When Parents Kill: Filicide Usually Accompanied by mental illness


There are some commonalities that almost everyone in the autism community can get solidly behind and that is the issue of filicide. Too many children in this country are killed by their parents. One such murder alone is too many. Of course, our attention is brought to bear when we hear autism in conjunction with a child murder.

A Dallas woman murdered her two young children because, according to her 911 call, they were autistic. While our attention is focused on this case, as parents in the online community argue that media attention is on this case because of autism, and speculation amongst some parents runs to the paranoid ("Make autism parents look crazy and that's why they have autistic children. This all feels like one big CIA human experiment."), it's important to consider larger societal issues regarding filicide.

What kind of people kill their children? Is this really about the autism, the disability, and an inability to cope because of the situation? Or is there something else at work here?

Farooque and Ernst (2003) examined filicide and some of the conditions that appear to be involved in cases. They note that the US Justice Department reported that in 1999 there were over "1000 children died as a result of maltreatment where the alleged perpetrator was the child's parent."

The literature on filicide actually goes back a ways; Farooque and Ernst point out that Resnick in 1969 set out a classification system for why parents kill their children and note that intellectual impairment of the perpetrator was not part of the classification system. Indeed, they note "Nearly forty years later, it is apparent that
these constructs have added little to the understanding of the etiology of filicide and, more importantly, have often distracted investigators from more mundane and practical factors such as intellectual capacity and/or substance abuse of the perpetrator." If categorizing why parents say they do despicable acts isn't adequate as explanation, examining the mental health of the perpetrators can at least provide a window into the act.

According to  Farooque and Ernst, "Maternal mental illness has been found to be especially important in the incidence of filicide." Faroouque and Ernst summarize the current state of knowledge on filicide thusly: "mental illnesses, including psychotic symptomatology and affective illnesses, were frequently found in both male and female perpetrators of filicide."

Farooque and Ernst expanded their study to also examine the intellectual capacity of individuals who committed filicide during an eight year period. Their findings are interesting:

 Only one of the 19 cases revealed an Antisocial Personality Disorder while 10 of the 19 cases satisfied the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse/dependence. Two of these were intoxicated at the time of the crime. Only five subjects were psychotic at the time of the crime. On the other hand, eight of the 19 had some level of mental retardation. Of these, four scored in the borderline range (70-84) and four were in the range of mild mental retardation (55-70) based on DSM-IV criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2001).1 We also found a positive relationship between borderline or mild mental retardation and evidence of child neglect by the perpetrator prior to the filicide event. Eight subjects revealed evidence of having perpetrated child neglect/abuse and, of these, seven satisfied the criteria for borderline or mild mental retardation. These subjects were significantly younger than those with normal intelligence.
Hatters Friedman et al. (2005) found that "Over three-fourths of our filicide-suicide offenders had evidence of mental illness. Less than two-thirds of those with mental illness had been in mental health treatment." 

It would be convenient to twist this most recent filicide as an indictment of particular ideologies within the autistic community (indeed, this has already begun). The blame for these two children's murders does not rest in the autism community or in one particular faction of it. It does not rest with the public service announcements created by Autism Speaks (as some at Age of Autism would like to suggest). It doesn't rest with neurodiversity advocates. It doesn't rest with those who would cure autism at any cost. The blame rests squarely on the mother's shoulders.

There isn't enough information about this mother, her exposure to the autism community, her mental health, her level of support, period to answer why she did this act, what led her to that monstrous act. Is it more than likely, based on the research that has been done on filicide, that she is mentally ill? Yes. Does her lack of affect in the 911 call suggest mental illness? Yes. Can you be mentally ill and intentionally premeditate the murder of your children? Yes. Should she be held legally responsible? Yes, one way or another, she should be held accountable for her actions. They are reprehensible and without defense. Looking for other people to blame to further one's own ideology is irresponsible.

We do, as a society, need to do a better job of providing support to families, at providing education, and appropriate mediations. Was this a family in need of better support? What access to services were there? Was there a history of mental health issues? Speculation is pointless. Waiting for the facts in the case make sense here. What does seem clear is that the mother did do this. What is clear is that this is an unacceptable act. 

So, leaving that aside, what do we know about parents of autistic children, coping-wise? Pottie and Ingram (2008) found that the severity of autistic symptoms was not correlated with parental daily mood. They found that in "terms of significant predictors of daily positive mood, on average, 10 coping responses were found to predict daily positive mood." Pottie and Ingram found that "higher levels of daily positive mood were predicted by" the following type of coping: "Seeking Support coping," "Problem-Focused coping," "Positive Reframing coping," "Emotional Regulation coping,"  and "Compromise coping" while "lower levels of daily positive mood were associated with "Escape coping," "Blaming coping," "Withdrawal coping,"  and "Helplessness coping." 

