A Comparison of Maternal and Paternal Filicide

Written by DanielleBosely MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 


This study intends to explore the differences between maternal and paternal filicide. The sample population consists of five males and five females who either attempted or completed filicide and are incarcerated at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and Colorado State Penitentiary. Participants will complete a survey inquiring their thoughts and experience of committing filicide.

Keywords: maternal, paternal, filicide


On August 22, 2011, Sonia Hermosillo threw her seven-month-old disabled son, Noe, off the fourth floor of Orange County Children’s Hospital parking structure (Flaccus, 2011). This act is called Filicide.  Filicide is the act of a parent murdering their child(ren). According to an article, Lewis and Bunce (2003) stated in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report noted 471 children murdered by their biological parents in 2001. A common fallacy is that filicide is predominantly committed by the mother. However, research has proven that this particular crime has been committed by both parents equally. Liem and Koenraadt (2008) also noted that the role of serious mental disorders such as depressive and psychotic disorders have been found in both maternal and paternal filicide, these disorders are more pronounced in females (pg.168).  Dating back to the Spartans, if a child was born deformed they would throw the infant off a cliff due to his or her deformities. One may believe that a child deformed or not is still a gift of life. However, Sara West, Susan Friedman, and Phillip Resnick (2009) famous Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato believed this practice was a form of preserving the integrity and size of the population (pg.463). Throughout this paper, the different motives and methods used in filicide and which parent is more likely to commit such an unspeakable crime will be discussed.

The population that was sampled varies in these studies. One study examined maternal and paternal participants at a forensic psychiatric observational hospital. Seventy-nine men and 82 women were detained in the hospital under criminal chargers in that period (1953-2004), having killed (132) or attempted to kill (29) their own child(ren) (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008). Others had a specific population that was studied. For example, one article focused on paternal filicide. West et al., (2009) stated that based on the five studies that reported on this, 18-65% of fathers who committed filicide also assaulted, attempted to kill, or killed their wives (pg.465). According to the Roman law, the father had absolute authority over the lives of his children and was encouraged to destroy those who were deformed (West et al., 2009, pg.463). Romans weren’t alone in the custom of destroying the weak. West et al., (2009) also stated he Greeks also believed in doing this. It was a Greek custom to have infants examined by the elder men of the community, who ordered the death of the deformed or weak (pg.463).

Throughout the articles, it is important to note the difference between men and women, why, and how they kill their children.

Literature Review

The aim of Liem and Koenraadt’s (2008) study is to examine and compare the socio-demographic, environmental and psychopathological factors underlying maternal and paternal filicide. They used records from a forensic psychiatric observation hospital. A total of 161 subjects were related to 154 cases, this was because both parents were occasionally involved, including one of the eight cases of neonaticide (Liem &Koenraadt, 2008). In this study, Liem and Koenraadt (2008) also discussed the different categories and a sub-category of filicide such as altruistic filicides, extended suicides, and psychotic filicides. A sub-category of psychotic filicides was added in order to refer to those parents who were driven mainly by a psychotic motive when killing their child (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008, pg.167).  Altruistic filicide refers to when parents kill their child believing that it is in the child’s best interest for them to die such as relieving them from suffering. Extended suicide is the belief that the child is an extended part of them, and after the murder the parent attempts suicide. Liem and Koenraadt (2008) discussed the second category:

The second category of filicide deals with accidents, although often covers fatal abuse. Here, the death of the child is not the intention of the perpetrator; rather, it was an  unwanted result of excessive physical maltreatment or neglect. The subcategory ‘battered   child’ implies repeated serious assaults, with ending the child’s life. (pg.167)

For the last two categories, Liem and Koenraadt (2008) stated the third category is neonaticide, which is killing of a newborn. The last category is retaliatory filicides, killing their children for revenge towards their partner or spouse (pg.167). Its perpetrators are sometimes referred to as suffering from the ‘Medea complex’ (Barbatzanis, 1991), referring to the ancient myth in which Medea sought revenge against her unfaithful husband Jason by killing their children (Liem & Koenraadt, 2008). Liem and Koenraadt’s (2008) results were a total of 161 perpetrators killed 309 child victims, of whom eight were victims of neonaticide (pg.169). Also, Liem and Koenraadt (2008) stated in 16 filicides (10%), the perpetrator also killed his/her (estranged) spouse; with one exception, these familicide’s were committed by men (pg.169). Fear of abandonment, martial conflicts, and financial problems can be contributing factors to retaliatory filicide.

