Children, Murder of

On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith, a South Carolina wife and mother, drowned her two-year-old and fourteen-month-old sons. Marilyn Lemak, a forty-one-year-old registered nurse drugged and then suffocated her three young children (ages three to seven) in her home in Naperville, Illinois, on March 5, 1999. Slightly more than one month later, on April 20, 1999, seventeen-year-old Dylan Klebold and eighteen-year-old Eric Harris entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed twelve fellow students and a teacher, and then killed themselves. Although modern sensibilities are shocked and saddened by tragic cases such as these, as children are not supposed to die, both sanctioned and unsanctioned murders have occurred throughout human history.

Murder is the killing of one person by another person with "malice aforethought" (e.g., an aim to cause death or do bodily harm). The term malice, or malicious intent, is used in relation to a murderous act, even if the perpetrator did not mean to hurt anyone. An assault (an attempt to harm someone without killing them) can be murder if death is a foreseeable possibility. Criminal justice experts James Alan Fox and Jack Levin state, "A parent, distraught over a crying colicky baby, who shakes the infant to silence her, and does it so vigorously as to cause death can . . . be charged with murder, so long as the parent is aware that this rough form of treatment can be detrimental" (2001, p. 2).

Historical and Cross-Cultural Overview

Historically and cross-culturally, the murder of children has taken many forms. Anthropological studies of traditional societies, such as the Yanomamo of South America, and sociological studies of some advanced civilizations indicate the practice of infanticide (the killing of children under the age of five), past and present. Female infanticide has been discovered among some traditional patriarchal groups such as the Chinese. Often the murder of children has been noted for humanitarian reasons, such as because of overpopulation or an inadequate food supply. Similarly, poor and low-income families have killed their children when they have been unable to support them. Some societies have promoted the killing of children born with birth defects, mental challenges, or a serious disease or disorder. In certain societies, children who were believed to be tainted by evil (e.g., twins) were slain at birth. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, a father could dispose of his child as he saw fit.

Although there have been several accounts of the ritual killing of children, especially sacrifice for religious purposes, according to folklorist Francis James Child, many are without foundation. One story tells of the murder and crucifixion of a little boy named Hugh in the thirteenth century by Jews. English folk ballads such as "The Cruel Mother" and "Lamkin" tell of the sadistic murder of children. "Mary Hamilton" relates the story of feticide (the act of killing a fetus, which has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be capable of, at the time of death, surviving outside of the mother's womb with or without life support equipment) in sixteenth-century England.

Throughout the Christian world, the main source of information concerning the importance of children is biblical teachings found in the Old and New Testaments. For example, Psalm 127 notes that children are a gift, a reward from God. Mark 10 states that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, and "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all." While biblical scriptures emphasize the importance of children, there is a multiplicity of passages that reflect the murder of children. God sanctions the killing of all Egyptian first-born children in the last plague before the exodus, in an attempt to free the Hebrews from Egyptian control. King Herod has male children in Bethlehem two years of age and under murdered. The Book of Deuteronomy states that the parents of rebellious children are to have them stoned to death.

The United States has experienced hundreds of child murders since the first settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. One of the earliest examples of the murder of children in America occurred on Friday, August 10, 1810, at Ywahoo Falls in southeast Kentucky. White racists, desiring to drive the Cherokee from their land, decided that the best way to get rid of the Indian problem was to kill all the children so there would be no future generations. The Indians, learning that "Indian fighters" were gathering in eastern Kentucky to carry out their barbaric act, gathered the women and children together at Ywahoo Falls and prepared to march them to a Presbyterian Indian school near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee. Over a hundred Cherokee women and children were slaughtered before they could make the trip (Troxell, 2000).

Numerous child murders gained notoriety in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. In fact, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb committed what some have termed the "crime of the century" when they murdered fourteen-year-old Bobbie Franks on May 21, 1924, in Chicago, Illinois. Albert Fish, the oldest man ever executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, was killed on January 16, 1936, for the murder and cannibalism of 12-year-old Grace Budd. The most sensational murder case of the twentieth century involved the kidnapping and murder of the young son of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh on March 1, 1932. These classic cases, as well as more contemporary cases such as the murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, Illinois, in February 1983, the Marilyn Lemak case, and Susan Smith's murder of her two children, have alerted Americans to how vulnerable children are to acts of homicide. Recent school killings such as the incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, have forced the nation to realize that children can be killed in mass numbers.

