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Suicide

The Right to Life

Understanding murder-suicide involving children.

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

River Gale. Piper Ann. Ava. Pierce, Chase, and Jameson. These are some of the names of the 18 American children who died via murder-suicide in January 2021, children whose lives were cut short by people who were supposed to love them the most.

This doesn’t just happen in the U.S.A. In Russia, 36-year-old Oksana Patchin jumped off a balcony with her 5-year-old daughter in her arms, killing both of them. In Australia, Katie Perinovic stabbed her three children (ages 7. 5, and 3) before killing herself. And in India, 28-year-old Girag Rana slashed the throats of his 2- and 4-year-old and his wife before hanging himself.

Is this becoming an epidemic? I don’t think I’m the only one who’s noticed an increase in reported murder-suicides over the past year. And it’s time for it to stop. But before we stop it, we’ve got to understand how it starts.

The Face of Murder-Suicide

In spite of the horrific cases that have plagued the media lately, murder-suicide is rare. While there’s no official tracking system for this type of crime, our best guess, based on the research, is an estimate of somewhere between 1000 and 1500 U.S. murder-suicides every year. This is far less than the 48,000 yearly suicides or the 18,830 murders.

In preparation for this story, I researched various news sources for January 2021 and found 109 murder-suicide victims in those 31 days. If we extrapolate for the rest of the year, that would be 1308 murder-suicide victims for 2021. Eighteen, or around 17 percent, were children. That is consistent with other studies that have found percentages between 14 and 25 percent.

There’s a backstory to every murder-suicide and each one is unique. But we do find some common themes. If there’s a “typical” murder-suicide, it might look like this: A gun-owning depressed man with a history of domestic violence and alcohol use who, due to precipitating stressors such as increased relationship conflict, recent or pending separation/divorce, or financial setbacks feels increasingly desperate and shoots and kills his wife/significant other and himself. The actual murder might be impulsive (during an intense argument or in the middle of intense feelings of distress) or a planned act intended to resolve a personal problem but there are almost always pre-existing thoughts of suicide lurking in the background. Extended family members are devastated but not shocked; they see it as an escalation of longstanding abuse.

But things are more complicated when children are involved.

Who Would Kill the Kids?

While over 90 percent of murder-suicides solely targeting intimate partners are men, the statistics shift when it comes to filicide-suicide. In fact, studies show that between 25 and 50 percent of homicide-suicides that include children are committed by women. When we look at murder-suicides that only involve child victims, 40 percent are committed by female perpetrators.

The motives for murder-suicide seem to be similar across sex. Some male murder-suicide perpetrators who kill children seem to be driven by a desire to punish/get revenge on an intimate partner. In May 2020, as part of a court-ordered custody swap in the middle of divorce proceedings, Stephen Hatch delivered his 10-year-old son, Caleb, back to his bedroom at his estranged wife’s house — dead from a point-blank shot to his head; he then shot and killed himself. Between 25 and 30 percent of children killed by male perpetrators were not biologically related to their killer; they were children of their intimate partner, apparently killed in revenge. Women are far less likely to kill out of retaliation, but it happens.

There’s another motive at play when filicide-suicide is involved; some researchers call it misplaced altruism or perverted mercy. It involves the perpetrator’s mistaken belief that death is the best option for the child. As the parent becomes increasingly despondent and suicidal over their circumstances, they convince themselves that the right thing to do is to take the children with them. Leaving them alone in the world (or at least without the perpetrator) is a fate worse than death.

This “misplaced altruism” is often attributed to untreated mental illness, extreme situational stress, or the distorted thinking that severe depression can cause. I think these are, at best, partial explanations. Most people would never think of killing their child, no matter what the circumstances. Yes, a suicidal parent might genuinely believe his child would be better off without him or that she was a burden to her offspring’s happy life. But she would never lose sight of the fact that children are amazingly resilient or that her child is a separate person with her own needs, thoughts, and feelings. This, I think, is the fundamental difference between the parent who commits suicide and those who take an innocent bystander with them; the degree of enmeshment they share.

One of the strangest things I noticed in researching filicide-suicides is how often the offending parent was lauded as an exceptionally loving mother or devoted father to his or her children. “She lived for those kids.” “They were his whole world.” “That was the last thing I would have ever expected.” Researchers have noted that extended family members often describe closer relationships between members of murder-suicide families than those in which a family member commits suicide. But there is a point in which closeness becomes enmeshed.

To be healthy parents, we have to see our children the way they are, not as possessions or extensions of ourselves. We have to understand that the way our children think, feel, and believe is different than the way we do and that children are resilient in a way grown-ups rarely are. Enmeshed parents find this impossible to do. As suicidal Assia Wevill wrote in her journal before killing her 4-year-old daughter and herself: “Execute yourself and your little self efficiently.”

The Bottom Line

The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies. While filicide-suicide is rare, the death of even one innocent child at the hands of a suicidal parent is too many. We are beginning to understand how this happens and the motives which drive the unthinkable. In part two, we’ll talk about how to prevent it.

References

If you'd like to read more about forensic psychology, check out my website at drjonijohnston.com, my youtube channel Unmasking a Murderer, and my new book, Serial Killers: 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask.

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