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Who’s to Blame When a Child Dies in High-Conflict Divorce?

The life-and-death matter nobody wants to discuss. And that's a problem.

By the time you finish reading this article, a child in the United States will be seconds closer to being murdered by his or her parent. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Reports, approximately 500 children are killed by their parents each year in America.

Linda Esposito, used with permission
Source: Linda Esposito, used with permission

This is a picture of a traffic sign posted in my neighborhood three months after a five-year-old was murdered by his father following his parents’ high-conflict divorce.

What would compel anyone to kill their own flesh and blood? you may wonder.

Why should I continue reading about this depressing topic? might be another thought.

I assure you that the point is not to engender shock, awe or depression. This post aims to highlight a hard truth about filicide (the murder of a child by a parent or parental figure) in the context of the family court system. This knowledge will hopefully increase awareness for the general public, mental health professionals, children’s protective services, and the family court system. The ultimate goal would lead to the prevention of these senseless crimes.

Why Do Parents Kill Their Children?

Forensic psychiatrist and researcher Phillip Resnick has identified five motives for filicide:

  • Altruistic—for example, when a suicidal mother views filicide as an alternative to leaving her children motherless in an unforgiving world. Altruistic filicide may be associated with suicide.
  • Acutely psychotic—when a parent suffering from acute psychosis kills his or her child with no comprehensible motive.
  • Accidental filicide—fatal maltreatment filicide may occur as a result of child abuse, neglect, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
  • Unwanted child
  • Spouse revenge filicide—when a parent kills child(ren) in a specific attempt to make the spouse suffer.

Results of numerous studies on filicide indicate an association between parental psychiatric illness, with major depression with psychotic features as most common.

Psychosocial stressors in maternal filicide include being the primary caregiver, unemployment/financial problems, chronic abusive adult relationships, conflict with family members, social isolation and a history of childhood abuse.

Despite findings that males commit filicide as often as or more often than females, paternal filicide has attracted little research. A study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, found that fathers were violent to family members, abused alcohol, and had personality disorders. Other stressors included impending marital breakup, jealousy, fear of separation, long-term substance abuse, and low education level and socioeconomic status.

High-Conflict Divorce and the Family Law System

Spousal revenge accounts for only 4 percent of filicide, with infidelity or child custody battles as causal factors. But when you’re five years old and your parents can’t dissolve their marriage without intervention, your fate lies with the government. And that is a huge responsibility.

Some might say it’s unfair to expect a system to be responsible for a child’s welfare. And few would argue that endless court proceedings and costly attorneys don’t encourage the very tumult they’re supposed to ameliorate.

One possible change would call for the family court system to become increasingly vigilant, and actively question whether the 50/50 custodial plan is in the best interests of the child(ren). Asking the decision makers to challenge their knowledge and insight about human behavior, narcissism and pathology would be another. Splitting custodial time down the middle for the sake of moving on is to assume both parents are equally responsible for the contentiousness. One party can unilaterally drive the conflict.

So how do we prevent these deplorable crimes in the absence of a diagnostic measure to predict who, when and where they will occur?

Early intervention is one possible solution. If we have a better understanding of potentially fatal parental/familial dynamics contributing to filicide, we can identify risk faster and employ effective intervention strategies. And we can all do our part.

Whether you’re a childless 20-year-old college student, a retired postal worker, or a parent facing divorce, here are several potential buffers.

Potential Protective Factors to Prevent Filicide

Nurture your mental health. As the saying goes, "There is no health without mental health." When we feel good about ourselves, we have a stable foundation from which to base our decisions. This internal support mitigates the likelihood we’ll be drawn to or remain in unhealthy relationships.

Recognize the signs of narcissism. All sociopaths are narcissists, but not all narcissists engage in antisocial behavior, or commit crimes. The narcissism spectrum runs long and deep. Click here for an article about unhealthy relationship dynamics. Here is a popular resource to help you navigate co-parenting with a narcissist.

Care about other people’s children. Kids of divorce need extra attention and patience. Play dates, get-togethers and volunteering at schools and homeless shelters are wonderful ways to support vulnerable youth.

Speak up. If you’re in the throes of a high-conflict divorce and you believe your spouse is capable of physically harming your child(ren), get your concerns on record.

Caveat: As a former employee of Children’s Protective Services (CPS), I’m well aware that some parents falsely accuse the other parent of maltreatment (or encourage another family member to do so) in an effort to gain more custodial time. Not only is this a crime, but every time a CPS worker investigates a bogus claim, another child’s case may be compromised due to insufficient resources to conduct a thorough assessment.

Ask yourself if your situation warrants court intervention. If your divorce is on the low end of high-conflict, try to cooperate with the other side rather than battle it out in court. As a psychotherapist specializing in high-conflict divorce and co-parenting, I’m exasperated by the never-ending ceiling for money spent on attorney’s fees, custody evaluations and counseling for co-parenting. Remember, the government doesn’t actually want to be involved in rendering decisions on your behalf.

Reserve judgment. No adult has children with the goal of fighting a contentious court battle, or filing a missing person’s report following a failed custody exchange. Society's opinions about parents who kill their children are often strongly held in the moment but ambivalent in the long run. We feel justice must be served for the senseless brutality, yet we're easy to dismiss a filicidal parent as inherently troubled, or beyond redemption.

Reach out. If you see a parent acting in a volatile manner toward their children, do something. Offer support, and try to get this person into mental health treatment. Isolation is a major contributing factor for maternal filicide. Moms are often reluctant to talk about their overwhelm for fear of being stigmatized as an unfit mother.

Is the family court system to blame when a child dies following a high-conflict divorce? No. The responsible party is the person guilty of murder. But the system and its individuals should be examined, too.

When I came upon the detour sign on a lovely summer evening while walking my dogs, I was caught off guard by the cruel irony. For most of us, a detour signals a mild inconvenience. For the parent of a murdered child, it represents the ultimate change of direction—a life sentenced to hell on earth. My heart goes out to the mother of this little angel, and to all the parents and family members in the same unthinkable situation.

The hard truth is filicide is a complex and multifactorial crime. Establishing predictable patterns and traits that consistently apply to its perpetrators and victims is impossible. But one fact remains predictable, somewhere in the United States, and the world, time is running out and death by filicide is closing in on an innocent child.

Thank you for reading this article. I understand that this disturbing subject matter goes against everything that humanity represents. If you feel compelled, please share this post on social media, or email it to a friend or to someone directly involved in the family court system. The more attention this topic generates, the closer we'll be to de-stigmatizing mental illness and other factors leading to filicide.

Linda Esposito, LCSW practices psychotherapy in Pasadena, CA, and writes about mental health at

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Copyright 2017, Linda Esposito, LCSW