Why Some Mothers Kill Their Children
According to a 2005 study, maternal filicide occurs more frequently in the United States than developing nations. We asked psychologists and researchers about what would drive a mother to kill her own children.
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On October 2, 2006 31-year-old single mother Elaine Campione took out her video camera and filmed her two young daughters, three-year-old Serena and 19-month-old Sophia, playing around their Barrie, Ontario, apartment. In the footage, clips of Serena coloring in the living room and telling her mother how much she loves her are intercut with Sophia splashing in the bath water while Campione sings "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
Later, off camera, Campione drowned her two daughters in the family bathtub. She dried off their bodies, put them in their pajamas, and laid the girls hand-in-hand on her bed, a turquoise rosary and a photo album between the deceased sisters. She then took what she thought was an overdose of clozapine (a medication prescribed to treat bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia) and went back into her living room to continue recording.
The video shows Campione now alone, sitting on her couch, sobbing as she rants toward the camera she's set across the room. The nearly ten-minute long manifesto is directed at her ex-husband, Leo Campione, whom she claims beat and abused her and their eldest daughter. The couple was in the middle of a heated custody battle. (After their divorce, Campione and the girls moved to a women's shelter and then assisted living.) The Campiones were due in court later that week.
"Here, are you happy now? The children are gone... How does that make you feel, Leo?" she asks the camera. "I hate you, Leo. You are the devil. You wanted to win; you won. Are you happy? How does it make you feel? Because it doesn't make me feel great. I've lost everything... I'll never know what my children would have become."
According to Campione's own account, she turned off the camera and then passed out, hoping she would die with her daughters. Instead, she woke up a day and half later. Strangely, she turned back on her camera. You can hear the radio still playing in the background, but the living room is filled with natural light.
"I tried to overdose, but it didn't work," she confesses, crying. "Those poor girls, they were my life."
It's nearly impossible for most people to understand how a parent could deliberately murder their own child.
At this point, Campione finally stopped filming herself and called the police. Later, in an on-camera interrogation at the station, she pretended she did not know how her children had died. Obviously, the video confession she had made was what landed her in jail for two counts of first-degree murder after her trial nearly four years later.
It's nearly impossible for most people to understand how a parent could deliberately murder their own child—a brutal act legally defined as filicide, infanticide, or neonaticide (depending on the age of the child). When these rare cases do occur, they are often shrouded in a morbid, public curiosity that does not dissipate with a verdict.
There are several infamous cases that still linger in the public consciousness: Even though the crime occurred two decades ago, HLN's infamous host Nancy Grace still brings up Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who pushed her car into a lake with her two young sons strapped in the back seat. Young Florida mother Casey Anthony's case became the biggest public hysteria since the O.J. Simpson trial, especially when Anthony was found not guilty of the death of her toddler, Caylee, whom she had allegedly drugged with chloroform and suffocated by taping duct tape over her nose and mouth. In 2002, the public was obsessed by Texas mother Andrea Yates, who methodically drowned her five children in the bathtub in a religiously motived postpartum psychosis. In 2005, China Arnold put her baby in the microwave and "cooked" her to death, reportedly because she feared her current boyfriend wasn't the father of the child and that he was going to leave her. The same year, Rebekah Amaya was found not guilty by reason of insanity after she drowned her two children. She told investigators that a spider had given her a sign that she needed to kill them.
According to a 2005 study, "maternal filicide occurs more frequently in the United States than developing nations" with 30 percent of homicides of children under the age of five being committed by the mother. Many theories have been developed about maternal filicide, but "no consistent approach exists for defining the population of offenders."
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Criminal psychologist Philip J. Resnick, one of the study's authors, has been studying filicide since the 1960s; he literally wrote the book on the phenomenon. He was the one to coin the term neonaticide, which refers to newborn babies who are killed by their parents within the first 24 hours of life, and infanticide, which describes children killed by their parents within the first year of life.
"Neonaticidal behavior is often influenced by relatively intangible factors, such as emotional isolation and perceived lack of resources than by stereotypical indicators like race or financial standing," write Cheryl L. Meyer and Michelle Oberman in their book Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the "Prom Mom.
A 1995 report on psychiatric law from the National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that "neonatal homicide rates were lower in the 10 years following Roe vs. Wade" and that neonaticide is proportionally higher in rural areas where abortion may not be socially acceptable or readily available. "We live in a society in which abortion is legal, but infanticide remains an unthinkably horrible crime," Meyer and Oberman argue in Mothers Who Kill Their Children. "Given this fact, we stress the importance of access to safe, affordable and private abortions."
Most of the infamous neonaticide cases involve mothers who seem to have no maternal connection to the fetus. "The Prom Mom" Melissa Drexler, for example, gave birth in the bathroom at her high school dance on June 6, 1997. She then allegedly cut her newborn son's umbilical cord on the sanitary napkin dispenser's serrated edge, choked him, and placed his corpse in a plastic bag that she knotted and threw away before she went back to the dance. In spring of 1995, twenty-year-old devoted Roman Catholic Karen Dobrzelecki gave birth alone then tied an Easter ribbon around her baby's throat and hung him in her closet. Just four days ago, KTLA News reported a 36-48 hour old newborn girl had been found, buried alive, along the Los Angeles River bed.