Factors in the Murder of Children

The United States has the highest homicide rate for children of any industrialized nation in the world. Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics show that slightly more than 11 percent of murder victims in 1999 were children under the age of eighteen. The firearm-related homicide rate for children is more than twice that of Finland, the country with the next highest rate.

Both adults and older children (ages five to eighteen) who are victims of homicide are likely to die as the result of a firearm-related incident. However, only 10 percent of homicides among younger children (under age four) are firearm related. Young children are generally murdered via abandonment, starvation, suffocation, drowning, strangulation, or beating, the victims of adults or other children. They may die at the hands of parents, siblings, friends or acquaintances, or strangers.

Studies of murdered children under twelve years old reveal that nearly six out of ten are killed by their parents. Half of these are under the age of one. The next highest category of perpetrator is a friend or acquaintance. A significant number of children are killed by offenders in their own age cohort, as the recent rash of school killings indicates. According to James Fox and Jack Levin, authors of The Will to Kill (2001), with the exception of infanticide, "most offenders and their victims are similar in age" (p. 27). Reasons why children kill other children are many and varied. When the teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb killed Bobbie Franks in 1924, their objective was to commit a "perfect" crime. A large portion of the school killings in the late twentieth-century years has resulted from the perpetrator being cruelly teased or ostracized by classmates. In large cities, many children are victims of gang killings, whether they belong to a gang or not. Wearing the wrong color of shoelaces, having one's hat tilted in the wrong direction, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can result in death. Gang members kill other gang members as a consequence of petty jealousy or a need to display their manhood. There have been occasions when children have killed their victim because he or she refused to obey an order. For example, in Chicago, Illinois, two children threw another from the roof of a building because the victim refused to obtain drugs for the murderers.

Familial Homicides

The psychiatrist P. T. D'Orban classifies the factors that play a role in filicides (the killing of a son or daughter) into three categories: family stress, including a family history of mental illness and crime, parental discord, parental maltreatment, and separation from one or both parents before age fifteen; social stress, involving financial and housing problems, marital discord, a criminal record, and living alone; and psychiatric stress, comprising a history of psychiatric symptoms, a psychiatric diagnosis, and a suicide attempt after the offense.

A history of child abuse or neglect is the most notable risk factor for the future death (i.e., murder of a child). Scholars note that the best predictor of future violence is a past history of violence. Most child abuse killings fall into the category of battering deaths, resulting from misguided, but brutal, efforts to discipline, punish, or quiet children. According to a study conducted by Murray Levine and associates, 75 percent of maltreatment-related fatalities occur in children under age four. Very young children are at the greatest risk because they are more physically vulnerable and less likely to be identified as at-risk due to their lack of contact with outside agencies. Shaken baby syndrome, in which the child is shaken so violently that brain damage can occur, takes the lives of many young children.

There are numerous risk factors for child murder. The criminal justice expert Neil Websdale has identified several situational antecedents such as a history of child abuse and/or neglect, a history of domestic violence, poverty, inequality, unemployment, criminal history, the use of drugs and/or alcohol, and the availability of weapons. Male and nonwhite children are more likely to be victims of child murder than female and white children.

According to the American psychiatrist and expert on child murder, Phillip Resnick, typical neonaticidal mothers (mothers who kill their children the first day of birth) are young, unmarried, are not suffering from psychotic illness, and do not have a history of depression. They characteristically conceal their pregnancy, often denying that they are pregnant. Other researchers have concluded that most deaths are the result of unwanted pregnancies, and that many mothers are overwhelmed by the responsibilities and have little or no support system. A number of women have serious drug and/or alcohol problems and lose control in a fit of intoxication.

Mental disorder is a major factor in the killing of children. In Fatal Families (1997), Charles Ewing notes that psychotic infanticide and filicide perpetrators are most likely to be suffering from postpartum psychosis, while parents who batter their children to death are more likely to suffer from nonpsychotic mental illnesses, such as personality disorders, impulse control disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and/or substance abuse disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1994) explains that postpartum psychotic episodes are characterized by command hallucinations to kill the infant or delusions that the infant is possessed. Other researchers report that mothers who kill their newborn are often suffering from dissociative disorders at the time of the birth because they feel overwhelmed by the pregnancy and perceived lack of support, necessitating their handling the traumatic experience on their own. However, when mothers kill older children, it is the children who have mental aberrations or psychiatric conditions rather than the mother, who in fear of her life or the lives of other family members, feels she has to end the life of her child.

