Free information index
Reducing Homicide: a review
of the possibilities - January 2003
Scale of the problem
This deals with the killing of infants less than a year old. This form of homicide is commonly referred to as ‘infanticide’, although this is not strictly accurate. Infanticide is a legal term used to describe instances where mothers kill their own babies in a disturbed state of mind. As our discussion covers any killing of an infant, regardless of motive or of the relationship between perpetrator and victim, we shall use the more general term, ‘infant homicide’. Infant homicide may be regarded as a sub-group of the broader category of child homicide. However, there are some important differences between the killing of babies and of older children, which mark the former for special attention. First of all, while within adult homicide, men predominate as offenders, infants are much more likely than older children to be killed by women. For example, between 1995 and 1999 in England and Wales, 90 per cent of the known or suspected killers of children aged 10-16 were male, dropping to 62 per cent for children aged below five years, and 56 per cent for infants of less than one year. Secondly, the proportion of child homicides in which the perpetrator is a parent is exceptionally high among infants. Over the above-mentioned period, 80 per cent of victims under one year old were killed by a parent, compared to 49 per cent of those aged one year, and less than five per cent of those aged 15 or 16.
Research from Australia and North
America has revealed similar patterns (Crittenden and Craig, 1990; Adler and Polk, 1996). Taken together, these two sets of findings reveal the general pattern that filicides (killings of children by a natural parent) are committed in roughly equal proportions by mothers (47%) and fathers (53%), but that where the child is killed by someone other than a parent, males strongly predominate.
Finally, however, the most striking difference between infant homicide and other child homicide lies in the frequency of its occurrence. While children as a whole have a low risk of being killed compared to adults, babies of less than twelve months old are at higher risk than any other single year age group, child or adult. Indeed, in England and Wales they face around four times the average risk of falling victim to homicide (measured as victims per 100,000 population). This ratio has remained relatively constant since the Homicide Act 1957 (Marks and Kumar 1993:329).
The special vulnerability of infants is by no means unique to the UK. Australian researchers also report that children under one are the most vulnerable to homicide (Strang 1996) and in the US child abuse homicides have remained, since the mid 1970s, among the five leading causes of death for those under five years (Christoffel, 1983). In Scotland, too, infants less than a year constitute a high risk group, although not quite the highest.
The majority of the babies were killed by a natural parent: 91 per cent where a female suspect was involved and 71 per cent where a male suspect was involved. A further eight per cent of homicides were attributable to a (usually male) step-parent. Virtually all of the remainder were killed by other family members (including foster parents), family friends and acquaintances. Most offenders were young: over half were aged below 26 year, and most of these were between 21 and 25.
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