In other words, how parents choose to cope is more important than the severity of the situation they are dealing with. If you're feeling overwhelmed, if you're feeling under-supported, then you need to reach out, you need to let people know. And we need to be there, be ready and willing to offer our shoulders and our time to those who are struggling.

Farooque R, & Ernst FA (2003). Filicide: a review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95 (1), 90-4 PMID: 12656455

Hatters Friedman S, Hrouda DR, Holden CE, Noffsinger SG, & Resnick PJ (2005). Filicide-suicide: common factors in parents who kill their children and themselves. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33 (4), 496-504 PMID: 16394226

Pottie, C., & Ingram, K. (2008). Daily stress, coping, and well-being in parents of children with autism: A multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 22 (6), 855-864 DOI: 10.1037/a0013604


kathleen said...

Thanks for this..my thoughts exactly. This woman did an awful awful horrible thing. The act needs to be separate from the autism. We know nothing about this except for a small sound byte. Not to make light of this situation-but,had she said she killed her children because she thought they were aliens..would it be more acceptable? Easier to hold her responsible?

spectrum times said...

I know everyone makes there own decisions however IMHO I feel there is some influence from Jenny McCarthy,Andy Wakefield,Generation (non)Rescue & there propaganda blog Age of Autism(also other related so called Autism "charities" & groups like them) for there Autism & spectrum negativity that comes out from them & the way the demonize Autism & sugarcoat it like a wolf's in sheeps clothing!

daedalus2u said...

I agree with Zoey, that the community you are in does make a big difference, and the community that AoA practices extremely poor coping-type skills regarding how to deal with stress surrounding autism. Their standard approaches (biomedical crap, blaming vaccines and big pharma) don't work, so they are left with no effective coping strategies when they really need them.

Demonizing autism, necessarily demonizes people who have autism. The “better dead than autistic” meme expands the Overton window and makes killing autistic children seem more acceptable.

I blogged about infanticide in this context a long time ago.


I think that this woman was psychotic (but I am not any kind of professional). I think you have to be psychotic to kill your children. You can be very smart, extremely rational, and still be psychotic and want to kill your children. I see is mostly in terms of physiology, physiology that I think would be improved by increasing NO levels.

I think that anyone and everyone can be made psychotic by being put under enough stress. If you have been stressed and have not “broken”, then you haven't been put under enough stress yet.

I think that people get put under so much stress that they can't cope with it and become psychotic is a problem of our society, a problem that needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, I think it is (to a large extent) a problem of bullying, because bullying people is the most common way that people get put under a lot of stress. Bully someone enough and they will become psychotic. That is what torture does to people.

When people bully, what they are trying to do is induce a psychotic state in the object of their bullying. That is what many (so-called) normal people do to people they don't like. That is what the “vaccines cause autism” community is trying to do to everyone else who doesn't subscribe to their belief system.

daedalus2u said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
daedalus2u said...

The removed post was an inadvertant double post. If there is another deleted post by me it will because I had to do it again.

KWombles said...

I think most of my posts make it clear that I view many of the posters at AoA, and certainly the editors at AoA as maladaptive copers (at the nicest). I believe that AoA and the organizations that foster conspiracies the belief that children with autism were stolen, lost, etc., do tremendous harm to both autistics and parents looking for a supportive community.

I do not think, having said that, that it is appropriate to blame any group for this woman's actions. That's using the situation to further one's own ideology and agenda and is no different from what many posters over at AoA have spent the day doing.

Not enough facts. Not enough known. Not right to speculate.

However, if we want to focus on educating and arming parents with the tools to cope adaptively, I'm all ears and all for it.

I'm not interested in tearing down other people just to make myself feel better. And some of the posts I've read today appear to be about doing that. It doesn't help anyone in the community and it doesn't provide anyone with support. It doesn't do a thing to make the world a better place, a safer place.

the Nurskeptic said...

In this recent case, I had read that the younger child was not even diagnosed as autistic. I do wonder about the level of support the woman had from her family and others. A friend of mine with bipolar disorder has a son with autism and she expresses frustration frequently with the amount of help she is able to get from her health insurance, her town's education system, and other institutions that are supposed to be in place to help. Fortunately, she has a large community of friend support and her own mental health seems stable. This is the second case in several months where a mother got the idea in her head that her kid was autistic despite no diagnoses and took the child's life. The previous case, the mother was a teacher's aide for a special school that dealt with autistic kids. Because of the challenges of having a kid with autism, there needs to be some systematic way of assessing the mental health of the caregivers and respite care, support groups, and whatever they need readily available to them for the safety of these kids.

