Infanticide and maternal filicide

Infanticide has a legal definition in England and Wales that is narrower than the generally accepted meaning of the term (see Chapter..5.4). It is the killing of a baby aged under 12 months by its mother, the balance of whose mind is disturbed at the time by the effects of childbirth (Section l(i), Infanticide Act 1938). In recent years there have been fewer than five infanticides per year. Infant killing today has little to do with outdated notions of 'milk fever' upon which infanticide legislation was premised. Some result from a psychiatric disorder such as depression, and rarely a psychotic illness, while others seem to follow a loss of temper by the mother in relation to an aspect of the baby's behaviour. Payne(l65) has drawn attention to the association with similar psychosocial antecedents to those seen in child battering and neglect.

Maternal filicide is the killing by a mother of her own child of any age above 12 months. In the United Kingdom the classification by d'Orban, (166) based on a 6-year cohort of 89 women examined in a remand prison, remains useful; it is a consecutive but unselected sample of such women. d'Orban(l66) identified six groups of maternal filicide.

• Fatal non-accidental injury (40 per cent): these mothers had chaotic personal and social backgrounds with unstable lifestyles and relationships. Some had personality disorder, low intelligence, and depressed mood.

• Mentally ill mothers (27 per cent): this group included those with various psychiatric disorders including psychotic illness, major depression, and personality disorder with depressed mood sufficient to warrant inpatient care. In some cases there was more than one child victim, and simultaneous suicidal ideation or actions were usual.

• Neonaticides (12 per cent): these were killings of a baby within 24 hours of its birth. Psychiatric disorder was not a factor; they were younger than other filicides and were usually attempting to conceal an unwanted birth.

• Retaliating mothers (10 per cent): these were said to be mothers directing misplaced aggression from a partner towards the child victim. They had significant personality disorders and were said to be using the child (or children) to manipulate a partner.

• Killing unwanted children (9 per cent): this group of mothers received diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder or were immature women living apart from partners and beset by social problems.

• Mercy killing (one case): this was the killing of a suffering disabled child.

The importance of d'Orban's classification rests not in the percentages but in its demonstration that maternal filicide is a heterogeneous crime in which psychotic mental disorder plays a small role. In the United Kingdom, non-accidental injury is a more significant factor than psychiatric illness but it is probably unwise to seek single explanations (whether psychiatric or social) for this crime. A recent American study emphasizes the interplay of factors. (167)

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