There are many serious reasons that might cause a mother to kill her child, including childhood abuse, postpartum psychosis, and other mental illnesses.
In a video interview shot in 1977 by Resnick, a patient describes committing neonaticide in 1948 (a time when antibiotic medications were less than 20 years old and abortion was completely illegal.) "I wanted it to be stillborn," the woman says. "I just wanted it to go away, so I strangled the baby. There was a hanger in the bathroom, so I hung the baby up with the hanger so I wouldn't have to touch it anymore. All I felt was relief. I felt nothing because I did not feel as though that was my baby."
"I didn't want that child. I couldn't feel motherly about a child I didn't want," she says, adding had the option been available she would have had an abortion or put the baby up for adoption. For her, the option of raising the unwanted baby was grimmer than neonaticide. "That's worse than doing what I did," she claims. "You do more harm to the child. I feel strongly about that."
In a US National Library of Medicine Report, Sara G. West explains that the Infanticide Acts of 1922 and 1938—which were initiated in England and then implemented in 22 other countries over the world (excluding the United States)—changed the way mothers were prosecuted for the crime. The law recognized that birthing and caring for an infant can negatively affect a mother's mental health for the first year, and outlawed the death penalty for maternal infanticide (but not paternal), replacing it with manslaughter.
"[In Canada] we have very different penalties for infanticide, because the way the law is constructed suggests that the degree of blame is quite different," Dr. Neil Boyd tells Broadly over the phone. Boyd is the Head of the Criminology Department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. "Until about age 6 or 7 it is more likely for a mother to kill a child than a father, mostly because women spend an awful lot more time with children then men do during that age. After age 6 or 7, men are more much likely to kill [their children]."
Resnick was the first to put filicide and neonaticide into five categories: acutely psychotic, altruistic (where the parent believes death is in the child's best interest), unwanted child, accidental, and spouse revenge. In early findings, altruistic filicide was the motive of 49 percent of Resnick's subjects.
Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her children in a bathtub, had suffered psychosis and depression that began after the birth of her first child. She had been in and out of the psychiatric hospital (where she remained catatonic and mute to hospital staff) following multiple suicide attempts. A psychiatrist recommended that she and her husband, Rusty, not conceive again after their fourth child, but they did so anyway. Both Andrea and Rusty were followers of a fringe Christian cult created by the aggressive street preacher Micheal Woroneicki. In her biography of Yates, Breaking Point, author Suzy Spencer reported that she corresponded with Woronecki through letters and videos, becoming obsessed with his teachings, one of which stated that "only a few would reach salvation." Poems from Woroneicki allegedly led her to believe her children were, as she later told police in an interview, "stumbling." She believed she was a bad mother, because Woroneicki had told her that "all women inherit a witchcraft nature from Eve" and that children of permissive mothers will end up in hell.
"Yates had delusions that if she did not take her children at the age of accountability, which she put at age 10, she believed that they would end up in hell," Resnick explains in a 2013 interview on Crime Time. He psychiatrically evaluated her for the defense before trial. "One of her sons would become a serial murderer, another a mute, homosexual prostitute, and she had these terrible delusions about how all her children would come to no good. It was better that they be in heaven with God, then living a life in sin. [Yates] also assumed [because of Texas law] that she would be executed. So, even though she would end up in hell, at least her children would be saved."
There are many serious reasons that might cause a mother to kill her child, including childhood abuse, postpartum psychosis, and other mental illnesses. However, the public rarely shows sympathy for a woman who commits filicide, no matter how damaged her psyche. Perhaps this has to do with the sensational, dehumanizing nicknames like "Tot Mom" or "Microwave Mom" often given jokingly to the mothers by mainstream media. And our harsh judgments often affect proceedings in the courtroom.
"If you are a prosecutor, you have contact with the victims and see the perpetrator as evil," Resnick notes. "If you are a defense attorney or psychiatrist, and you spend more time with the perpetrators then the victims, you hear their life story and how they may have been abused as children or what have you, and you do not develop the same intense anger as the [prosecutors] or the public would."
Most cases of neonaticide fall into the unwanted child category, while spouse revenge, like in the case of Elaine Campione, is far less common. Campione's case is unique in another way as well: According to an updated 2015 study conducted by Resnick, although filicides constitute only two percent of all homicides, 7.6 percent of homicide-suicides involve filicide, and only one quarter of mothers back out of their suicide in a filicide-suicide.
In the police interview with Elaine Campione, the distressed mother nods that she understands that she has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder. When the officer says "for your two children," her face winces and the bags under her eyes swell with her tears.
"This is really tough for you," the officer says. "I'm a parent too. There's parts I can understand and parts I can't."
After 15 minutes of onerous conversation, the officer gently asks, "At any point during that, did you push her head under the water?" Campoine denies this, insisting that she has been taking the girls to swimming lessons, teaching them not to be afraid of water.
"But at some point, you took this medication, right?" the officer continues. "You said you wanted to end your life. You wanted to end it all."
"I wouldn't kill my babies," she cries. "My babies are my life. Maybe I don't want to live, but these are my babies... my parents could have took them."
An equally sad alternative to what could have been.