By Kathleen M. Heide, published on September 1, 1992 - last reviewed on December 14, 2012
A father is gunned down... a mother is bludgeoned to death... a family of four-mother, father, and two small children-is butchered alive... by a son... a daughter... a son and daughter acting together.
While tabloid television has brought us closer to the everyday horrors of our society, nothing still shocks as much as a child killing a parent or step-parent. Such an act, though thought uncommon, is almost a daily event in the United States. Between 1977 and 1986, more than 300 parents were killed each year by their own children.
Don't think that these children fit any of the classic stereotypes--the kind we believe keeps murder at a comfortable remove. This is not another example of angry inner-city teenagers doing anything for drug money: An in-depth analysis of the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report for this period shows that, in the great majority of cases, the child who killed was a white male.
What kind of kid is capable of such an atrocity against a parent? What kind of a situation would lead to such a violent end? Looking beyond society's most alarming trend reveals society's most alarming undercurrent: These are neglected and abused children whose options are limited--children who honestly think they have no other way out.
Almost invariably, the killers are adolescents. Why are the killers teenagers? Preadolescents, those under 11, typically do not understand the concept of death and have tremendous difficulty in accepting that their actions lead to an irreversible result. Adolescents are more likely to kill because the normal turbulence of adolescence runs up against constraints they perceive have been placed upon them in a setting of limited alternatives.
Unlike adults who kill their parents, teenagers become parricide offenders when conditions in the home are intolerable but their alternatives are limited. Unlike adults, kids cannot simply leave. The law has made it a crime for young people to run away. Juveniles who commit parricide usually do consider running away, but many do not know any place where they can seek refuge. Those who do run are generally picked up and returned home, or go back on their own: Surviving on the streets is hardly a realistic alternative for youths with meager financial resources, limited education, and few skills.
Even under the best of circumstances, adolescence is a stormy time. Children going through it need the support of parents, who must give them room to grow and help them confront tough issues. Those who commit parricide have parents who have not been available to help them. In fact, they are most often carrying adult responsibilities in their families. Indeed, they often look exemplary on the surface, taking care of themselves and often taking care of one or both parents as well as running the entire household.
Who Kills Their Parents?
There are three types of individuals who commit parricide. One is the severely abused child who is pushed beyond his or her limits. Another is the severely mentally ill child. And the third is the darling of the tabloids, the dangerously antisocial child.
By far, the severely abused child is the most frequently encountered type of offender. According to Paul Mones, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in defending adolescent parricide offenders, more than 90 percent have been abused by their parents. In-depth portraits of such youths have frequently shown that they killed because they could no longer tolerate conditions at home. These children were psychologically abused by one or both parents and often suffered physical, sexual, and verbal abuse as well--and witnessed it given to others in the household. They did not typically have histories of severe mental illness or of serious and extensive delinquent behavior. They were not criminally sophisticated. For them, the killings represented an act of desperation--the only way out of a family situation they could no longer endure.
Only on occasion does a severely mentally ill child kill. These are children who have lost contact with reality. Their cases are often well documented with records of previous treatments that failed. Many of the cases are never tried; the killer is declared unfit to stand trial.
There are those few children who seem to kill without any remorse, yet whose parents seem to be loving and kind. The dangerously antisocial child is often the fodder of newspaper headlines. These juvenile offenders typically exhibit a conduct disorder--severely disruptive behavior that continues for over six months. These are the kids who kill their parents merely for some sort of instrumental, selfish end--never having to ask before borrowing the car again, for instance.
Portraits of Pain
I have conducted assessment interviews with approximately 75 adolescents charged with murder or attempted murder. Seven involved youths who killed parents. Of the seven, six were male; all were white. They ranged in age from 12 to 17. Two killed both parents. As a group, they killed six fathers, three mothers, and one brother. The murder weapon, in every case, was a gun, and it was readily available in the house. Six out of the seven were severely abused children; the seventh was diagnosed as having a paranoid disorder. Although seven may appear to be a small number of cases from which to draw conclusions, it is valuable for demonstrating the characteristics of kids who kill. Among the findings:
THEY AREN'T VIOLENT. Analysis revealed that the six adolescents who fit the profile of the severely abused child had approached life fairly passively until the homicide. Five thought of themselves as strong and in control of events. Their friends were typically nice kids, and they were relatively uninvolved in criminal behavior prior to the shootings.
THEY ARE ABUSED. Child maltreatment, particularly verbal and psychological abuse, was readily apparent in these six cases; severe psychological abuse was present in five. The one girl, in addition to being physically, verbally, and psychologically abused by her father, was also sexually abused and raped by him as well. Six youths had been emotionally and physically neglected by their parents. Two had virtually no supervision at all because both of their parents were alcoholics. None of the six had been protected from harm by their parents. At least one of the youths had been medically neglected. Contrary to popular wisdom, teenagers experience all types of abuse and neglect at higher rates than young children, according to the Second National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect.
