The technical term for mothers killing their children is “maternal filicide,” and the murder of an innocent child in cold blood by a parent remains one of the most shocking crimes imaginable.
On average, 450 children are killed every year by their parents, according to a USA Today report that analyzed over 30 years of FBI homicide data. According to the analysis, fathers are more likely to kill — and are responsible for 6 out of 10 child murders. But when mothers do kill, they are far more likely to kill victims under the age of one — nearly 40 percent of all children killed by their mothers were less than a year old.
A groundbreaking 1969 study by Dr. Phillip Renick on maternal filicide found that while mothers convicted of murdering their children were hospitalized 68 percent of the time and imprisoned 27 percent of the time, fathers convicted of killing their children were sentenced to prison or executed 72 percent of the time and hospitalized only 14 percent of the time.
Psychologists and other experts who have studied murderous moms say that there are a few different scenarios that play out in the majority of cases of mothers murdering their children.
In the first, the mother is actively psychotic. This appeared to be the case with Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who was suffering from severe postpartum psychosis in 2001 when she drew a bath and drowned her five children one by one. Her brother told reporters that Yates believed that drowning the children was for the best due to the fact that she was a bad mother.
She was originally found guilty of capital murder, but at her retrial in 2006, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital.
Sometimes, the death is the unplanned result of neglect.Katiria Tirado was charged in connection with the death of her autistic 17-year-old son Matthew in Connecticut, which police say was the result of severe neglect. Investigators said that the teen died with broken bones, bruises, and weighed only 84 pounds. Tragically, it was later revealed that she was listed on the state’s child-abuse registry for past instances of physical abuse and educational neglect of Matthew.
The child may be unwanted, as in the infamous 1996 “Prom Mom” case where Melissa Drexler gave birth in a bathroom stall at the school prom, and then disposed of her newborn in the trash and went back to the dance.
Drexler, who had kept the pregnancy a secret, was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and ended up serving 36 months behind bars.
In some cases, the children become inconvenient to the mother’s lifestyle. This is what prosecutors allege happened to Casey Anthony’s daughter Caylee, though Anthony was ultimately acquitted of her daughter’s murder.
This can also manifest in another way, in cases when the moms seemingly murder in a twisted bid to get attention for themselves.
Kentucky mom Lacey Spears was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of her son Garnett-Paul Spears after she allegedly force-fed heavy concentrations of sodium through the boy’s stomach tube.
The judge who sentenced Spears to 20 years behind bars said she suffers from a mental illness, but that killing her child with an overdose of salt was still “unfathomable in its cruelty.”
In 1983, Diane Downs murdered her daughter and shot her two other children, and then told the police a stranger had attempted to carjack her and shoot the kids.
During her trial in 1984, it emerged that Downs’ motivation, at least in part, was the fact that she was dating a married man who did not want children. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Sometimes, filicide occurs when the mother is seeking revenge on her spouse or partner. In 2005, China Arnold of Dayton, Ohio, stuffed her three-week-old daughter into a microwave oven and burned her to death after arguing with her boyfriend about the identity of the child’s biological father.
Finally, the mother may be acting in the warped belief that killing her children would be more merciful than allowing them to live.
“Historically, Eskimos living in harsh environments would have twins and send one away on an ice float to die, because the mother may not have enough milk to support two,” Resnick, who is now a psychiatry professor at Case Reserve University, told The Daily Beast. “If the circumstances are such that someone does not have the finances or the wherewithal to raise a child, they may kill that child — that is a social problem in contradistinction to a psychiatric problem.”
Experts are currently studying potential chemical imbalances in the brain and psychiatric conditions including depression and schizophrenia in order to understand the role that they play in potential filicides.
Can moms who kill ever be rehabilitated? “If a mom kills her child so her life will be unencumbered, or kills them for profit, then I don’t believe there is any hope. They are psychopaths, and there’s no cure for that,” criminal profiler Candace DeLong told CrimeFeed in 2015.
“If a mom kills because she was psychotic (delusional, hearing voices), such as Andrea Yates, their illness can be treated with medication and psychotherapy, but not cured forever. In such cases, I don’t think they should ever be a mother again or even around children. If it happened once, it could happen again if the medication isn’t taken.”
For more Murderous Moms, watch full episodes of Investigation Discovery’s Evil Stepmothers, Deadly Women, and more on ID GO.
Main photos: Diane Downs and Lacey Spears [Wikimedia Commons], and Andrea Yates [Handout]