West et al., (2009) conducted a study that focused on the paternal filicide population. They measured not only the characteristics of these fathers, but also history of mental illness, age, and motives such as revenge against spouse. West et al., (2009) stated fathers were far more likely than mothers to kill their spouses during the commission of filicide (pg.466). West et al., (2009) also stated:

Psychological problems in men can become present after the birth of a child. In a recent  community sample, 4% of father (n=8431) of 8-week-old infants screened positive on the Edinburgh Postnatal Scale (a scale designed to screen for maternal postpartum   depression). (pg.463)

If a father was experiencing postpartum depression and also had bipolar or another disorder, his symptoms would worsen. Psychosis occurred in a weighted mean of 23% of fathers (West et al., 2009). Fathers are also more likely to kill more than one child and likely kill his wife as well when committing filicide. West et al., (2009) stated methods often involve wounding violence, including battery, stabbing, and shooting (pg.466). Although the most common attribute for paternal filicide is fatal child abuse.

Maya K. Krischer, Michael H. Stone, Kathrin Sevecke, and Eckhard M. Steinmeyer (2007) conducted a study at Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric hospital. Their study was based on chart review of all filicidal women who were admitted to the hospital between 1976-2000.  Fifty-seven women were studied who had either committed filicide or attempted filicide. Krischer et al., (2007) stated:

The women in this sample were between 16 and 54 years of age, having killed children under 18 years of age. Only 7% of these mothers were younger than 19 years of age, 40.4% from 20 to 29 years, 38.6% were in the age range between 30 and 39 years of age and 14% were above 40 years old at the time of offense. (pg. 193)

There are several different risk factors that put a parent more at risk for committing filicide such as mental illness, poverty, early motherhood, marital problems, childhood abuse and more. According to Krischer et al., (2007), recent studies have reported that most women convicted of killing their child claimed to have experienced physical or sexual abuse in their own childhood (pg. 192). When a parent who kills their child out of revenge is referred to as retaliatory filicide, however, it is not as common. Krischer et al., (2007) state as mentioned by early researchers, killing a child to enact revenge against a souse was a comparatively rare phenomenon, but has also been observed by current researchers (pg. 192). The women who were used in this survey were either admitted after conviction or due to severity, sent to Mid-Hudson before the trial.  Krischer et al., (2007) stated of the 57 women, 43 were found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), while 14 were either not found “NGRI” or found nor competent to stand trial (pg.193). Their results supported their hypothesis that motivation for killing a child depends on numerous factors, even if the mother is mentally ill. According to Krischer et al., (2007) our results indicated filicide to be motivated by a different pattern of psychological problems, such as a history of depression, childhood abuse, and prior suicide attempts (pg. 198).

Susan Friedman, Carol Holden, Debra Hrouda, and Phillip Resnick (2008) conducted a study about maternal filicide-suicide, in which the mother commits suicide after murdering her child and why. Data was collected from the Cuyahoga County Coroners’s Office in Cleveland, OH from 1965-2002. Forty-nine mothers who had committed filicide were included in this study. Ten of these mothers also committed suicide, 19 made nonfatal suicide attempts, and 20 women did not make a suicidal attempt and were found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Between 16% and 29% of mothers who commit filicide also commit suicide (Friedman et al., 2008, pg.283).

Friedman et al., (2008) state that forensic experience suggests that it is physically easier to kill a child than to kill oneself. However using the same lethal method for both filicide and suicide is more likely to result in a completed suicide. For example, use of a firearm, the attempt is more likely to be fatal. Furthermore, the literature suggests that mothers who commit filicide with suicidal intentions are more likely to kill more of their children (Alder &Polk; Meyer & Oberman, 2001) (Friedman et al., 2008). Substance abuse, maternal mental illness, demographics, legal history factors and more were taken into consideration. Friedman et al., (2008) noted that unexpectedly, mothers in the filicide with no suicide attempt group were most likely to have a documented history of suicide attempts, whereas mothers in the filicide-suicide group were less likely to have a prior suicide attempt. Their results confirmed that mothers who commit filicide-suicide or with nonfatal suicide attempts had altruistic motives.