錢靜怡錢靜怡錢靜怡 said...


Lyn said...

I'm tired of stories like this. It makes me angry.
Things like this should not happen.

Eva said...

It's also very hard to be the autistic parent of a NT kid.

Clay said...

A video of her going to jail:


daedalus2u said...

I don't think that trying to find people to blame for this is a useful coping skill, and that wasn't my intent in my comment. Blaming the mother isn't going to bring the children back either.

If we as a society are going to rely on deterrence, on fear of prosecution by the criminal justice system to keep mothers from killing their children, then our society is completely broken from top to bottom.

KWombles said...

Holding this woman responsible and accountable for her actions isn't about deterrence to other individuals, and isn't something I raised.

My primary points in my post are:

1. research shows that the vast majority of parents who kill their children are mentally ill.

2. blaming various factions in the autism community is pointless and irresponsible.

3. we need to work on helping parents learn adaptive coping skills.

4. we need to provide better support to families and individuals on the spectrum.

I would restate again, for emphasis, that individuals in the community who are using this story to further their ideology should be ashamed.

I'd also add that people running on their emotions rather than their logic and reason end up saying things they would have been better off not saying (not suggesting anyone in the comments has done this, but folks are doing it all over the web).

We do not know all the details of this story. What we do know is that two children are dead at the hands of their mother. That is reprehensible.

David said...

While I have little doubt mental illness is a factor, I hesitate to call this woman "psychotic", because that (at least on a "colloquial" level) suggests someone who is frenzied and acting on impulse or completely randomly. It sounds to me like this woman committed her crimes more or less "in cold blood". All in all, I think this fits a state I would call "rational delusion", in which someone is no longer acting rationally in relation to the real world but still able to respond "logically" to what is perceived as reality.

The author said...

Trouble is I don't think that research is properly grounded, it is all dealing with questionable constructs.

To put it another way, if society deems that only an insane person is capable of killing there own children, then filicide can only ever be accomplished by insane parents, it is a self defining truism and I don't think it gets much further than that as throw away all those DSM definitions and consider what is behind them. A set of constructs with regard to what is considered normal and funtional in society.

Much though we may be appalled by it, infanticide has been part of other historical cultures and a more sociological and anthropological approach is called for in understanding the phenomenon

The author said...

I think it is wrong to put the blame on any narrow group, because as I say the pressure is cultural and anthropological beyond the autism commmunity, especially when considered against a background of changing cultural attitudes toward suicide and assisted suicide of terminally ill or otherwise disabled people, deemed to be in a state of life that is not worth living and becoming increasingly acceptable in society.

Generation Rescue and all the rest of them only exist because of wider prejudices against disability in general. It is just that we all have tunnel vision in this community and don't see the parallels elsewhere.

In the meantime, both sides of the autism debate ARE making political capital out of this and ought to be ashamed of the way they are just finding another stick to beat there opponents who they have already demonised.

KWombles said...

Fortunately, the court system separates mentally ill from insanity. Insanity, despite popular conceptions, is not a psychological construct; it is a legal one. Did she know right from wrong when she committed the acts? That's more difficult to ascertain if one added in a culture that condoned such behavior. The American court doesn't have to consider cultural and anthropological constructs, though. It's against the law to commit murder. Did she know it was wrong at the time she did it? That in the end, is what will matter.

Whether she spends her time being held accountable in jail or in a psychiatric facility, she will be held accountable. Far too many people on the internet have demonstrated rampant emotionalism on this and engaged in inflammatory rhetoric that honestly doesn't make them look any better than the AoAers with their rhetoric. It's disappointing.

I'm aware of that infanticide and filicide has been practiced throughout time and is still practiced with societal approval in some modern cultures. It doesn't make it morally acceptable behavior, and it behooves us to speak out against it when it occurs, to work towards changing the world. Genital mutilation occurs in far too many societies. So does child abuse. Just because something occurs and is sanctioned in a society doesn't make it right. Noting that it does occur and is socially sanctioned without the disclaimer that it doesn't make it right, well, it's kinda like those folks who say a judge approves every single client at the Rotenberg Center who gets shocks. So? Legal and court sanctioned doesn't make something right.

Mental illness isn't an excuse for the behavior either, but it is important to note that it is there in the majority of cases, according to the research that's been done.

And of course, as in any other field, science can be performed to higher standards, and continued research that improves on previous research is necessary.

The author said...

Except of course that I see it is the society which is sick, and this as a symptom.

Where does responsibility begin and end, and is that all a construct too, how voluntary is anything?

