Why Do Men Kill Their Girlfriends' Kids?
A rash of murders prompts psychologists to try to explain the pattern.
Image: Spencer Platt / Getty
When Jaden Jordan, age three, was found unconscious, covered in blood and his own feces, emergency personnel rushed him to Coney Island Hospital. He was later transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia in Manhattan, where he was hospitalized with a fractured skull, and lacerations to his spleen and liver. Jaden was taken off life support on December 3, 2016.
Less than four miles away, and only two months before, Zymere Perkins, age six, died at Mount Sinai St. Luke's Hospital. His death was ruled a result of "fatal child abuse syndrome," telling of his life marked by months of chronic beatings and neglect. Leading up to the day of his death—September 26, 2016—Zymere had allegedly been beaten with the handle of a wooden broomstick, and hung from the bathroom door of his West 135th Street apartment.
Details are important. They help lessen the likelihood that stories will blend together and be forgotten over time. It's the details that also point to a pattern: In both cases, previous child protection investigations went unresolved, turning Jaden and Zymere into high-profile symbols of the intense scrutiny leveled against the city's Administration for Child Services (ACS), which saw ten children recently die on its watch in three months alone.
But of all the details that matter, there's one common to Jaden and Zymere's cases that seems increasingly widespread recently: Both young boys died at the hands of their mothers' boyfriends.
Just days after Jaden's death, 18-month-old Leah Brown-Meza was found unresponsive in her San Diego home. Her mother's boyfriend was taken into custody and faces charges of murder and assault (her mother also faces three counts of willful cruelty). Less than a week later, an unnamed two-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and died, as a result of blunt force trauma to his head. Again, the mother's boyfriend was taken into custody, and charged with felonious assault and child endangering.
Is the "mother's boyfriend" a dangerous character profile worth focusing on? Or is the pattern a stereotype driven by headlines rather than statistics? Most importantly, why do these killings happen at all?
"Anecdotally, providers and people in the child welfare system are certainly aware of the increased risk of mothers' boyfriends [to children], especially those who come late on the scene," says clinical psychologist Jennifer Shaw, who works as a partner of the Gil Institute for Trauma and Recovery. "Boyfriends are not necessarily involved in the infancy phase, where a lot of the attachment and bonding with the child takes place."
Shaw, who has testified on a number of child abuse and neglect cases in the Washington DC-metropolitan area, says attachment is only one part of the story. In some cases, the boyfriend might have a pre-existing mental health condition or have been the victim of abuse that went untreated. In other instances, he's entering an intimate relationship with the mother in mind, and has no desire to forge a bond with the child. Some psychologists also attribute the bitterness and resentment a boyfriend may feel for the child to not truly understanding child development.
In a seminal 1992 article, which compiled data from the Iowa Department of Human Services and interviews with nearly 1,000 Iowa women, author Leslie Margolin reported that mothers' boyfriends performed less than 2 percent of non-parental childcare in single-parent households, yet were responsible for a staggering 64 percent of non-parental abuse.
A deeper examination of the cases revealed a common power dynamic in what often led up to the instances of abuse in the sample: Either the boyfriend "sided with the mother" against the child, or he interpreted "the mother and child to be against him." Margolin further surmised that mothers' boyfriends more often resorted to physical coercion, in comparison to other caregivers, because they lacked "legitimate authority." For example, 20 percent of abuse cases committed by mothers' boyfriends in Margolin's sample were reportedly the result of a child disobeying orders from a mother's boyfriend or being perceived as disobedient.
In 2014, an estimated 1,580 children died as a result of abuse and neglect, though experts claim these annual fatalities go chronically underreported. Either due to state reporting laws that are inadequately enforced or a lack of consistency when it comes to the role of CPS agencies in investigations, official data on child fatalities is invariably up for debate. In the meantime, child welfare experts and psychologists continue to be confounded by how to stop this horrific pattern, while aware of the holes in the nation's legal process.
