Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick on Why Parents Kill Their Own Kids

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Andrea Yates in court

Are these crimes ever religiously motivated?

I would not say there are religious motivations, but with religious people, the nature of the psychosis may encompass religious themes. Andrea Yates came to believe that her children were engaged in such bad behavior that they were going to end up in hell. She believed that she was doing them a favor by killing them before the age of accountability so that they could enter heaven.

But if you don’t believe in heaven or hell, you wouldn’t kill for those reasons…

Yes, a strong belief in the hereafter may have an influence.

Is there any way to prevent these types of crimes?

It’s a complicated question. There are broad issues, such as easier access to mental health care, which is a problem right now with state cutbacks becoming severe. Another thing is awareness. If a woman is very depressed and she has young children and makes a suicide attempt, there is 1-in-20 chance that she will try to take the kid with her. Specific inquiries about thoughts of harm toward children should occur in any evaluation of a seriously depressed [mother]. (More on Jared Loughner: Fear-Mongering and the Mentally Ill)

Have you had any cases similar to this one?

There was the case of 10-year-old [and a younger child, whose mother attempted to kill them both.] The mother was found legally insane. She was psychotic. She was severely depressed and then had this sudden belief that this is what she had to do. She did it with a knife, very suddenly, and then called the police after she stayed overnight with her dead child. There was no effort to flee. It wasn’t like, I’m going to kill the children and take off and have a good life. She was a physician and she was married to a physician. One of the children survived the knifing.

Are these parents mostly sent to mental institutions because they use the insanity defense — or do they go to prison?

The vast majority of parents who kill their children go to prison rather than mental institutions. I just saw an article written by the FBI: for women who kill their children and are not found insane, the mean length of their prison sentence is 17 years; in women who kill newborns, the mean length is 9 years. However, out of all homicide [perpetrators], none have a higher incidence of being found insane than mothers who kill their children.

Killing newborns is much more common than killing older children.

As far as death by homicide goes, you’re more likely to be killed on the day you are born than on any other day of your life.

Are these mothers dangerous to people other than their own children?

They are not a general danger to the community. There are infanticide laws in 22 countries, including England, Canada and Australia — instead of women being charged with murder, [if the child is] under 1 year old, they are charged with infanticide. In the U.K., the vast majority get probation rather than prison. The recidivism rate is very low. The risk of suicide is substantial, however. (More on Arizona Shooting: Are Gaps in Mental Health Care Coverage to Blame?)

Is the bad economy likely to lead to more of these cases?

Suicide does increase some when there are more people losing their jobs, so there might be little an increase in familicide where the father is unemployed. As far as mothers go, if she’s the sole support, I don’t know if that will increase.

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