I believe it is the same forces at work which "normalised" infanticide in historical societies which is at work in this one and an event like the one in question is just an outlier of something really nasty beneath the surface. It is a breaking wave in a chaotic boiling sea.

An evil person is an evil person, but as Milgram showed ordinary people can do evil things to when they let go of there own moral compass and go with the flow.

There is another side to this as well as I am observing, and that it is a catalyst to bring all sorts of hidden nastiness to the surface in people we consider to be "like us" and quite moral. That is to say an emotional reaction that will want to seek revenge on a whole class of people they have less regard for than themselves, be that a category of notionally mentally ill people or psychos, or a category of ranting curebies.

It's the lynch mob mentality.

Hopefully justice will take it's course and a fair trial will ensue with everything taken into account, all those things we do not know but only speculate about.

Ed said...

I agree with The author (as much as I can understand of his comment anyway).

I also agree with Kim that the blame rest squarely on the mother's shoulders.

I don't see any reason for analyzing her behavior or describing it as anything but murder. The only story is to end the story. Double murder, suspect in custody-that's it.

The video from CNN (I think it was theirs) callously jumped to parents talking about the lack of services which would help parents cope. Others have speculated on the mothers mental state and her need for mental health services.

This seems socially irresponsible and it totally disregards what disability is (beyond the fraudulent medical model) and the issues which are most important to the disability population.

When an autistic person acts violently, it's a person acting violently. When a person with mental illness acts violently, it's the same. When an autistic and mentally ill, black person etc. acts violent it's front page news. Each of these categories of people have been unfairly stigmatized as violent. The fewer categories the violent offender fits, the less sensational it becomes so it's less marketable.... but the funders of journalism created the appetite.

Research on the ratio of specific categories of people committing violence are traditionally biased and are NOT ever meant to create better "services" for the people in these categories any more than the sensationalism of journalist is meant to encourage more aid for these people.

Journalism caters to the elite in the same way service providers for the non-elite design their services in a way cater to the elite. Catering to the elite means supporting their bigotry and encouraging stigma on the people they want to disenfranchise or to keep that way (as well as promoting how they are treated as being their fault).

The goal is to protect the ruling class from the rest. It's a contradiction for the general public to request more and/or better services without first recognizing the history and the intent of the services already in place and without researching how to make things better from the recipients of services point of view.

Ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
daedalus2u said...

I think that my blog post on xenophobia is relevant.


As I see it, the point of xenophobia is to rank people in a social hierarchy so that the people at the bottom are considered low enough status that they can be abused and even killed. I see this is the entire point of social hierarchies.

I think to a large extent this is the entire point of the criminal justice system, to “blame” and “other” people and turn them into “criminals” so they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and are not “like us” and so that people will be compelled to act differently than “criminals” because of the adverse consequences of being at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

I think that is what the people at AoA are doing and trying to do, out-do each other in pushing this woman to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

I completely agree with Ed that catering to the elites (those at the top of the social hierarchy) is exactly what everyone is trying to do (so as to move up the social hierarchy themselves). The exception is (usually) people who are not on the social hierarchy (for example people with autism, children, adults who are considered non-competent (I am not meaning any of this in a disparaging way)) and people who are not playing the social-hierarchy game (people who subscribe to diversity in all its forms).

Autism Reality NB said...

Your original comment on this site is reasonable and balanced. Unfortunately the same can not be said for some of your fellow

Neurodiversity followers. Beginning with ZR (spectrum times) and daedalus2 some of your commentators just couldn't resist letting their hatred of those they disagree with show through.

The Neurodiversity hate and hypocrisy is sad to behold, especially at times like this.

KWombles said...


Far too many people have used this and other similar horrible events to further their agenda.

Ask yourself, were you any different here?

You didn't make it a comment on the death of two innocents and how we need to work harder as a community to provide the support system so that parents, family members, and individuals with disabilities and other special needs ALL have the structures in place to lead satisfying lives.

You didn't use this to argue that mental health services are far too paltry and all too often the disabled are cared for by people who may be ill-equipped to handle the challenges.

I remain extremely disappointed that far too many in the online community are more interested in taking pots shots at each other than in working to make the world a better place.

You've spent far too many years demonizing neurodiversity. I do not think it means what you think it does. I know without doubt that I am not representative of what you think it does.

Acceptance doesn't mean doing nothing.

Appreciation doesn't mean doing nothing.

Accommodation surely doesn't mean doing nothing.

It means respecting the inherent value that all human life has and appreciating the unique qualities of each individual. Accommodation means working hard to put in place the supports and therapies that will help each individual have the most satisfying and independent a life as possible.

Far too many in the online community appear to be more interested in the blame game and oneupsmanship rather than support and help.