Familicide, or the deliberate act of killing a member of one’s own family, was highlighted in the media on October 22nd when a 62 year old grandmother from Oak Lawn, Illinois appeared in court, accused of the 2013 murder of her six month old granddaughter. Charged with first degree murder for bludgeoning the infant with a sledgehammer and then slitting her throat with a carving knife, Alfreda Giedrojc stood before the judge because her defence attorney was requesting a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether she was mentally fit to stand trial.
Earlier this year a report suggested that the psychological profiles of individuals who murder members of their family are different from those who murder strangers. The architects of the study hope it will create better interventions for treating emotionally laden crimes. Research, conducted by members of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s forensic psychology lab, involved the analysis of 153 murderers and took more than 1,500 hours to complete. According to the lab’s director, Dr. Robert Hanlon, individuals who commit murder within their own families demonstrate certain commonalities: cognitive impairment, strong tendencies toward impulsivity and emotional dysregulation, lower IQ scores and severe mental illness. Very often, individuals who kill family members are compelled to do so because of these issues. When it comes to severe mental illness, Hanlon found that individuals who killed spousal partners or other family members showed twice the rate of psychotic disorders than murders committed by strangers; yet Hanlon cautioned against assuming that mental illness alone causes family violence.Instead professionals should red flag those individuals who show a combination of factors: stress, a past history of violence, as well as severe mental illness.“If you have someone with severe mental illness who, most importantly, has a history against others, then those are two big factors that need to be taken into consideration,” Hanlon said. (Bowen, 2015, para.18)
Weapons Reveal Poor Impulse Control
Within the study, Hanlon also found that guns were used less often in the murder of family members than strangers who lack emotional ties. Among individuals who commit domestic murder, only 14 percent of them use guns compared to 54 percent of strangers who do. According to Hanlon, “That was a bit of a surprise. It’s what is the instrument that is available, like a butcher knife from the kitchen or strangulation, or beatings, rather than going and finding the gun and loading the gun.” (Bowen, 2015, para. 6) This appears to support the idea that individuals murder family members because of poor impulse control and emotional dysregulation versus strangers who tend to use strategic planning.The National Institute of Health had similar findings in a 1992 study: When men killed with a gun, they most commonly shot a stranger or a non-family acquaintance.And in 1988 a study by the Justice Department determined that only 20% of parents used guns to kill their children. More likely these children were beaten, shaken, drowned, poisoned or stabbed by their parents.
Hanlon’s findings also appear to confirm a 1994 study conducted by the U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau ofJustice Statistics. BJS found that murderers of family members were more likely to have a history of mental illness than nonfamily murderers, while all murder victims under the age of 12 were exposed to child abuse prior to their deaths. Additionally BJS found that when parents murdered their children, they rarely used a firearm. The report also determined that murders when committed by family members were more likely to occur during the daytime and at home than murders committed by strangers. Moreover, victims were more often female than male.
In the article “Familicide: Why Parents Kill Kids and Themselves”, Russell Goldman discussed differences in triggers among male and female family members who commit murder, suggesting a variance in what influences them: “Men, according to experts, are often driven to murder their families by intense feelings of shame resulting from a job loss or a perceived inability to provide for family members.” (Goldman, Russell, 2007, para. 10) In addition, men murder members of their family in retaliation for something their wives have done, such as having an affair. However, for women who murder, Goldman writes: “Psychosis and severe depression can lead women to believe they are killing their children to end their suffering or because they believe they are demonically possessed.” (Goldman, Russell, 2007, para. 29) Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, notes that mentally ill women will kill their children for a number of reasons: a psychotic illness that has them believing an end to their children’s suffering is an act of altruism; therefore they see the murder of their children as a sign of good mothering. They may also find themselves unprepared to handle the demands of parenting or feel overwhelmed by the needs of their children. According to Resnick, 61% of murdered children younger than five years old are killed by their parents. (Goldman, 2007)
There appear to be gender differences regarding individuals who kill family members versus strangers. The Daily Beast writes: “When women do commit murder, they are most likely to kill the people closest to them.National data covering the years 1976 to 2005 indicate that about 42 percent of the victims of female murderers were intimate partners or other family members; only 8.7 percent were strangers.” (Ferraro, 2010. Para.3)
Ferraro, Kathleen, Why Women Kill (2010) Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/02/20/why-women-kill.html
Dawson, John, Lanagan, Patrick Murder in Families (1994) Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mf.pdf
Bowen, Allison, The Killer in Your Home (2015) Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/sc-hlth-0825-predicting-murder-20150825-story.html
Goldman, Russell , Familicide: Why Parents Kill Kids and Themselves (2007) Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3307902
Draper, Electra, Parents Who Kill their Kids not always Insane, Experts Say (2011) Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/ci18151310