"At what point does something move from being a non-fatal abuse and neglect case to a fatal one? The truth is, we don't know," says Emily Douglas, an associate professor of social work at Bridgewater State University and an expert in child maltreatment deaths. "We don't know what the tipping point is. That's part of what makes the job of a child welfare worker so incredibly challenging."
If there's one aspect Douglas wants to stress from researching the topic for over 15 years, it's how many misconceptions still exist. First, despite what many Americans might believe, more children die from neglect-related deaths (e.g., malnutrition or drowning in a bathtub after being left unsupervised) than abuse in the United States. Second, children more often die at the hands of their mothers than any other type of caregiver, including their boyfriends. According to 2014 statistics from the US Department of Health and Human Services, mothers acting alone were responsible for 28 percent of child abuse or neglect fatalities, as compared to 15 percent for the father acting alone, and 15.7 percent for non-parents.
"It's not uncommon that people think most children die at the hands of mothers' boyfriends, because they're very brutal cases and they're easier to prosecute," Douglas explains. "They're cases the public can really get behind in some way, because they see this as an outside person who's come into the family and perpetrated some horrific harm."
In the Fourth National Incidence Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4), children were reportedly at the highest risk of abuse and neglect if they were living with a single parent who cohabitated with a partner. Pulled from data taken over the course of 2004 to 2009, children whose single parent had a live-in partner experienced eight times the rate of maltreatment, nearly eight times the rate of neglect, and more than ten times the rate of abuse, as compared to children living with married biological parents.
Experts will say often there are two culprits in these situations, the perpetrator and the bystander, the latter being guilty either due to participating in the abuse, ignoring, or flat-out denying it. Zymere's mother had reportedly been the subject of five child abuse investigations leading up to her son's death. Though Jaden's mother was out of the house when her boyfriend, Salvatore Lucchesse, killed her son, Lucchesse allegedly had a history of 12 domestic violence incidents before that fateful day.
For Martin Daly, a Canadian evolutionary psychologist, there are deeper, more intrinsic forces at play. "There's a reason why people—like other animals—love their own child more than they love a random one," he says. "Loving your own kids is how you've succeeded in propagating."
Daly's ideas stem from more than 30 years of research on the roots of homicide alongside his late wife, Margo Wilson. Applying a Darwinian approach to criminal behavior, Daly and Wilson famously coined the term "Cinderella effect" to describe the elevated level of risk children face when living with "step-parents," largely due to not sharing genes with them. (In their research, step-parent was a term also used to describe a co-residing partner, which includes boyfriends.)
However hotly debated, Daly and Wilson's view pulls from natural selection to offer up a primal example: "How do [male tigers] respond to the cubs sired by their predecessors? The grisly answer is that they systematically search them out and kill them," Daly writes in his 1999 book, The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love.
Pulling from Daly and Wilson's earlier study, evolutionary psychologist Viviana Shackelford and her co-researcher analyzed a national database of over 400,000 homicides in the US to see the methods in which step-parents and genetic parents kill their children. The findings revealed that step-parents tended to commit filicide by beating and bludgeoning, unlike genetic fathers, who were more likely to shoot or asphyxiate their children. "Step-parents tended to do overkilling—beating and things that suggest anger and rage toward their stepchild," Shackelford says.
Though evolutionary psychology doesn't provide a foolproof explanation of this phenomenon—and has taken flak in the past for encouraging gender stereotypes—the field might one day help experts piece together what ultimately motivates mothers' boyfriends to commit such a crime. "There's been a ton of research on filicide and child maltreatment, but we haven't really gotten any further in understanding it," Shackelford says. "In the meantime, we have children who are being abused and killed."
Children like Leah, Jaden and Zymere.
It's quite possible no amount of data or psychological theories will ever give a definitive answer as to why this sort of atrocity happens. Because while there is a pattern to these cases, what goes on inside an individual's head is ultimately harder to discern than what happens inside of a home. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio's administration says what prevented Zymere Perkins from being saved was a "perfect storm of human errors." But until we better understand the forces at play, there will always be another perfect storm out there brewing.