Why parents kill their babies

"We all have some role to play in keeping our social world as safe as it can be."

"We all have some role to play in keeping our social world as safe as it can be." Photo: Michele Mossop

It is hard to comprehend why someone would kill an infant. It is often the job of criminologists to bring some understanding to seemingly incomprehensible acts. It is also our job to examine the social context of crimes, that we can deliver better ways to respond in order to prevent them from happening in the future.

So, why do people kill infants? Not surprisingly, the research points to a complex picture of both social and individual factors: child vulnerability, cultural isolation, social stressors, drug misuse and mental illness.

Infanticide is treated as a special category of homicide, one that takes into account the mitigating circumstances of the mother. In many jurisdictions in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, the Philippines and Turkey, there is a specific offence category of infanticide that acknowledges the context of the act and the uniquely stressful circumstance of motherhood.

According to a 2013 review of infanticide by Lisa deBortoli, Australian cases had a number of common characteristics.

Children aged less than 12 months had multiple vulnerabilities such as premature birth, multiple disabilities, developmental delays and other complex needs. Parental substance abuse was present in a majority of the cases. Parental mental illness, domestic violence and intellectual disability were prevalent and the majority of families were affected by two or more risk factors.

(It's worth noting that recent research on stepfathers and fathers who kill infants suggests a different range of factors including alcohol and drug use, abuse and revenge as key factors.)

Historically, infanticide has been reported in most societies and motivated by a number of reasons including eugenics, gender selection and social stigma. According to US researcher Michelle Oberman, infanticide is overwhelmingly a product of and reaction to social circumstances.

According to Oberman, there are multiple social stressors that impact on the lives of the mothers who commit infanticide. These women tend to be relatively young mothers, they are involved in unstable relationships and tend to be poor, isolated from family, church, neighbourhood or community support systems. In the United States the majority of women who purposefully killed their children were experiencing some form of extreme emotional distress at the time of their crimes.

According to an older north American study there are five different types of infanticide: (1) altruistic infanticide, where a mother believes she is killing the child as an act of love for the purpose of relieving the child's perceived suffering; (2) acutely psychotic/delirious homicide; (3) unwanted child infanticide, where the child is regarded as a hindrance; (4) abusive/accidental infanticide that involves ongoing and abusive parenting; and (5) spousal revenge infanticide.

It has been suggested that these older categories need to be revised in relation to changing social conditions.

Importantly, legal responses to infanticide recognise both the social conditions under which the crimes are committed and the most suitable sentencing solution. The tendency among many, however, is to focus on the individual, and call for tougher sentences for perpetrators in order to "send a strong message".

Courts have for some time not taken this approach. Instead, the approach has been to recognise that social circumstances are important determinants of infanticide. This insight makes infanticide easier to understand and harder to prevent.

It is easy to understand how social conditions can become so terrible. And it is increasingly more difficult to justify investment in social housing, social welfare and social support mechanisms. So, if the problem is related to both the social circumstances and the individual we need to continue to see our social safety net as a preventive device that can save lives. Equally, the moment we walk away from our social supports, we increase the risk of crimes such as infanticide that have social origins.

With such incomprehensible crimes, there is a tendency to also frame the perpetrator as incomprehensible. It's important to remember that this kind of crime has a strong social component and we all have some role to play in keeping our social world as safe as it can be.

Associate Professor John Fitzgerald lectures in criminology at The University of Melbourne.

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