Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick on Why Parents Kill Their Own Kids

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Andrea Yates in court

On Jan. 27, Julie Powers, 50, a mother of two in Tampa, drove her 13-year-old son, Beau, home from soccer practice and allegedly shot him in the head “for talking back” to her. Then she went upstairs and shot Calyx, her 16-year-old daughter dead as she sat at her computer doing her homework, according to an arrest affidavit. At the time, her husband was serving in Qatar as an army colonel. Powers said her kids were “mouthy.”

But what kind of parent would possibly murder her own children for mouthing off? TIME spoke with Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western and a leading expert on parents who kill their children. He testified for the defense in the case of Andrea Yates, who was convicted in 2002 of drowning her five children in the bathtub. The murder conviction was later overturned and she was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity — as Resnick had argued. (More on Five Ways to Stop Stressing)

Over the course of his 40-year career, Resnick has worked on 40 to 60 cases involving parents who killed their children. Although he cannot offer a mental diagnosis or legal opinion in the Powers’ case, he can discuss the motivations of parents who kill and what we know about them. About 250 to 300 children are murdered by their parents each year.

Does this seem to be a typical case of a mother who kills her children?

It’s aytpical. Younger children are much more likely to be killed than teenagers. If a child is killed for being “mouthy,” the remark that came out here, that’s more likely to lead to fatal battering. [Usually, in such cases,] a 3-to-5-year-old is thrown against a wall in an overzealous attempt at discipline and dies — as opposed to [a parent] planning to kill and shooting them with a gun.

You have identified five main circumstances in which parents kill their children.

The first is “altruistic.” The classic case is the mother who plans to take her own life and believes that the children are better off in heaven with her. Number Two is the case in which the parent is acutely psychotic. The third type is fatal battering [as described above]. The fourth is [to get rid of] an unwanted baby, for example an infant born out of wedlock. The final category is spousal revenge, [in which a parent kills the children to hurt the partner], typically after infidelity.

What we know so far about the Florida woman doesn’t fit easily into any of these categories. If the children were much younger, it could be maltreatment, but at this age, that does not fit how it usually works. My guess is that eventually we will have a much better picture. It might be very severe depression. It might be [that she thought they were] possessed by a demon. A lot more will come out than just this idea that you kill a kid because he’s mouthy.

I’ve read that mothers who kill their older children are likely to be married and employed, which was the case here and seems kind of strange to me.

Mothers with preschool children are less likely to be employed [than those with teenagers, so it could just reflect the population]. A single mother is more likely to be overwhelmed because there’s no one to help, but that’s with younger children. The newspaper said [that classmates and teachers described the children as] polite and good students. It is not an example of delinquent kids who are out of control and the mother doesn’t know what to do with them. (More on Health Check-Up: Kids and Mental Health)

I’ve also read that murders of older children are more likely to be extremely violent.

Actually, the degree of violence depends very much on the child. A 3-year-old you can easily strangle or overdose. Teens are not going to cooperate in being killed so the use of a knife or gun is more necessary. In some cases of fathers who kill teenagers there has been a real standoff and hostility, but for mothers that’s not the usual pattern. I would not say the method of death expresses rage — it’s just what’s needed to take the life of older children.

Any speculation about what might have happened here?

[Again,] my hunch is that a lot more is going to come out than this early statement, which sounds outrageous. Either we will find out that she was either depressed or psychotic, or something else is cooking.

As I understand it, there was a note left that said she planned to kill herself after killing the children, so the question becomes: was the primary issue that she was going to take her own life and then decided to take the children’s lives, or did she decide to take the children’s lives first and couldn’t go on after that?

Fathers are more likely to wipe out the whole family. In 95% of those cases, the fathers are the killer. The father may feel, I can’t support my family, I’m responsible for them, I’ll take all of them out with me. Whereas [murders by a] mother with this age children are “altruistic — they murder out of love, not out of hate — and they genuine believe that they are doing the children a favor. [But if that was the case here,] you would not expect the remark that they were “mouthy.” If she did do it for that reason, you’d expect her to put a better face on it. (More on Perspective on the Parenting Debate: Rich Parents Don’t Matter?)

In one case I had, a woman killed a 3-year-old and herself. The note said, ‘Bury us in one box, we belong together.’ In that type, it’s kind of an extended self [the mother sees the child as part of her]. It’s not necessarily negative; the mother may well think of young children as extensions of herself and feel that her children would be lost without her. [She thinks that] even if the husband remarried, they’d have a mean stepmother and so the children would be better off with her in heaven.

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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