I was talking today with a writer who’s doing a story for The New York Times, and I surprised her with a very strange fact: parents who kill their children are punished much less severely than are children who kill their parents, and they are ten times more numerous than kids who commit parricides.
Let me put that in numbers. Each year in America about 300 parents murder their children. Filicide, the deliberate act of a parent killing his or her own child, is the third-leading cause of death in American children ages 5 to 14 and it is the leading cause of death in children age 4 and under.
By contrast, there are only about 30 juvenile parricides a year in America.
According to Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, parents who kill children fall into five groups of motives or circumstances: (1) “altruism,” when a severely stressed, depressed, or mentally ill parent explains that the child was killed to “prevent its suffering”; (2) when an acutely psychotic parent has lost touch with reality and murders a child for irrational and crazy reasons; (3) fatal battering, which Resnick says accounts for 80% of homicides of children younger than one; (4) when a parent doesn’t want the child, feels incapable of caring for it, or feels the child is interfering with another, more valued relationship; and (5) as revenge or in retaliation against a spouse or lover for infidelity, other perceived failings or offenses, or as part of a custody dispute.
Compare these five situations to the main reason most kids kill parents: long term sexual, physical, and other severe abuse of the child by the parent. Most parricide defendants use a gun, very often when the abusive parent is sleeping.
Filicides, on the other hand, are “hands-on” murders. A 1988 Justice Department study found that while 61 percent of all murder defendants used a gun, only 20 percent of parents who killed children used one. Children are beaten, shaken, drowned, smothered, poisoned, and stabbed—arguably a more violent way to die than a shot in the head while sleeping.
Whether we’re talking about parricide or filicide, it is almost always the parent’s fault. Yet the courts hand down sentences to such parents that are much less severe than the sentences they hand down to juveniles when the tables are turned.
The Pendulum Foundation sponsored a study comparing parricide and filicide sentences in Colorado and found that sentences for parents who kill a child are more than twice as lenient as sentences for children who kill a parent.
So why do parents get off so easy and kids get so severely punished? It makes no sense. Aren’t kids supposed to be less culpable than adults? Aren’t they supposed to be more impulsive and less able to understand the consequences of their actions? Aren’t adults supposed to know better?
It’s all bassackwards and downside up.
The only thing I can think of is that every parent who sits on a jury can identify with another parent who has reached the breaking point with a kid throwing a tantrum. We can imagine ourselves losing it because we’ve all had moments when we’ve found ourselves on the verge of homicide but, like this guy, held back.
Because few of us were raised by homicidal, abusive parents, few of us can identify with the battered child and we thus judge him more harshly.
But it still isn’t right or sane.
Groove of the Day