The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Child Serial Killing

The link between multiple infant deaths and murder.

Is there a relationship between multiple infant deaths in a family and murder?  It depends on who you ask.  

On the one hand, there are those who still follow the three strike rule. "One SIDS death in a family is tragic; two suspicious; three murder." On the other hand, there have been innocent and grieving women convicted by either the carelessness, or mistakes, of physicians.

Waneta Hoyt:  where science and the law collided

One ironic example that supports the followers of this camp was the case of Waneta Hoyt, although initially it was published to do just the opposite.

In October 1972, Dr. Alfred Steinchneider published a groundbreaking study in Pediatrics suggesting that there might be a hereditary flaw in some family genes that resulted in multiple infant deaths.   His conclusions were largely based on his study of Waneta Hoyt's family, who lost five children to what was then believed to be Sudden Infant Death syndrome.

However, a prosecutor who came across the paper in 1986 while researching another case drew a different conclusion: He thought the deaths seemed like murder. In fact, he was so convinced of it that he tracked down the identity (many case studies published in medical journals use only the patient's initials to protect their privacy) and the medical records of the case. After a lengthy investigation, Hoyt signed a confession, and was convicted of murder. Dr. Steinchneider, as you might expect, received quite a bit of criticism, especially when it became known that his intervention (by contacting the authorities instead of journal editors) might have spared the lives of the youngest two siblings, who were alive when he became involved with the Hoyts.

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Thinking dirty to get a conviction

And then there are the physicians who see evil where no exists. Pediatric pathologist Dr. Charles Smith of Canada was stripped of his medical license after his flawed or falsified autopsies led to the conviction of at least a dozen mothers. Apparently, Dr. Smith had a knack for seeing the worst in maternal nature, finding evidence to support it during his autopsies, and then elaborating on his pessimistic views on the stand. Other physicians have been disciplined for distorting statistics on the likelihood of two children in the same family dying of SIDS.

The bottom line

The debate between Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and murder continues. Here's what we know: Some mothers do, in fact, kill their babies and try to hide it. There are cases of sudden death where the cause is unknown. There are also cases where a child dies from some recognized disease or genetic vulnerability; a small minority of these causes may run in families. And, there are overly zealous social workers or pediatricians who find it easier to point a finger than lend a hand.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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