On December 19, 2018, Terry Strawn a decorated Florida Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy, shot and killed his wife and 6-year-old granddaughter at his home. Then he drove to his daughter’s house, killed her and called 911, sending the officers to the school where he worked. When the police arrived, he committed suicide in front of his coworkers.
On October 15, 2018, Cynthia Collier, a home school mom from Columbia Tennessee, killed her four adopted children before killing herself. Her husband had filed for divorce in March. They also had three adult children.
On April 15, 2012, Tonya Thomas from Port St. John in Florida, shot her four children ages 12, 13, 15, and 17. After being shot once, two of the children went to a neighbor’s house for help but their mom encouraged them to come back inside. She then killed them and turned the gun on herself.
On April 16, 2009, Christopher Wood from Maryland shot his wife and almost decapitated his three toddlers before he turned the gun on himself. He was in debt by almost a half a million dollars with his house in foreclosure.
Filicide. The hard part about these cases is that none of the perpetrators exhibited any typical signs of depression, anxiety, or hostility prior to the killings. Instead, they behaved normally and were fully functional while plotting the murders of themselves and their families. Filicide accounts for 2.5% of all recorded homicides a year and is defined as multiple victim homicides in which the killer’s spouse, former spouse, or partner and one or more of the children are slain.
Statistics. This is not a commonly discussed topic amongst mental health practitioners, however, it should be. The statistics are frightening. FBI data shows that 450-500 children are murdered by their parent annually in the United States. Daughter’s are killed 52% of the time by their mothers, while sons are killed 57% of the time by their fathers. It is estimated that a mother kills her child somewhere in the United States every three days. Most of these incidents occur in middle-class homes in the suburbs.
Why? Typically, men fear that they can no longer provide for their family and therefore commit filicide. While women typically feel they are saving their child by killing them. According to the data, there are five reasons why parents kill their children. Here are the categories:
- Altruism filicide. The parent kills the child because they believe it is in the best interest of the child. They may believe that the world is too cruel to leave the child behind after they die and therefore, take the child with them. Or the child might have a disability (either real or imagined) that the parent finds intolerable and wants to relieve the child of their suffering.
- Acute psychosis filicide. In a state of psychosis, the parent kills the child with no rational motive. This includes mothers suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression. Other causes for the psychosis could be drug or alcohol abuse, a seizure disorder, or other severe mental illnesses.
- Unwanted child filicide. The parent believes the child is a hindrance to their life and kills the child. This includes parents who might financially benefit from the death of their child, those who don’t want a step-child, or those wanting to marry a partner who doesn’t want a child.
- Accidental filicide. The parent unintentionally kills the child while abusing them. While they meant to inflict injury, they did not mean to cause death. This also includes incidents resulting from anger or rage, during a sadistic act, administering severe punishment, engaging in sexual abuse, and/or neglecting the needs of a child.
- Spouse revenge filicide. The parent kills the child as a way of exacting revenge upon a spouse. It might be related to a spouse’s infidelity, divorce, abandonment, or custody agreement. The parent doesn’t want the other parent to have the child and therefore kills them. Or the parent wants the other parent to suffer as the result of the death of their child.
Prevention. Awareness is the first step in preventing this from happening. But mental health practitioners should also look for the following key warning signs by:
- Evaluating parenting capacity and asking about past abuse.
- Assessing parent for potential harm to their children.
- Performing a mental health screening for suicidal ideation or risk.
- Giving mental health screening specifically for depression, OCD, and postpartum.
- Determining the frequency of thoughts or fantasies of harm to children.
- Ruling out OCD thinking as the source of these thoughts.
- Asking about the details in bitter custody disputes or complex divorces involving children.
- Asking about leaving the children unattended, unsupervised, or showing a lack of attention needed to care for the children.
- Observing a lack of attention to personal hygiene.
- Asking about the fantasies of a parent being single, missing their freedom, or feeling tied down.
- Discussing any domestic conflict which results in one parent being in a robotic, zombie, or defeated state.
Filicide is not a new phenonium in our culture. There is even a nursery rhyme about Lizzie Bordon who is believed to have killed her father and step-mom with an ax in 1892. But it doesn’t have to continue. If you are concerned about a member of your family, please reach out for help. You might save a life.