For many women, the innocence and vulnerability of a child or infant invoke instincts of nurturance and protectiveness on a near universal level. Sociocultural norms also typically dictate women as the caretakers of children, the ones responsible for caring and raising the little ones. So how is it we explain what would drive a women to kill a child, a being who is solely dependent on her for survival? Infanticide is a tragedy that has occurred throughout history in every part of the world (Hatters Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J., 2007). Knowing that this is an event that has happened all over the world for as long as it has, we have to ask, what are the circumstances that would bring a women to kill their own child; are they predictable? What do many of these women who have committed infanticide have in common? What risk factors contribute towards infanticide? Do these women have criminal backgrounds? Histories of abuse? Histories of addiction and drug abuse? In this paper, we will discuss the circumstances surrounding women and infanticide as well as current trends in the United States in an attempt to better understand the reasons behind why women murder their own children.
Literature Review and their Findings
The first chapter I would like to delve into is chapter six “Sentencing Women to Prison” in the textbook The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime by Chesney-Lind and Pasko. The begin the chapter by bringing to light that by 2009 the number of women in the U.S. imprisoned increased about 800% over the last 3 decades. Their main argument this chapter was that this increase in women’s incarceration is not about changes to women’s behavior, but rather more about the criminal justice system being more willing to incarcerate girls and women. Things such as Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines at both state and federal level, sentencing reform, and every aspect of the criminal justice system just being ‘tougher’ has led to this massive increase.
This chapter also goes over the histories of women incarcerated and the trends of drug abuse and physical abuse as well as the ethic and racial differences found when asked about the role of the criminal justice system. Their findings suggested that women of all races and ethnicity reported high levels of physical and sexual abuse in their childhoods that continued on into adulthood. White women reported being in the foster care system and higher levels of exposure as children to drug use as a child while African American and Hispanic women were more likely to report a family member in the system already and being raised by another family member. Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2013) also find that nearly half of incarcerated women are women of color: 30% African American and 16% Hispanic. Not only that but in 2008 they found that two thirds of women in prison had one child and in 2012 two thirds of women had at least two children. Chesney-Lind and Pasko (2013) also reported that within the past twenty years, the number of children with a mother behind bars had increased about 131%. They also found that half of all women serving time were there for either drug use, possession, or trafficking problems, showing mass histories of substance abuse.
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The second text I would like to discuss is chapter 13 “The Female Offender and Incarceration” by Chesney-Lind and Rodriguez in the textbook Girls, Women, and Crime. In this chapter they interviewed 16 women in Hawaii all between the ages of 27 and 28, all poor and a member of a minority group, all unmarried and a high school dropout, and all a mother of at least two children of which they are the sole provider. Chesney-Lind and Rodriguez found that all the women had similar hopes and values of wanting a happy life and successful careers, all women had work histories though 88% were unemployed at time of arrest, 88% of the women had experience with prostitution and half had been raped as a child, half the women were serving time for a form of theft with the majority of all women serving a mandatory minimum sentence, and all women had done drugs at some point with over half self-reporting as addicts. They concluded that women and the nature of their crimes are not changing as dramatically as the media would lead to believe; in fact, as is the same historically, the crimes committed are status offenses, property violations, or drug offenses.
The third reading I’d like to discuss is “Women Who Have Killed Their Children” by S. Crimmins, S. Langley, H. Brownstein, and B. Spunt. In this article they begin by explaining that out of 443 women convicted of murder, only 86 were incarcerated on account of the death of a child. Of this, they interviewed a total of 42 women and asked about their life histories concerning family, drugs, illegal activities, and issues of violence in their lives either as a victim or perpetrator. Of this, Crimmins et.al. (2006) found that most women were neglected or abandoned as children and did not have their mother growing up. 48% of the women were African American, 16% White, and 7% Hispanic (Crimmins, S., Langley, S., Brownstein, H., & Spunt, B., 2006, p. 96) with the average age being about 25. 38% reported having an alcoholic mother, 19% reported abuse from their mothers, the rest reported their mother was always gone. The highest education among all women ranged between 8th and 11th grade and all the women required public assistance. Only 31% of the women were legitimately employed and 68% reported severe addiction to drugs (Crimmins, S., Langley, S., Brownstein, H., & Spunt, B., 2006). Over half the women reported a history of emotional or mental health problems and many of the women admitted to “feeling isolated in their situations.” “Circumstances of child killing were most commonly abuse (68%); neglect of children (21%) was the second most prevalent circumstance… 31% of the child killings were drug related” (Crimmins, S., Langley, S., Brownstein, H., & Spunt, B., 2006, p 99-100).
The fourth article I’d like to bring attention to is “Child murder by mothers: patterns and prevention” by Friedman and Resnick. In this they discuss that in most circumstances, when a young child is murdered, the victim’s parent is the most frequency offender. They found in an American macro-level study of infanticide, there were increased rates of financial and economic stress associated with it and found the general population of maternal infanticides unemployed mothers in their early 20s (Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J., 2007). They also found that overall rates of infanticide correlated with rates of suicide and that many mothers contemplating infanticide had frequent depression, psychosis, or prior mental health treatment. Friedman and Resnick (2007) concluded five major motives:
“1. Altruistic filicide (death of a child): a mother kills their child out of love, as they believe death best in the child’s interest.