THEIR PARENTS ARE MOST LIKELY SUBSTANCE ABUSERS. In all six cases there was alcoholism or heavy drinking in the home. There was strong evidence that each of the five fathers slain was an alcoholic. Three used drugs; one smoked marijuana and the other two used tranquilizers. One of the mothers murdered was also an alcoholic. Among the surviving spouses, chemical addiction was also common. Only one of them had reportedly never been an abuser, though her husband was an alcoholic. Two of the surviving mothers had been addicted to Valium for years as a way of coping with an abusive husband.
THEY ARE ISOLATED. These families tend to be relatively isolated because of problems in the home. The six teenagers had fewer outlets than other youths because they were expected to assume responsibilities typically performed by parents, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger children. One, too young to be a licensed driver, even drove his brother to school every day. These children were isolated not merely by the burden of chores but by a burden of shame. They knew their family was not the Brady Bunch. And parents had often not been hospitable to friends they had brought home.
Over the course of the years, the youths had made attempts to get help--from teachers, relatives, or even the non-abusing adult in the house--but they were either ignored or unsuccessful. Increasingly, the children's goals centered on escaping the family either through running away or suicide. Over time they felt increasingly overwhelmed by the home environment, which continued to deteriorate and diminished whatever support had been available. Then, already stressed to the limit, their inability to cope eventually led them to lose control or to contemplate murder in response to some new overt or perceived threat.
THEY KILL ONLY WHEN THEY FEEL THERE IS NO ONE TO HELP THEM. Just prior to the murder, life had become increasingly intolerable. In the four cases where only the abusive father was killed, the mother was not living at home at the time. In one case, the common-law stepmother did the same thing the boy's mother had done several years before: She walked out. That was one month before the homicide. In a second case, the mother was chronically ill and had been hospitalized for several weeks at the time of the murder. In each of the two other cases, the mother had divorced her husband on the grounds of physical and psychological abuse, and then allowed the children to live with the father more than a thousand miles away. One boy killed his father within a year of being left alone with him; the girl in the other case killed her father within 16 months of his common-law wife's departure.
THEY "BLOCK OUT" THE MURDER, NOT REVEL IN IT. Five out of the six cases clearly suggested that the children were in a dissociative state at the time of the killing; there was an alteration in consciousness that left the memory of the murder not integrated into awareness. These youths do not deny the murder took place or that they were responsible for it, but they have gaps in their memory of the event, "blackouts," and a sense that events were somehow unreal or dream-like during the homicide or immediately afterward. In one case, the youth did not remember the homicide; in another, dissociation left only part of the memory of the shooting intact. He remembered the sequence this way: terror from a threat from his abusive father, flashback view of his father beating his mother, then standing over the father's bloody body. He has no memory at all of firing the shots that killed his father, although he assumed he did it.
THEY SEE NO OTHER CHOICE. The youths killed a parent or parents in response to a perception of being trapped. In two of the five cases in which there was severe physical abuse, both were reacting to a perceived threat of imminent death or serious physical injury. In the three others, the children were experiencing terror and horror even though death and physical injury were not imminent. Interestingly, in these cases, the victims were defenseless: two were shot as they lay sleeping, the third as he sat watching television, his back to his son.
THEY ARE SORRY FOR WHAT THEY DID. While many young felons brag about their acts, these youths seemed uncomfortable with having killed. They knew their behavior was wrong, but experienced conflict over its effects--repugnance at the act they felt driven to carry out, yet relief that the victim could no longer hurt them or others dear to them. Their conflict seemed to result from a sense of their own victimization. They do not see themselves as murderers or criminals.
Ending The Madness
The true killer in these cases is child mistreatment. The significant damage comes not only in human carnage but in the death of the human spirit that persistent abuse often carries out.
Few severely abused children actually kill their parents. But all are at a vastly increased risk of becoming delinquent or socially dependent than are children who are treated well by concerned parents or loving guardians. Most often, the destruction unleashed by child abuse does not manifest itself until a generation later. A disproportionate number of those who as adults kill others were themselves abused as children.
The undeniable realities and effects of child abuse are increasingly being recognized as a responsibility of everyone in the culture. Yet society has failed these children. It has failed to make a sufficient commitment to children. It has clearly failed to protect these children. And it has failed to foster good parenting.
What the World Needs Now
Parenting skills and support are areas that desperately need attention. Classes need to be made available to help parents cope with the stresses of raising children, particularly those with special needs. Research shows that increasing the knowledge of parents about home and child management, and enhancing the development of good communication skills, healthy emotional ties, and parent-child bonding helps prevent child abuse.