Hanna Putkonen, Sabine Amon, Markku Eronen, Claudia M. Klier, Maria P. Almiron, Jenny Yourstone Cederwall and Ghitta Weizmann-Henelius (2011) conducted a study that took place in two different countries, Austria and Finland, of register based filicide perpetrators. Their objective was to look for differences in filicidal crime characteristics and related variables. Putkonen et al., (2011) stated the study comprised all filicide perpetrators between 1995 and 2005, inclusive (N=124; 79 female and 45 male offenders) (pg. 321). They also studied different motives such as mental illness and alcohol or drug addiction. Putkonen et al., (2011) stated:

Further, violent crimes in general have been found to be more attributable to severe mental illness in women than in men. For example, personality disorders are more common among mentally disordered violent female offenders while corresponding males more often get a diagnosis of alcohol and/or drug dependence. (pg. 320)

Their results stated the perpetrators background information and stressors before the crime did show gender differences.  Putkonen et al., (2011) stated eleven (14%) mothers and 11 (24%) fathers had talked about filicidal ideation with a professional, friend, or family member 1 or more days prior to the crime (pg. 322).

Geoffrey R McKee and Alesandra Bramante (2010) conducted a retrospective study of maternal filicide in Italy that compared demographics, history, victims, and mental health of mothers. The sample consisted of 80 women from picked from records and evaluations reports that had either committed or attempted filicide in Italy between 1967 and 2003.  According to McKee and Bramante (2010):

Studies have revealed essentially five primary maternal motives (McKee, 2006): rejection or lack of bonding with the child (Detached Mothers); abuse or neglect (Abusive/neglectful Mothers); retaliation or revenge against a spouse or other person (Retaliatory Mothers); criminal intent (Psychopathic Mothers); and mental illness (Psychotic/Depressed Mothers). (pg. 272)

In the results, they discussed that the mothers with severe mental illness were older, slightly more intelligent, married and unemployed. McKee and Bramante (2010) stated in the Offense/Forensic domain, the mothers’ motives were proportioned as follows: detached (15%), abusive/neglectful (4%), psychotic/depressed (66%)m retaliatory (11%), and psychopathic (4%).


            The studies mentioned above inform us that there is a correlation between mental illness and filicide. Men can also suffer from psychosis and other disorders that can influence this to happen, but women are predominately known for filicide. Also, that there is no gender preference of the child to be murdered, and that fathers are just as likely as mothers to commit the crime. However, their motives and methods may differ.

Work Cited

Flaccus, Gillian. (2011, August 23). Sonia Hermosillo Arrested For Throwing Her Baby Off A Parking Structure. Huff Post Los Angeles. The Internet Newspaper: News Blogs Video Community. Retrieved from hhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/23/sonia- hermosillo-arrested_n_933963.html

Friedman, Susan Hatters., Holden, Carol E., Hrouda, Debra R., & Resnick, Phillip J. (2008).

Maternal Filicide and Its Intersection With Suicide. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 8(3), 283-291. Doi: 10.1093/brief-treatment/mhn011

Krischer, Maya K., Stone, Michael H., Sevecke, Kathrin., Steinmeyer, Eckhard M. (2007). Motives for maternal filicide: Results from a study with female forensic patients. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 30 , 191-200. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2007.03.003

Lewis, Catherine F., & Bunce, Scott C. (2003). Filicidal Mothers and the Impact of Psychosis on Maternal Filicide. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 31(4), 459-470.

Liem, Marieke., & Koenraadt, Frans. (2008). Filicide: A Comparatice Study of Maternal versus Paternal Child Homicide. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health,18, 166-176.


McKee, Geoffrey R., & Bramante, Alesandra. (2010) Maternal filicide and mental illness in Italy: A Comparative Study. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 38/Fall 2010, 271-282.

Putkonen, Hanna., Amon, Sabine., Eronen, Markku., Klier, Claudia M., Almiron, Maria P., Cederwall, Jenny Yourstone, Weizmann-Henelius, Ghitta. (2011). Gender differences in filicide offense characteristic-A comprehensive register based study of child murder in two European countries. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35, 319-328. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.01.007

West, Sara G., Friedman, Susan Hatters., Resnick, Phillip J. (2009). Fathers Who Kill Their Children: An Analysis of the Literature. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(2), 463-468. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2008.00964.x



The current study intends to further reveal the gender specific risks for committing filicide. This study attempts to develop more information on current perspectives (Friedman et al., 2008; Krischer et al., 2007; Laporte et al., 2003; Lewis & Scott, 2003; Liem & Koenraadt, 2008; McKee & Bramante, 2010; Putkonen et al., 2011) on the motives of gender specific filicide perpetrators, and to collect information for future research.  This researcher anticipated that maternal filicide is committed out of altruistic love with a mental illness, and paternal filicide is committed in retaliation.

