painful break-ups’ (in The Scotsman, 2009).
The other type of filicide becoming increasingly common in recent years is the supposed ‘altruistic’ murder. These killings involve the slaying of children and their mothers, usually culminating in the father’s suicide. These deaths are supposedly committed out of ‘misplaced love’. Dr Black explains that ‘the ones who try to kill themselves along with their children can feel they have let the family down in some way – debt, lost job, gambling... They feel that their suicide will leave the family without a breadwinner, so they’ve got to take the family with them – though some botch the job, or lose their nerve, or are brought to their senses by the act of killing their own children and then survive themselves’ (in Vallely, 2006).
This particular type of mass killing has become so prevalent in the US, with 10 such murder-suicides a week, that they
Brown was first tried three years ago, but a mistrial was declared when a jury deadlocked on the severity of the crime (Associated Press, 2009).