In addition to teaching adults and teenagers about child development and parenting skills, our nation's elementary, junior high, and high schools should develop courses that help children recognize abuse and neglect. Ideally, such courses would encourage children to take action if victimized or threatened, and teach them how; there would be a child advocate in the schools to help them. The programs should aim to foster the development of self-esteem and conflict resolution skills to aid youth in self-protection.
Almost 40 percent of schools in the U.S. do not offer prevention education. Programs restricted to helping children protect themselves from abuse are inadequate; children and adolescents must learn about all types of abuse. The earlier these behaviors are targeted, the earlier they can be stopped and any accompanying damage addressed therapeutically.
Abuse and neglect are not always recognized by their victims. When I discuss abuse and neglect in university classes, only then do some students become aware that they were abused or neglected as children. Some mothers of children who kill their fathers allowed their child to be mistreated because they never realized the fact they themselves had been victims.
And much of sexual abuse is covert. A child whose parent shares pornography with him/her senses that it is wrong, but assumes it must be okay because it's Mom or Dad whose doing it. The child resolves the resulting confusion by assuming that "what's wrong is me."
Most of all, we have to listen to our children. In a follow-up interview given four and half years after his conviction for murder, Scott Anders (see below) expressed bitterness when he recalled the number of teachers, neighbors, and relatives whom he told of the abuse--and who did nothing to help him. "Just because a kid is young, don't think he's stupid. At least listen to him. Then check into it."
Despite increased public attention to the fact of child mistreatment, many people are unclear about what to do when confronted with this problem. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you should at least call the local or state agency that investigates child abuse and neglect cases. Reports in many states can be made anonymously; in any case, the caller's identity is kept confidential. If the agency determines that a child is in danger, he or she win be temporarily removed from the home and given a safe place to stay pending other arrangements.
Lastly, as a society we must look with compassion on adolescent parricide offender. These are not tough children, but after indictment they are usually dealt with harshly, even though their youth is considered a mitigating factor. They have been abused for years and feel a great deal of anger and pain. They need to understand the tragedy, appreciate that their actions were wrong, extreme measures that are not allowed as a way to solve problems, and that they could have chosen a nondestructive course of action. They need to work through their many losses--the loss of their childhood, the loss of a clear future, as well as the loss of a parent. They need help to realize that they did have positive feelings for their parent, and let the deeply buried feelings come to the surface so that they can be resolved. These are not conflicts that can be resolved by prison.
Theirs, after all, is the misfortune of being born before we could create a safe world for them.
CHARACTERISTICS OF KIDS WHO KILL
Although few studies have been done, Dr. Heide, drawing on earlier work by others and her own cases, delineates the common characteristics that emerged among 50 cases of adolescents who committed such a personal crime:
o Evidence of family violence
o Attempts to get help, which failed
o Attempts to run away or commit suicide
o Isolation from peers
o Increasingly intolerable family situation
o Children feel helpless to change the home situation
o Inability to cope with what is happening to them
o No criminal record
o A gun available in the home
o Alcoholism present in parents
o Amnesia reported after murder
o Victim's death perceived as a relief by all involved.
IF THOUGHTS COULD KILL
It is disturbing but true. Parricidal thoughts are far more common than any of us may have dreamed, as my colleague, Dr. Eldra Soloman, and I recently discovered in a survey I conducted of 40 adult women who had been sexually abused as children. The questionnaire, filled out anonymously, contained 200 items about abuse and neglect. Because many people do not recognize as abuse what happened to them at the hands of a parent, the questionnaire did not label any behavior as abuse or neglect; it merely described behaviors and asked whether they had occurred.
One question asked, prior to age 18, did you ever consider killing the abusive parent. Fully 50 percent--20 of the women--said yes, as an adolescent. Some reported they had even gone so far as to make plans.
We know that women are nowhere near as violent as men, yet fully 50 percent reported thoughts of murdering a parent. The interesting question is, would the incidence of thoughts be even higher among men?
These findings attest to the depth of feelings that abuse creates. It generates pain, fear, anger, and shame that many people spend a great deal of energy to contain over the course of their lives. Given the strength of the feelings abuse generates in its victims, the real question should be not why do kids kill their parents, but why don't more of them do it? Then we need to find out what insulates those who don't.
THE CASE OF SCOTT ANDERS
Scott Anders, a white boy from a lower-middle class neighborhood, was 15 when he killed his 36-year-old father. On the afternoon of the homicide, Scott confided to a friend that things at home had been 'building up." His father, Scott said, would come home 'real buzzed" on marijuana and cocaine. He would yell and threaten his son, even talk about killing him, and had done so for some time. Later that day, Mr. Anders smoked marijuana and screamed at the boy. Scott fled the house, telling his father he'd return, hoping he'd feel better. When Scott walked back through the front door, he saw that his father's 12-gauge shotgun was propped against the couch.
