What Is Infanticide?
At the severest end of the spectrum of childhood maltreatment lies the extremely rare and tragic act of infanticide which is defined as the killing of the child in his or her first year of life. The main focus of this article will be to examine parental infanticide (i.e. cases in which the infant is killed by a parent) together with how mental illness is frequently associated with this deeply disturbing phenomenon.
How Common Is Infanticide?
Infanticide is extremely rare. In the U.S., it is estimated that approximately 350 to 700 acts of infanticide are committed each year which is the equivalent of between about one and two cases per day on average.
Five Categories Of Perpetrators Of Infanticide :
According to the researchers Meyer and Oberman, there exist five main categories of women who commit infanticide (the sample they used for their study was made up of females from the U.S.). These five categories are as follows :
1) Those who kill their baby during the twenty-four hours immediately following birth (this is technically known as neonaticide). The researchers also suggested that the females in this category can be further divided into two, more specific, sub-categories :
- those who have kept their pregnancy a secret and do not want it discovered that they had ever had a baby.
- those who are severely afflicted by the psychological states of denial, dissociation and depersonalization
2) Women who kill their infant, aided and abetted by a physically abusive partner.
3) Women who kill their infant indirectly through gross neglect.
4) Women who have lost control of ‘disciplining’ their infant to such an extreme degree that this has actually resulted in his/her death (e.g. angry and violent shaking of the infant in a fit of frustration and rage).
5) Deliberate infanticide which may be linked to severe mental illness in the mother such as :
- postpartum depression
- postpartum psychosis
- schizophrenia (especially in cases in which the individual has discontinued their medication against medical advise).
N.B. However, it is worth reiterating the fact infanticide is an extremely rare crime and that in the vast majority of cases those suffering from mental illness pose no danger to others.
Infanticide, Mental Illness And Legal Implications :
Spinelli (2004) points out that in the UK the Infanticide Law provides probation and makes psychiatric treatment mandatory in the case of mentally ill mothers who commit infanticide, whilst, in the United States, similar individuals may face the ultimate punishment – the death penalty.
Furthermore, Spinelli informs us, recent neuroscientific research demonstrates that women afflicted by postpartum psychosis and who commit infanticide require treatment rather than punishment and that such treatment is effective in reducing the probability that the individual will repeat her crime in the future.
Finally, Spinelli concludes that, in light of the above, psychiatrists play a crucial role in diagnosing postpartum psychosis (and similar psychiatric conditions) and then providing appropriate treatment. Additionally, she suggests that there should be greater sharing of knowledge between the psychiatric community and the legal community about the effects of mental illness on behavior so that, where appropriate, punishment of individuals is replaced by effective treatment.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).