Motherhood's Dark Dance: Casting Light on the Shadows of Maternal Filicide

Motherhood's Dark Dance: Casting Light on the Shadows of Maternal Filicide

Featured Article

Featured Article | Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma | 32:1-2, 34-52 

Article Title

Maternal Filicide: A Review of Psychological and External Demographic Risk Factors


Alyssa Frederique, Ronald Stolberg, Jan Estrellado, and Carvel Kellum


Filicide is an extreme form of homicide defined as the murder of a child at the hand of their parent. Women who kill are often portrayed in the media as angry, psychopathic, vengeful murderers, and their own experiences are often not included. Understanding filicide is complex; it is a mix of both social and psychological factors. This article focuses on a review of literature from 1961–2020. We also review a classification model which identifies filicidal motives including altruistic, acutely psychotic, unwanted child, accidental, and spouse revenge. Characteristics of filicide victims, including age and gender will also be discussed. Additionally, characteristics of maternal perpetrators, including marital status, education level, feelings of rejection, and exposure to neglect or substance abuse will be explored. This paper also reviews psychological risk factors associated with filicide through highlighting differences between psychotic and non-psychotic female perpetrators Lastly, prevention of filicide, including a focus on providing education of risk factors and appropriate language in order to avoid miscommunication and oversight will be explored.


Filicide, psychiatric illness, female offenders, psychological risk factors, external risk factors, psychosis

Summary of Research

Filicide, the extreme form of homicide involving the murder of a child by a natural parent or parental figure, remains a challenging area of study due to its infrequency and the lack of standardized data. The actual rate of filicide is unknown, and access to this population is difficult. Research indicates that the United States might have a higher rate of child murder compared to other developed nations. Approximately 2.5% of all homicide arrests in the U.S. involve parents accused of murdering their children, with an average of about 500 filicide arrests annually.

A comprehensive analysis of 90,000 filicide arrests from 1976 to 2007 in the U.S. revealed common scenarios, such as fathers killing sons being the most prevalent. Contrary to popular belief, research shows that both males and females commit filicide at similar rates. The article emphasizes the need to understand maternal filicide by considering social and psychological factors contributing to a mother's act of murdering her child.

The review spans 60 years and covers studies from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, and Australia. The classification of filicide, developed by Philip J. Resnick in 1969, identifies five types based on perceived motives: altruistic, associated with suicide, to relieve or prevent suffering, acutely psychotic, unwanted child, and accidental filicide.

The comprehensive research on filicide offers a nuanced understanding of the phenomenon, unraveling layers of complexity associated with the act of killing one's child. The study investigates various facets, including victim demographics, the age distribution of filicide incidents, and psychological risk factors. Notably, the research sheds light on the prevalence of maternal perpetrators, challenging historical misconceptions. Insights into the differences between neonaticide and filicide involving older children provide a deeper understanding of the diverse motivations and circumstances surrounding these tragic events. The role of mental health, particularly postpartum psychosis, emerges as a critical factor, emphasizing the need for targeted interventions in this domain. Moreover, the research emphasizes the intersectionality of external risk factors, such as poverty and addiction, contributing to the occurrence of filicide.

Translating Research into Practice

Understanding the motives behind maternal filicide is crucial for developing effective interventions and prevention strategies. Researchers have classified filicides based on motives, providing a framework for mental health professionals to assess and address potential risk factors. Clinicians should be aware of the diverse reasons behind filicide, including altruistic motives, association with suicide, psychotic episodes, perceptions of relieving suffering, viewing the child as unwanted, and accidental outcomes.

Early identification of individuals at risk for filicide, especially those struggling with mental health issues or interpersonal conflicts, is essential. Interventions should focus on providing support, addressing mental health concerns, and offering resources for coping with stress. Collaboration between mental health professionals, law enforcement, and social services is crucial in preventing filicide and ensuring the safety of both parents and children.

Translating the research into actionable strategies involves a multi-pronged approach. Mental health professionals must integrate comprehensive assessments into perinatal care, identifying potential risk factors and providing timely interventions. The emphasis on psychoeducation for expectant parents and support networks becomes crucial in recognizing warning signs and addressing the challenges that may lead to filicidal behaviors. The intersectionality of psychological and sociodemographic risk factors calls for holistic interventions. Policymakers should consider these findings in crafting policies that support families addressing societal issues contributing to filicide. Collaborations between mental health professionals and social services become imperative for a comprehensive and practical preventive approach.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

The research on filicide challenges prevailing misconceptions, notably debunking the stereotype that mothers are the primary perpetrators. Instead, it highlights that individuals of both genders commit filicidal acts. The study suggests that filicide rates in the United States might be underestimated, attributing this to inaccuracies in coroner rulings and challenges in discovering victims' bodies. The complexity of filicidal cases is further underscored by the diverse motives identified, ranging from altruism and psychotic episodes to revenge. This multifaceted nature necessitates a nuanced understanding, especially in the context of maternal filicide. The article emphasizes the importance of considering a combination of social and psychological factors to comprehensively grasp the dynamics surrounding these tragic events, thereby paving the way for more effective preventive measures and interventions.

Beyond the core findings, intriguing tidbits within the research offer unique insights for clinicians and researchers. These details provide a closer look at specific scenarios, such as altruistic filicide driven by psychosis, repeated filicide incidents, and the influence of sociodemographic factors. Understanding these nuances is essential for tailored interventions and preventive measures. In the following section, we explore these tidbits and elucidate their significance in guiding clinicians and researchers to comprehend, prevent, and address filicide.

The journey into the world of filicide reveals intriguing tidbits that add depth to our understanding of this complex phenomenon. From instances of altruistic filicide rooted in drug-induced psychosis to the unsettling reality of repeated filicide incidents, each detail unveils a facet of the intricate tapestry surrounding these tragic events. Sociodemographic factors, including poverty and addiction, emerge as influential contributors. Exploring these tidbits is not just a venture into the peculiarities of filicidal cases; it is a crucial endeavor for clinicians and researchers seeking a comprehensive grasp of the factors at play. These insights serve as beacons, guiding professionals in their mission to prevent and intervene in filicide cases, ultimately contributing to the welfare of families and the broader community.

Additional Resources/Programs

LIVE: Role of the Expert Witness in Establishing the Relationship Between Maternal Mental Illness & Criminally Charged Behavior

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LIVE: Advanced Training in Maternal Mental Health Forensics and Courtroom Testimony

AAFP: Child Murder by Parents