"When I got back, I walked in the door and he looked at me and started yelling at me, cussing me and everything, and telling me he was going to beat my ass, and that was the last thing I remember. He was just getting ready to light another joint when I grabbed the gun. I shot him. He went back and rolled over and blood poured out of his mouth. He blinked his eyes. I shot him again. Then I freaked out."
Scott ran out of the house and found his good friend Kirk. He told Kirk that he was going to commit suicide because "it kinda took a part of me away when I shot my dad." Kirk took the gun away from Scott and accompanied him back to the house. As he tried to determine Mr. Anders's condition, Kirk recalls Scott "screaming and crying and everything." The two called the police and Scott gave a complete confession. The grand jury decided to prosecute Scott as an adult and obtained indictments for one count of first-degree murder and another for possession of a firearm.
Scott Anders was the only child born to Lily and Chester Anders. When Scott was three, Mrs. Anders left, taking with her a boy and a girl from a previous marriage. During the four years following his mother's departure, Scott shuffled between relatives four times. His father remarried, and Scott moved in; his stepmother, Mary, is a woman he remembers fondly. But the marriage was not for long, and soon she, too, left. Mr. Anders then married "Marytwo," and Scott moved with them to a neighborhood known as a haven for drug dealers.
Scott "never got into baseball or nothing" and was unable to go to the Scouts or do other fun things because he was "always usually busy around the house. Helpin' with chores." Chores? "I swept, mopped, cleaned the yard, washed the car, cleaned the rooms, cleaned the garage, mowed the lawn, and helped out the neighbors with their chores."
Mr. Anders was an explosive man who had a history of both physically and verbally abusing women. Scott remembers his father referring to women as "sluts. He beat the shit out of them. No reason. He'd wake up grumpy and go to bed grumpy. Make the coffee wrong, he'd throw it in your face. You spent too much money at the store, he'd... he'd show you not to do it anymore." Scott maintained that his father threatened Marytwo with a gun several times and beat her more than a hundred times.
Scott's own daily beatings happened from the time he could remember. Sometimes they had a "reason" (Marytwo would often not do her chores and blame it on Scott), sometimes not ("I'd fall down and he'd get mad"). His father's drinking played a large part in their severity. "When he was sober he would hit you, but when he was drinking ... that's when he really started swingin'."
Scott maintains that his father loved him even though he told him he was "no good." Marytwo would often treat him "like a dog. Get me a beer. Clean the porch. Chop the potatoes." She made Scott get rid of his big dog, a precious companion, because she preferred little dogs.
Weekends were unmitigated hell. On an average day his father would start drinking at one and not stop until he passed out. On Saturdays and Sundays, the father and Marytwo "partied" and went to bars, leaving Scott in the car. When he was younger, he was scared by being left alone. As he got older, he resented all the time it took away from him. Scott considered being beaten better than being left alone.
The most severe beating took place when Scott tried to run away but returned home when he became concerned that his parents would be worried. When he walked in, they were both asleep. Upon awaking, "Marytwo beat the shit out of me until one o'clock that morning. She was swingin' and punchin' and slappin' me and everything else." The following morning, Scott's father took his turn. "He beat the shit out of me, too. He hit me in the stomach, face, everywhere." The beating was so severe that Scott's father wouldn't let him go to school for a few days because the boy had "knots" on his head.
A month before the homicide, Marytwo "ran off" with one of Mr. Anders's male friends. Scott's father blamed his son for Marytwo's flight and told him, "Things are going to get a lot worse." With Marytwo gone, Scott was expected to do all the cooking and cleaning. Mr. Anders was unable to work because of a physical disability. No longer able to tolerate drink, the father turned increasingly to drugs. He also became a lot more violent. "My father started to tell me he was going to kill me."
The night of the homicide, Scott and his father argued about Scott's not being able to be in the house alone (he had to wait outside until his father returned). He kept "yelling and yelling and when I tried to run out he said, 'You better not go nowhere.' I was scared, and I just hauled ass. When I came back I saw the gun."
While there was no immediate threat, the parricide was the end of a long build-up. Scott remembers firing the second shot because he was afraid "what his father might do to him" after he fired the first.
Until the seventh grade, Scott had tried to get help by telling his friends and grandparents about the physical abuse. But "nobody wanted to get involved." Later, he told little even to his closest friends because he didn't want them to know the truth. Scott said he hated the term "child abuse" because he hated what it implied about his father.