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Sorrow`s children
Written by Editor   
Sunday, 10 December 2006 06:44
They look up with their pale and sunken faces,
And their look is dread to see,
For they mind you of their angels in high places,
With eyes turned on Deity.
"How long," they say, "how long, O cruel nation,
Will you stand, to move the world, on a childs heart,
Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,
And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?
Our blood splashes upward, O gold-heaper,
And your purple shows your path!
But the childs sob in the silence curses deeper
Than the strong man in his wrath."[1]

On Wednesday, October 19, 2005, 23-year-old Lashaun Harris threw her three young children—aged 16-months-old to 6-years-old—to their deaths in the San Francisco bay.[2] On Wednesday, March 29, 2006, Linda Woo of San Francisco, California, murdered her 3-year-old daughter in an attempted murder-suicide.[3] On Saturday, May 13, 2006, 37-year-old Dr. Karen F. McCarron of Peoria Illinois, smothered her 3-year-old autistic daughter to death.[4] On Saturday, July 15, 2006, 26-year-old Jason Gonsioroski and 24-year-old Julie Ann Meier of Blaine, Minnesota, scalded Gonsioroskis 10-year-old daughter to death.[5] On Friday, August 25, 2006, 48-year-old Dean Payne of Fort Cobb, Oklahoma, shot each of his three children—aged 5-years-old to 9-years-old—twice in the head before setting his home on fire.[6] On Wednesday, October 11, 2006, 20-year-old Lakeia Nicole White of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, smothered her 9-month-old twins to death and then went shopping.[7] On Saturday, November 4, 2006, 27-year-old Angelica Alvarez of Elkhart, Indiana, strangled her four children—aged 2-years-old to 8-years-old—in an alleged murder-suicide.[8]

These are but a handful of filicides that have occurred in just this past year. Although the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, indicate that violent crimes involving a relative for males and females reflects 5% and 8%, respectively, the statistics did not reveal how many of these were familial homicides.[9] While a google search resulted in just over fifty thousand results for filicide, APA literature search results were sparse. And of those studies that were published, the majority focused upon infanticide and postpartum psychosis. While filicide may be the result of postpartum psychosis in some instances, what about the others?

Reports note that Harris had a history of battling schizophrenia and Woo and Alvarez were allegedly battling depression. McCarrons 3-year-old daughter was autistic and some proffered she was overcome with stress from raising an autistic child in conjunction with her challenging medical career.[10] Then theres Gonsioroski and Meier. Gonsioroskis daughter was 10-years-old and nothing in the reports seem to indicate any form of illness, mental or otherwise. And what of Payne and White? How could a father shoot his three children—twice, in their heads, each—and proceed to burn their home down? While the arson was, no doubt, an attempt to cover up his murderous rampage, the idea of executing ones own children is beyond comprehension. Or how can a mother conceivably smother her 9-month-old twins—leaving one laying on the floor—and go shopping? To address these questions, this article attempts to explore the biopsychosocial dynamics and what role, if any, substance abuse plays in the killing of our nations children.

From the research, Dobson and Sales provide a provocative walk through history, thereby setting the foundation with regard to societal views of filicide.[11] Hughes provides a religious perspective, though his case studies involve passive filicide (i.e., withholding medical attention for religious reasons) as opposed to intentional filicide (i.e., suffocating, drowning, stabbing, shooting, or otherwise).[12] Finkel, Burke, &; Chavez provide legal perspectives.[13] And finally, Kunst and Reed attempt to examine sociocultural dynamics by relying upon the case study of a young Mexican American woman who eventually won an NGRI plea.[14] The aforementioned articles indicate a variety of possible causal factors that could be used to categorize filicide in hopes of revealing potential treatment and intervention approaches.