According to Levine and colleagues, not only are males predominantly the perpetrators, but the presence of a male in the household increases the risk of maltreatment-related fatalities, especially from physical abuse. Fathers kill infants when they cry excessively and the father has little tolerance for such disruption due to the influence of alcohol or drugs, or because he is suffering from antisocial personality disorder. Some fathers kill their son when he is old enough to challenge the father's authority and they physically fight. Occasionally, fathers have killed their daughters following rape or sexual exploitation, when they threatened to reveal the abuse.

The rate of child murder is greatly elevated in stepfamilies. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson found that whereas young children incurred about seven times higher rates of physical abuse in families with a stepparent than in two-genetic-parent homes, stepchildren were 100 times more likely to suffer fatal abuse. In a sample of men who slew their preschool-age children, 82 percent of the victims of stepfathers were beaten to death, while the majority of children slain by genetic fathers were killed by less violent means.

Suggestions for Prevention

Given the multifactored character of fatal child abuse, only a multidiagnostic and multitherapeutic approach can deal adequately with its clinical prevention. The multidiagnostic component requires an individual, marital, family, and social assessment. The multitherapeutic approach involves the use of several therapeutic modalities including individual psychotherapy, hospitalization, and/or temporary/permanent removal of the child from the home.

Physicians may also play a role in prevention by identifying particular stresses that might lead to an aberrant or unusual postpartum reaction. Post-partum changes in depression or psychosis can be observed, monitored, and treated. The physician can look for evidence of abuse, isolation, and lack of support from family or friends. Many child abuse deaths could be prevented by identifying parents at risk of abusing their children and making parenting less stressful for them. There is a need for more and better education programs aimed at teaching people how to parent and alternatives to corporal punishment. The development of programs to better identify domestic violence, along with a stronger response to identified cases of family violence, can also reduce child deaths. Finally, clinicians who identify and treat psychoses should be aware of the possible danger to children of psychotic parents and monitor the child's risk.

See also: Children ; Infanticide ; Sacrifice


American Psychological Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition. Washington, DC: Author, 1994.

Bourget, Dominique, and Alain Labelle. "Homicide, Infanticide, and Filicide." Psychiatric Clinics of North America 15, no. 3 (1992):661–673.

Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Daly, Martin, and Margo I. Wilson "Violence Against Stepchildren." Current Directions in Psychological Science 5, no. 3 (1996):77–81.

Daly, Martin, and Margo I. Wilson. "Some Differential Attributes of Lethal Assaults on Small Children by Stepfathers versus Genetic Fathers." Etiology and Sociobiology 15 (1994):207–217.

D'Orban, P. T. "Women Who Kill Their Children." British Journal of Psychiatry 134 (1979):560–571.

Ewing, Charles P. Fatal Families: The Dynamics of Intrafamilial Homicide. London: Sage Publications, 1997.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States: 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2000.

Fox, James Alan, and Jack Levin. The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Levine, Murray, Jennifer Freeman, and Cheryl Compaan. "Maltreatment-Related Fatalities: Issues of Policy and Prevention." Law and Policy 449 (1994):458–464.

Lowenstein, I. F. "Infanticide: A Crime of Desperation." Criminologist 2, no. 2 (1997):81–92.

Milner, Larry S. Hardness of Heart of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide. New York: University Press of America Inc., 2000.

Sadoff, Robert L. "Mothers Who Kill Their Children." Psychiatric Annals 25, no. 10 (1995):601–605.

Sharp, Cecil, and Maude Karpeles. 80 Appalachian Folk Songs. Winchester, MA: Faber & Faber, 1968.

Websdale, Neil. Understanding Domestic Homicide. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.

Wilkins, A. J. "Attempted Infanticide." British Journal of Psychiatry 146 (1985):206–208.

Internet Resources

Juvenile Justice Bulletin. "Kids and Guns." In the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [web site]. Available from .

Murray, Iain. "Juvenile Murders: Guns Least of It." In the Statistical Assessment Service [web site]. Available from .

Troxell, Dan. "The Great Cherokee Children Massacre at Ywahoo Falls." In the Fortune City [web site]. Available from .


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