Infanticide: Exploring the Heart of Darkness

2 small boys are shot dead in CT

Posted Feb 27, 2013

Grandparents are famous for their unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, and lessons in life. Breaking news from Connecticut is unfathomable.

Three dead bodies were found in a car in CT late Tuesday night. Allegedly, Debra Denison, 47-years-old, shot and killed her two young grandsons and then turned the gun on herself.

Adding to the heartbreak are reports that the kids were collected from their day care and en route to a birthday party. Alton Perry was supposed to open presents and celebrate his 2nd birthday yesterday afternoon. He and 6-month-old little brother, Ashton Perry, never made it to the celebration. Instead, gunshots deflated the hopes, dreams and lives of two little boys.

No doubt, people are going to experience a strong visceral reaction to this gut-wrenching tragedy. Horrific events beg one question: Why?

There is already a great deal of speculation regarding what actually happened on February 26 and Ms. Denison’s mental state. I’m not involved in the investigaton and have never met the grandmother, so I can’t say what happened or offer a diagnosis.

I can share forensic knowledge that infanticide is a terrible and rare crime. Review of world literature reveals that mental illness is pervasive in perpetrators of familial child homicide. Common symptoms linked to perpetrators include depression, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts.

Specific research of grandparents murdering grandkids is sparse but another type of child murder has been widely studied. Filicide, or the intentional killing of a child by its mother, has been well published in forensic journals. Different experts have theorized that different types of motives exist when it comes to filicide. Some examples of these motives are; 1) altruistic, 2) acutely psychotic, 3) fatal maltreatment, 4) unwanted child, and 5) revenge. Although these archetypes were originally developed by experts at Case Western Medical Center to explain filicide they might be applicable to familial homicide on a wider scale.

When the motive is altruistic, the killer actually believes that they are acting out of love. In this scenario, the perpetrator believes that it is in the child’s best interest to die. Psychotic murderers have no comprehensible motive. Instead, they are acting in response to a command hallucination or other unrealistic thought process. Fatal maltreatment is where a child dies from cumulative abuse, neglect, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy. An unwanted child serves as the motivation for the fourth subtype of homicide, and happens when the primary caregiver thinks of the child as a hindrance. Finally, revenge homicide happens when the murderer acts with the specific intent of harming another close relative of the child.

Although this information can provide some rationale for why murder happens it doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. These categories offer a simplistic explanation to better understand infanticide, a multifaceted phenomenon with various causes and characteristics.

A better understanding of potentially fatal familial dynamics leading to infanticide could facilitate future identification of risk and enable effective intervention strategies.

In the meantime, I hope that the grieving family and the nation will find solace in each other’s love and support. Memories, routines, and connectedness are vital to promote resiliency and healing during these dark days.

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About the Author

Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School. She researches forensic psychiatry and violence.

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