Independent Variable

The independent variable in the study is gender specific risks for maternal or paternal filicide and maternal filicide associated with mental illness.

Dependent Variable

The dependent variable in the study is the comparison of maternal versus paternal filicide, which is the murder of a child by a parent (Friedman et al., 2008; Krischer et al., 2007; Laporte et al., 2003; Lewis & Scott, 2003; Liem & Koenraadt, 2008; McKee & Bramante, 2010; Putkonen et al., 2011)

Survey Organization

Section 1 of the survey will collect information on the participant including gender, age, marital status, income, the participant’s feelings towards being a parent and the child’s health. Section 2(a) of the survey is to find out if the filicide was premeditated, and 2(b) is for the participant to elaborate on their answer from 2(a) and reveal details concerning it.


An informative study will consist of five females and five males that are currently incarcerated at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and Colorado State Penitentiary for either attempting or completing filicide.

Data Collection

Consent forms and surveys will be mailed to the warden of both prison facilities, who then will contact the inmates that are wanted to participate in the study and will find out who is interested in participating. Second, a prison guard will privately supervise those who will be taking the survey by standing outside the room. Each participant will have up to two hours to complete the survey due to the sensitivity of the subject. Also, a Psychologist on staff will debrief each participant when they have completed the study.

Data Analysis

To describe the sample, descriptive statistics will be used to summarize the sample such as their gender, age, and income prior to incarceration. The data will be analyzed through open coding. During the open coding process, data is broken down into distinct parts, closely examined, and compared for similarities and differences.


The intention of this study is to further understand the gender-specific differences in committing filicide. It is also to further examine the parent’s motives such as altruistic filicide versus spousal revenge filicide and which gender is more likely to commit altruistic or revenge filicide.

Expanding knowledge in this field can be beneficial to social work because it could start mandatory parenting classes to help prepare individuals becoming parents, and to inform them on filicide and ways to help prevent it.


Due to the small sample size and one geographical location, our results are limited.  Our sample included five women and five males incarcerated in the state of Colorado at two different prisons. Although this study had a wide focused. It focused on male and females who committed filicide with no limitations to their marital status, race, or educational level.

Appendix A: Form of Consent

                You are invited to participate in a study to help further knowledge on different motives and methods between maternal and paternal filicide. We hope to learn possible reasons and or stressors that can increase the risks. The act of filicide is a parent killing their child.

If you decide to participate, you will be given a survey that asks questions regarding your relationship with your child, the child’s father, and other personal information. These questions may bring discomfort with answering these questions. You will not be personally interviews nor be asked to speak about your feelings. There is a Psychologist on staff who will be available to you to during or after the study. A guard will hand you the survey, and you will have two hours to complete it.

A criminal record investigation will take place to obtain information on your case. To protect your confidentially, and the confidentiality of the names of others you may mention in the survey, they will remain private and will not be used as part of the study.

You are free to withdraw your consent and to discontinue participation at any time without penalty. Your participation is completely voluntary.


By signing this form, I (print name)_________________________________ understand and agree to the information above, and I thereby give my consent.


Participant Signature:______________________________________          Date:_____________


Metroplitan State College of Denver

Department of Social Work

Denver, CO



Appendix B: Survey

Section 1: Personal Demographics

What is your gender? _______

What was your age when the crime took place? _____

What was your marital status before incarceration? _______

What was your relationship with the child’s other parent? Check the following. If no relationship, check NR (no relationship).

Happy____ Hatred_____ Revengeful____ NR____

Was your child mentally and physically healthy or was he or she disabled? ________

How did you feel about being a parent? Check the following that apply

Excited____ Overwhelmed____ Resentful____ Happy____ Depressed___

What was your yearly income prior to incarceration? ____________

Have you been previously diagnosed with a mental illness? If yes, please list the illness or illnesses. ______________________________________________________________________

Section 2(a): Filicide

Was the filicide planned in advance? Yes___ No___

a. If YES, please note how many days prior to the filicide was it planned? __________

Section 2(b): Please explain your answer

For the section below, please use this space to explain your answers in section 2. Please explain why or why not it was planned.










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