Crime and Punishment: Why Mothers Kill

Who murders her own kids?

By Clayton Simmons, published on July 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"I have no regrets." Casey Anthony wrote these words in her journal after killing her 3-year-old daughter Caylee, prosecutors allege. The Florida case has gained national attention. Prosecutors haven't indicated a motive, but researchers who study filicide suggest a wide range of possibilities.

Every year, there are about 300 such incidents in the U.S., according to Geoffrey McKee, a forensic psychologist in private practice. Mental illness leads some mothers to irrational behavior. Psychotic mothers sometimes believe their children are demons, and depression can lead to filicide-suicide. Psychopathic mothers, without a normal moral compass, kill to fulfill their own needs by, say, collecting life insurance. Vengeful mothers kill to hurt third parties.

Some kill unwanted babies, often after concealing the pregnancy. Other cases involve abuse or neglect. Professors of psychology and law Michelle Obermann of Santa Clara University and Cheryl Meyer of Wright State have interviewed dozens of women jailed for filicide. As children, most of the mothers experienced sexual and physical abuse—a pattern continued by their partners. Many were single moms. The interviews suggested they wanted to be good mothers but were sometimes overwhelmed by the responsibility.

The most important protection against filicide is social support. After her husband sued for divorce, one woman Meyer spoke to decided to kill herself and her children. She mixed poison into the kids' ice cream and was bringing it to them when the telephone rang. It was her pastor, asking how she was coping. She threw the ice cream out.

Perhaps Casey Anthony could have used such a call. She goes on trial for murder in October 2009.