Search for understanding

What drives a parent to kill a child?

Experts point to a variety of reasons, a key one being mental illness

Posted 4/24/17

Every day, Stephanie Schmalz drives by Highlands Ranch on C-470 from her home in Morrison to her job in Lone Tree.

So when she learned in November that Jennifer Laber, a Highlands Ranch mother, had killed her two young sons and then herself, the …

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Search for understanding

What drives a parent to kill a child?

Experts point to a variety of reasons, a key one being mental illness

Posted

Every day, Stephanie Schmalz drives by Highlands Ranch on C-470 from her home in Morrison to her job in Lone Tree.

So when she learned in November that Jennifer Laber, a Highlands Ranch mother, had killed her two young sons and then herself, the tragedy stayed with her. It moved her to post a message on a Highlands Ranch Facebook page called Word of Mouth:

"I didn’t know these kids. I didn’t know this mom. I do, however, know this mom’s heart. She was likely depressed, overwhelmed, feeling worthless, not measuring up to standards that she thought others have set for her — that the world has set for her.”

Her post received more than 600 likes and dozens of comments thanking Schmalz, a mother of three, for her words and extending compassion for the family involved.

“I feel like what I wrote is what people think about but don’t say,” Schmalz said. “It takes a village to raise kids — it takes a village to raise a family.”

Variety of reasons for ‘rare’ occurrence

The Laber tragedy — followed two months later by a similar case involving another Highlands Ranch mother and her 10-year-old daughter — generated an outpouring on social media of compassion, shock and disbelief. Many comments came from women, who although not in any way condoning — or understanding — the killings, expressed empathy for mothers who are struggling with stressors of everyday life or a mental illness such as depression.

The resounding questions became: How could this happen? Why the kids?

Even among mental health and forensic experts, there is no clear answer.

According to a 2014 study by Brown University in Rhode Island, over the past three decades U.S. parents have committed filicide — the act of a parent killing his or her child — about 500 times every year. Seventy-two percent of the children killed were age 6 or younger. One-third were infants. Ten percent of children killed were between 7 and 18 years old.

When a parent also kills himself or herself, the act is referred to as filicide-suicide.

Filicide is rare: About 74 million children from infancy to 17 years old live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census. The average number of filicide cases has stayed at about 500 a year for the past 30 years, though the population of the country has grown.

According to Randi Smith, a psychology professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, when parents cause their children’s deaths it’s more likely to be accidental or, in some cases, part of an ongoing pattern of child abuse.

“Part of the reason that the recent deaths of children at the hands of their own mothers captures our horrified attention is because it is so rare,” Smith said.

Reasons for filicide range from murders committed out of “love” — described as altruistic killings — to child abuse and neglect, but mental illness often stands at the forefront.

That’s especially true in cases of the killing of a toddler or adolescent, who has formed an attachment with the parent, said Phillip Resnick, an internationally known forensic psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

“Killing children once their role is established in the family would be an extreme measure,” said Resnick, who has studied filicide for 50 years. “It wouldn’t be done casually or incidentally — it would require some extreme forces coming together.”

In a 2005 study of 30 filicide-suicide cases published by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law — written by Resnick and four other authors — 70 percent of the motives were identified as murders committed out of “love” to relieve the real or imagined suffering of the child. The second most prevalent reason was acute psychosis, such as schizophrenia, which can cause delusions.

That was the case for LaShuan Harris, a 23-year-old who, in 2005, dropped her three boys, ages 6, 2 and 16 months, into San Francisco Bay. Harris, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, believed she was listening to God and sending her children to heaven. She was found criminally insane and sentenced to a psychiatric hospital.

Other motives of filicide have included mistreatment, such as child abuse resulting in death; having an unwanted child; and revenge against a spouse.

In March, a Chicago father shot and killed his twin daughters. According to national media outlets, police dispatch heard the father tell his wife he wanted her to live and suffer before shooting her in the leg — she survived — and then shooting and killing himself.

Michael Karson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Denver, cited a variety of reasons for filicide, including an “end-of-the-world” psychosis, when a parent feels that he or she is trying to spare their child from what is to come.

Postpartum depression, a hormonal imbalance that can affect new mothers following childbirth, can be a cause in rare instances, Karson said.

In instances of postpartum psychosis, the mother most likely has a history of bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder, a mental disorder characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder, according to a 2016 report of filicide in the United States authored by Resnick and published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

That was the case for Andrea Yates, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2001 drowning of her five children. The Texas woman reportedly experienced severe postpartum depression and psychosis. She is now in a state mental hospital.

Postpartum psychosis occurs in about one out of 1,000 new mothers, as opposed to the two or three out of 100 new mothers who might experience postpartum depression, a common and treatable malady, Resnick said. But, he emphasized, “most people with postpartum depression don’t go on to harm their child or commit suicide.”

In some altruistic filicide cases, the report in the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law says, the parent was depressed and considered the children’s deaths as extended suicides rather than homicides.

The study found that parents who killed their children and themselves overall appeared to have high rates of mental illness.

Smith echoed that finding.

Filicide-suicide scenarios, such as the two recent cases involving mothers and their children in Highlands Ranch, she said, usually occur in the midst of a deep depression with psychotic features or in the midst of a bipolar episode.

After the death of his wife and two sons, Ryan Laber publicly spoke of his wife’s battle with depression and bipolar disorder. Jennifer Laber, 38, was diagnosed in her mid-20s after a suicide attempt, he said. Her autopsy revealed that she had bipolar-disorder medication in her system at the time of her death.

According to the police report, Cristi Benavides, 40, the Highlands Ranch woman who was found dead with her daughter, Emma, in February, had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

‘Things pass, things get better’

How to prevent such tragedies is the challenge.

World Psychiatry, an office journal of the World Psychiatric Association, suggests that psychiatrists should assess filicide risk in a systematic way, as they do for suicide, by asking questions about childrearing practices, parenting problems and feelings of being overwhelmed — and then provide steps to ensure the safety of all involved.

And although many resources exist for those contemplating suicide, Karson wonders whether a parent thinking of filicide would admit to those thoughts.

“How,” he asked, “can we arrange a world in which a person in that situation would tell someone?”

Several mental health and education experts also say establishing connections for parents to community and the support that can be found there — whether personal or professional — is key.​

“Many people can profit from talking with mental health care professionals, experiencing support and seeing how to change situations so that they can manage stress more productively,” said Judith Fox, associate professor of the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

Psychology experts agree that in many filicide-suicide cases the parent acts on impulse.

“Things pass, things get better,” Karson said. “All the lost opportunities — if they could just get past that impulse.”

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