To be clear, this article is not about what to do "after" a child is killed, rather exploring potential avenues for preventing filicide. With this in mind, filicide can be divided into one of several categories. These involve murder due to psychosis, murder-suicide due to a major depressive episode and/or a major stressor, negligent homicide, and premeditated homicide. Of these categories, psychosis may involve a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, transient psychosis such as postpartum psychosis, and/or substance-induced psychosis. While researchers suggest that filicide may be a result of major psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, along with sociocultural dynamics, religious dynamics, and attachment issues, substance abuse appears to be largely overlooked.

For example, Kunst and Reed, in their rich narrative of the 30-year-old woman who smothered her 2-year-old son to death, touch upon a number of these issues, arguing that ethnic minorities are at a greater risk due to their socioeconomic and cultural status, and their religious belief systems. The authors summarize their case study by noting that developmental and cultural influences must be winnowed out from psychopathologies.[15] What they appear to ignore however and what may be a significant factor, is the issue of substance abuse. At the time of the murder, the young woman "was under the influence of cocaine and becoming more and more paranoid."[16] Otherwise put, while her psychosis may very well have been congruent with her socioeconomic status, cultural and religious values, it seems quite possible she suffered from cocaine-induced psychosis. It is admittedly surprising that the authors chose to focus upon sociocultural and psychodynamic areas, while seemingly ignoring the quite large elephant in the room—substance abuse induced psychosis resulting in murder. While other dynamics (i.e., bitter custody battle, religious beliefs, ethnicity, and a history of having been abused as a child) certainly played a role, the cocaine use clearly brought these elements together in a most devastating way.

As for those cases involving a major mental disorder such as schizophrenia, notable indicators appeared to be present prior to the murders. For example, in the case of Lashaun Harris, family members reported she was experiencing bizarre delusions prior and up to the resulting murder of her children. From reports, it appears Ms. Harris had stopped taking her medication.[17] Unfortunately, the issue of medication maintenance remains a problem for those suffering from schizophrenia. Thus, our community and society at large is faced with the challenge of educating the sufferer, family and friends with regard to the necessity of staying on ones medication even when it seems the individual is in remission. With the advance of science, strides have been made with regard to long-acting medications and implant devices may very well be the next logical step. Even so, such an approach raises ethical issues that must be examined and addressed before proceeding down this path.

Of the major depressive episodes, socioeconomic factors, cultural issues, and substance abuse may play a role in the final outcome. The major stressor would involve those stressors which are above and beyond general stresses that most face on a daily basis; For example, death of a loved one, being fired from a job, losing ones home, abject poverty or any other, perceived or otherwise, stressor that threatens an individuals livelihood. While treatment of either of these may involve cognitive behavioral therapy in conjunction with psychopharmacological approaches, identifying and addressing sociocultural issues (and substance abuse issues, if present) are imperative. Sociocultural issues include but are not limited to socioeconomic matters in cases of extreme poverty. Substance abuse issues are self-explanatory. A potential proactive direction for addressing this area is community involvement whose goal is to create a support and management network that could also assist in childcare. While the latter often came in the form of neighborhood religious organizations our ever-growing homogenous communities indicate such a structure may no longer be viable. Our society is therefore challenged with defining and implementing "community" within our ever-growing mobile society. This category has the best prognosis if timely identified and addressed.

The final category, premeditated homicide, appears to be by far the most perplexing, in that there appear to be no predisposing factors. From the sparse media information, the cases of Gonsioroski &; Meier, Payne, and White seem to fall into this latter category although it is unclear whether or not substance abuse was involved. Further research is needed to confirm or refute the hypotheses that this group of parents fall within a pathological taxon that, while not sexually assaulting their victims, would be structurally similar to the sexually violent predator. If this is indeed the case, our challenge is to identify these parents "before" they kill, and remove the at-risk children from the home, while at the same time implementing compulsory sterilization for those who meet the clinical definition for psychopathy. The ethical implications of such an approach is quite obvious and the euphism for the latter is Eugenics. Thus, before even beginning to consider this approach as a possible viable solution, we would do well to take a brief walk through history beginning with the American Eugenics Movement[18] and Hitlers Germany.[19]

