Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Filicide - Why mother's kill their children.

A train track cuts through the small town of Gilgil, tucked away in the Kenyan savanna. At the railway crossing, military vehicles jostle with donkeys. Army officers on their routine jogs are heading back to the barracks nearby.  Sprawled around the barracks are tin roofed houses and shops that make up Gilgil. In one compound is a set of ten, one-bedroom houses, where the neighbors know each other well. Wives are hanging their clothes to dry having taken the children to school. The morning sun is starting to get harsh, but cheerful banter is keeping the spirits of the women up.

But it is the unusual quiet from house number seven that has some of the women talking in hushed tones. Mollen, their neighbor, has not been seen in the past two days. Neither had any of her three children.  Her six and 10 year-olds had not gone to school that morning. Her curtains remained drawn, and there was the murmur of her TV inside. It was strange that if she was home, she would not have joined the rest of the neighbors as they carried on their day.

One of the ladies noticed some flies around her windows and moved closer to investigate. As she neared the window panes, a strong odor started to rise up her nose and she called on her friends to come over. They confirmed the unusual odor and concern turned to panic. One of the women call the local police. When they arrive hours later, they move the gathering crowd away and break the door. 

The pungent smell of rotting flesh pours out into the compound. Everyone covers their noses amid gasps. When the police enter the Mollen's home, they find her dangling in the corridor, a rope around her neck. The TV is on and it appears that they had had a meal as a family. But the children cannot are not in sight. Officers move to the bedroom and find the gruesome scene of three lifeless bodies. The children, aged one, six and 10, looked peaceful, their mouths foaming. They would later find a note by Mollen, that blamed her husband for abandoning her. He was a military officer on mission in neighboring Somalia.

Amid the horror and shock of Mollen's actions, the question that hung in the air was why? Why would a mother kill her own children then take her own life? In a town where a majority of the husbands were all in the military or in service to the barracks, what had pushed Mollen to this extreme? What evil possession would compel a human to such actions?

Philip Resnick, in 2016, identified five reasons that would motivate a parent to commit filicide. Trying to understand the reasons, is not condoning nor rationalizing. In altruistic filicide, which appears to be what happened in Mollen's case, is where the act is committed out of love. Mollen may have been convinced that she was saving her children from suffering.

Child maltreatment filicide is the case where injuries from physical abuse lead to the death of a child. This happened with Sinclair Timberlake. He was born of Kenyan parents in Queensland, Quincy Timberlake and Esther Arunga. A court later hear that Sinclair had sustained injuries from his father, who was trying to beat the demons out of him. In 2014, in  Cairns, Queensland,  Mersane Warria, suffered a pscyhotic episode triggered by undiagnosed schizophrenia. Mersane stabbed her eight children to death, but faced no criminal trial. Resnick identified this as acutely psychotic filicide, where there is no comprehensible motive. 

The two other types of filicide are unwanted child, where a parent kills a child they do not want. This is often newborns. Spousal revenge filicide is where one parent kills their child in an attempt to punish their spouse or make them suffer.

A study of filicides in England and Wales published in 2013, found that 40% of filicide perpetrators had a recorded mental illness. Another interesting finding from the study was that  23% of female perpetrators were teenagers at the time of the child victim’s birth.  Overall, fathers were significantly more likely to kill their children than mothers, and were more likely to use violent methods of killing.

Can anything be done to prevent filicide? Can we anticipate these acts and remedy them? To quote professor Kathryn Abe, who led the England and Wales study:  "Identifying associations between mental illness and filicide has clear implications for service providers. It shows there needs to be greater awareness for patients who are parents and especially those with severe mood disorders. This is an increasingly important issue because better mental health care means that more people with mental illness are able to become parents.

"Generating effective child violence/homicide prevention strategies requires broad public health approaches. Targeting sub-populations by providing high quality evidence about risk factors such as mental illness and the need for contact with mental health services may prove more constructive for health service development. Violence prevention may also offer possibilities to recognize and intervene with specific risk factors."

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