downside up

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

Listen to Peter Gabriel and Elizabeth Fraser performing “Downside Up”


4 Responses to “downside up”

  1. 1 Matt
    June 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    You are right on all counts, Dan.

    When a parent kills their child, the prosecutors, the jurors, and the judges (adults all) are all too willing to sympathize with the parent, for likely they have experienced that momentary loss of control themselves, and a “there but by the grace of God go I” mentality prevails, if only on the subconcious level. No one seems concerned why the parent didn’t seek professional help, or perhaps somehow it was the social services system failed that parent/family. Nor is the parent perceived as a bad person, “they just lost control and deserve a second chance”, and afterall, “they have already suffered so much with the loss of their child”.

    But when a child, who has likely experienced prolonged abuse and/or neglect, finally sees no alternative and succumbs to the need to end their pain by killing their parent, those same prosecutors, jurors, and judges seem unwilling or unable to empathize with that child. Somehow it is the child’s fault for not knowing or seeking out assistance from social services, or other options such as finding safe haven. They are seen as antisocial, defective, a bad seed who must be locked away.

    Sadly, filicide/infanticide is usually perceived as spontaneous and accidental, and then prosecuted as manslaughter, while parricide is perceived as premeditated and evil, and prosecuted as murder. The end result of the disparity in the way the public and judicial system perceive these cases is evident in statistics such as you have provided.

    • 2 Matt
      June 3, 2011 at 5:44 am

      I’d like to clarify that I was speaking in generalities. I am not naive enough to think that every filicide is committed by an evil parent who truly meant to commit murder, nor do I think that every parricide is committed by some poor misunderstood and abused child; however, it is obvious that society’s preconceptions of the people who commit this crimes seems to be a bit skewed, and thus the results of the legal proceedings and subsequent punishment is also skewed.

  2. 3 Dana Hoffman
    June 2, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Thanks for the very informative information Dan. Another thing that came to mind is that it just goes to show how our children are used as money makers vs the adults.

  3. 4 Wolfgang
    June 3, 2011 at 1:57 am

    I think, if a parent kill’s its child “everyone” says that’s bad but it happened. The DA has only a few times in court not very public because the most people didn’t take notice about the case. If a child kills a parent, the DA and LA, are very soon in a very bright light of the public, the media steps immediately in and is making a big good selling story like in Jordan’s case. It’s about politics for the DA who can show how tough on crime he is (for his reelection) and the media to make money.

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