In summary, the issue of parents killing children is a growing problem. Although postpartum depression and/or psychosis has been put forth as a major contributor, parents who kill their children appear to fall into four distinct categories—psychosis due to a major mental disorder and/or substance abuse, severe depression and/or stressors, negligence, and premeditation. And of these categories, premeditation may very well qualify under a pathological taxon. Furthermore, while this article primarily focuses upon the perpetrators biopsychosocial dynamics, there is a larger social issue that must be addressed if we are to make any headway in obviating filicide. Children have long been considered property within our society.[20] In conjunction with this view, unfortunately our society, specifically the legal system, has also long held the patriarchical edict that women were automatically of diminished mental capacity during and immediately following childbirth. These preconceived societal views are very much reflected in the outcome of criminal cases.[21] And finally, although a great deal of research has been accomplished as it pertains to child abuse, research in the area of filicide is clearly lacking. While some of the cases cited in this article very likely involved other forms of child abuse, there were those that did not appear to qualify. For this reason alone, there is a very real need for research to determine what measures can be taken to protect our futures most precious gift: our children.


  • Browning, E.B., (1895)

    The Cry of the Children
    A Victorian Anthology, 1837—1895.
    Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. 18331908

  • MSNBC (2005)

    San Francisco mom pleads innocent to murder.

  • Smith, M. (2006)

    Olive Woo Murphy 1/08/03 3/29/06

  • Associated Press (2006)

    Morton mother fit for trial in daughters death.

  • WCCO (2006)

    Killed Blaine Girls Life Filled With Heartache.

  • Channel News 8. (2006)

    Man Gets Life Sentence For Killing Children.

  • Associated Press (2006)

    Mother Charged With Killing Her Twins.

  • Coyne, T., (2006)

    Elkhart woman charged with killing her 4 children. Indiana Daily Student News.

  • U.S. Department of Justice. (2005)

    Bureau of Justice Statistics: National Crime Victimization Survey.

  • Fallon, J. (2006)

    Respected Doctor now alleged murderer.

  • Dobson, V., &; Sales, B. D. (2000)
    The science of infanticide and mental illness.
    Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
    Vol. 6, 1098-1112.

  • Hughes, R. A. (1990)
    Psychological perspectives on infanticide in a faith healing sect.
    Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training
    Vol. 27, 107-115.

  • Finkel, N. J., Burke, J. E., &; Chavez, L. J. (2000)
    Commonsense judgments of infanticide: Murder, manslaughter, madness, or miscellaneous?
    Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
    Vol. 6, 1113-1137.

  • Kunst, J. L., &; Reed, M. (1999)
    Cross-cultural issues in infanticide: A case study.
    Cultural Diversity &; Ethnic Minority Psychology
    Vol. 5, 147-155.

  • Kunst, J. L., &; Reed, M. (1999)
    Cross-cultural issues in infanticide: A case study.
    Cultural Diversity &; Ethnic Minority Psychology
    Vol. 5, 147-155.

  • Kunst, J. L., &; Reed, M. (1999)
    Cross-cultural issues in infanticide: A case study.
    Cultural Diversity &; Ethnic Minority Psychology
    Vol. 5, 147-155.

  • Treatment and Advocacy Center (2005)

    Who failed Lashaun Harris?

  • American Eugenics Archive

  • Black, E. (2003)

    The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics.
    The History News Network.

  • Demause, L (1974)

    The Evolution of Childhood
    History of Childhood Quarterly [Journal of Psychohistory], Vol 1.

  • Finkel, N. J., Burke, J. E., &; Chavez, L. J. (2000)
    Commonsense judgments of infanticide: Murder, manslaughter, madness, or miscellaneous?
    Psychology, Public Policy, and Law
    Vol. 6, 1113-1137.


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