2. Acutely psychotic filicide: a mother kills her child without any comprehensible motive
3. Fetal maltreatment filicide: results of abuse and neglect, death was not the anticipated outcome
4. Unwanted child filicide: a mother thinks of her child as a hinderance
5. Spouse revenge filicide: a mother specifically kills the child to emotionally harm the child’s father.”
The fifth article I’d like to discuss is “Mothers who kill: The crime of infanticide” by Ian Lambie. Lambie also describes the five major motives of infanticide, as stated above, but goes on to explain the legislative history of infanticide crimes. He explains that “the law has always treated the murder of an infant by a mother differently to other murders” (Lambie, I. 2001) and that a question remains as to whether there is a need for special regulation for infanticide.
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The last article I would like to bring to attention is “Infanticide: contrasting views” by M. G. Spinelli. In their article they use the case of Andrea Yates, a supposed psychotic mother who was sentencing to life for infanticide, to demonstrate the paradox between prosecuting a mother for killing an infant and the society that practices gender selection. In their article they discuss how infanticide is imbedded in to the societies in which it occurs and that causes can vary from poverty to stigma (Spinelli, 2005). Spinelli (2005) argues that “infanticide must be viewed against the political, cultural, social, and legal backgrounds of societies that treat women with disregard”, proving her article to be a prime example of feminist criminology.
Based upon these six readings, we can get a basic understanding of the circumstances surrounding infanticide and women’s experiences that could lead to it. In chapter six “Sentencing Women to Prison” by Chesney-Lind and Pasko they discuss how the criminal justice system is getting tougher on women, with minimum sentencing and sentencing reform, more women re going to prison than ever. This can relate to Spinelli’s article in that Spinelli argues that women are being prosecuted in a society that disregards women, and chapter six shows a double standard when it comes to sentencing women and how the criminal justice system is more willing than ever to incarcerate women as seen by the 800% increase in incarcerated women over the last three decades. This also relates to Lambie in that he states that the law has always treated infanticide differently and yet, as Spinelli points out, women are serving life sentences for this crime. “Sentencing Women to Prison” also relates to the Crimmins article in that describes how two thirds of women in prison have at least one or two children and how the women in Crimmins’ article stated their lack of a mother figure growing up. It also relates in that all of the women had histories of drug use and abuse, as did the women in the Crimmins’ study, with 31% of the killings being related to drug use. In chapter 13 “The Female Offender and Incarceration” by Chesney-Lind and Rodriguez they describe how all the women in their sample were mothers who were typically unemployed at time of arrest and in need of government assistance financially; this correlates to the Friedman article in that their study shows that in their general population of infanticide cases, the mothers were under extreme financial and economic stress. Also in the Friedman article, they discuss the five most common motives for infanticide and the top two correlate back to the Crimmins article. In Crimmins’ study 61% of women killed their children as a result of abuse and 21% out of neglect. Two of the most common motives for infanticide were fetal maltreatment filicide (the killing of a child accidentally, as a result of neglect or abuse) and unwanted child filicide (wherein a mother kills her child because she believes it to be a hinderance). Friedman, Lambie, and Spinelli also all discuss mental health issues and how many of the mothers reported current or past histories of depression, psychosis, or suicidal thoughts. This also correlated back to chapter 6 “Sentencing Women to Prison” and chapter 13 “The Female Offender and Incarceration”, wherein many of those women also reported past of current mental and emotional health issues.
Infanticide is a tragic event that has sadly occurred all through time, all over the world (Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J., 2007). But the question of why and the motives behind a mother killing her own child have often been a mystery as it is such a sensitive and unique subject, varying case by case. However trends can be found and similarities in risk factors can be noted. For instance, in the six readings presented there was an overall trend of all women facing abuse as a child including: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and substance abuse. Also, studying women who have specifically committed infanticide, we found that the majority had grown up with either an abuse mother or without a mother figure at all, leading to these women to either project their resentment onto their own child (Crimmins, S., Langley, S., Brownstein, H., & Spunt, B., 2006, p 99) or not know how to be a mother all together. In all cases we also found the infanticide was more likely involving mothers under extreme financial stress (as discussed in the Friedman article) which matched with the trends of incarcerated women describes in chapters 6 and 13 who were either unemployed and/or in need of government financial assistance. Also, as seen in the Crimmins article and the two chapters, many of the women incarcerated were of minority groups, with almost half attributing solely to African American mothers. Overall, policy implications could be applied. In the Lambie article, he discusses the need for specific legislation against infanticide (Lambie, I. 2001) and programs helping single mothers (ie government programs such as TANF and SNAP) could be expanded upon to further help mothers in a dire financial situation; but if those were to be expanded upon, more programs would need to be created to help with substance abuse, as most of the women suffer from addiction. Going forward, I believe research into infanticide by mothers should focus on causes and circumstances surrounding infantile and really pinpoint the reasons why, because if those problems can be solved, or at the very least addressed, we can begin to take the necessary steps to creating policies and legislation that could aid in stopping/lessening infanticide.
- Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (n.d.). Sentencing Women to Prison. In The Female Offender(3rd ed.). SAGE.
- Chesney-Lind, M., & Rodriguez, N. (2013). Women Under Lock and Key. In Girls, Women, and Crime(2nd ed.). SAGE.
- Crimmins, S., Langley, S., Brownstein, H., & Spunt, B. (2006). Women who have Killed Their Children. In In Her Own Wards: Women Offenders Views on Crimes. NY: Oxford University Press.
- Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J. (2007, October). Child murder by mothers: Patterns and prevention. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2174580/
- Lambie, I. (2001). Mothers who kill the crime of infanticide. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry,71-80. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents
- Spinelli, M. Arch Womens Ment Health (2005) 8: 15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-005-0067-y
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