Why parents kill their kids, in their own words
Cape child murderers reveal why they commit such terrible acts. And experts say what can be done to change them
Cayleigh* was 23 and pregnant when she murdered her seven-year-old stepdaughter by smothering her with a pillow.
Three years later, she wept in court as she was jailed for 15 years. Begging a High Court judge in Cape Town to show mercy, her lawyer said she had experienced a traumatic upbringing.
Now the horrors of Cayleigh’s childhood have been laid bare by a PhD student who interviewed 22 child killers in an attempt to understand the link between their crimes and the way they were treated by their parents.
Bianca Dekel said traumatic parent-child experiences had a profound impact on the way the killers she met in five Western Cape prisons treated the children they murdered.
“Their childhoods were marked by abusive, neglectful and absent parenting practices,” she said in a paper published last week in the journal PLOS One.
“Many children in South Africa endure childhoods characterised by adversity. The difference for these men and women is located in the emotional experiences of adverse fathering and mothering.”Cayleigh, from Stellenbosch, cannot remember when her father started sexually abusing her, only that it went on “for as long as I can remember” until her father died when she was 13. Two years earlier, she had needed an abortion.
“To my father I wasn’t his child; to him I was a wife … My father will like say to me like I must go on my knees and I must lick him like a lollipop,” she told Dekel, who works at the Medical Research Council’s gender and health unit at the University of the Western Cape.
“If I refuse to do what he asks me to do with him, he will beat me … I was never allowed to cry, no matter how painful it was. Otherwise, he will beat me up badly … because he said crying is for babies.”Said Dekel: “It was evident that the sexual abuse was still extremely painful to speak about and she often cried during the interviews. Childhood sexual abuse may carve a path through many adult lives of those who survive it and may leave a legacy of this abuse.”
The 14 women and eight men Dekel interviewed were responsible for the deaths of 25 children. They were parents, step-parents and caregivers, and received prison sentences ranging between eight months and life.
A list of their victims’ manner of death makes for horrifying reading: Fatal child abuse, neglect, buried alive, strangulation, firearm, smothering, poisoning, set child on fire ...
Cycle of abuse
The ways in which they reported being abused as children are also grim. Half of them reported maternal abuse, nine reported sexual abuse, 15 said they were physically abandoned by a parent and 20 said they were emotionally rejected. Ten were raised by addicts.
“The abuse and absence of their own parents were remarkable,” said Dekel. “[They] cried the most when speaking of their parents and the abuse/abandonment they experienced.”
She said the intergenerational cycle of abuse was evident in the account of Jennifer*, who was 21 when she was found guilty of the fatal child abuse of her three-month-old daughter.“My mom hitted me one day with a plate over my head … she would hit me with a broomstick or a mop, whatever she could get in her two hands,” Jennifer told Dekel.
“She said: ‘I want you to feel my hurt and my pain and my suffering that I went through in my life’.”
Said Dekel: “Patterns … formed during interactions with one’s own parents tend to influence the style of interactions that individuals will eventually have with children in their care.”
The psychologist said that with no loving model for childcare other than “frightening behaviour and passivity and abandonment”, the killers she interviewed were unable to parent in a healthier way.“It seems as though [they] resorted to adverse strategies such as detaching from their emotions and using drugs/alcohol, which may have aided the use of violence as a response to stressful emotional situations.”
Dekel said there was no straightforward solution to the complex problem. However, efforts to prevent child killings should be concentrated on adults who had themselves experienced abuse.
“Fostering safe and nurturing relationships between parent and child appears to be a crucial factor in breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse,” she said.
* Not their real namesCalyleigh's story
Cayleigh* was raised by both parents until her father died when she was 13. Then her mother abandoned her and she lived with different family members, strangers and foster parents.
“The last day that I saw my mother was the day of my father’s funeral,” she told psychologist Bianca Dekel.
She could not remember when her father began sexually abusing her, but said: “As a child I was always confused, I never knew when or what to expect.”Cayleigh also spoke of a lack of protection from her mother. “My mother will stand and watch him, what he’s busy doing with me, and she will do nothing. For her to stand and to watch what he’s doing to me and not doing anything was worse than the abuse.
“He did abuse her a lot and maybe she was scared of him. It seems to me that my mother did like being abused. Because she would not do anything or take me and run away or go to her family.”
Said Dekel: “She expressed more disdain towards her mother for not protecting her than towards her abusive father, which may be tied to her strong belief that it is ‘a mother’s role to protect her child’. Yet she herself was convicted of murdering her stepdaughter.”
Cayleigh’s father impregnated her when she was 11. “My mother made me to have an abortion from that man, saying to the doctor that I’m having sex with older men and I said to the doctor: ‘She’s lying. It is my father.’ She explained that the doctor didn’t wanted to listen to me and it was painful. I was asking myself: ‘Will there ever be someone in my life that will listen to me?’”
On another occasion, “I ran out of the house because I couldn’t handle the abuse any more and they [neighbours] will see like blood on me or they will hear noises and they will come and check”.Neighbours called the police, and Cayleigh said: “We were standing in the police station and my mother said to this policeman: ‘I’m sorry sir, I can’t let my husband go to prison for this bitch.’
“[She] said to the policeman that I’m naughty and I don’t want to listen. So he was just reacting like a father and the policeman believed my mother … A mother is someone who is supposed to be there for her children, look after them, protect them.”
Dekel said that after Cayleigh married a man who already had a son, these experiences informed how she behaved as a parent. “Perhaps it should not be surprising that she was unable to protect the child she killed from her own anger,” she said.
Cayleigh told the psychologist: “It’s difficult to give a child what you don’t have experience of. Like I need to be a parent to my son, a mother to him, but I don’t know how to be a mother to him because I never had that.”
The judge who sentenced Cayleigh in 2009 said he realised her life was “one sad event after another”, adding: “Unfortunately, that can’t be fixed. It is really a sad indictment on society.”
* Not her real nameWhat can be done?
“Ghosts in the nursery” must be eradicated to prevent more child killings, says psychologist Bianca Dekel. But how?
“Vulnerable mothers need to be identified during pregnancy and followed after birth,” she says.
“Parents/caregivers need to be educated on non-violent parenting programmes which promote positive parenting and discipline.”
She recommends home visits by parenting trainers, as well as parenting interventions during routine health visits for pregnant women and new mothers and fathers.“Efforts should be made to educate the public and professionals about child homicide risk factors … Professionals need to take abuse seriously and should ensure that complaints are thoroughly investigated,” she says.
“Child protection services need to act speedily in the investigation of reported cases to protect children from continued abuse and to prevent fatalities.
“Professionals require training to identify which children in the household are at risk [and to] assess the needs of those children and the capacities of carers to create an environment that is safe and conducive to recovery.
“Police officers should be encouraged to use their powers under the Children’s Act to remove perpetrators when there are risks to children’s safety as assessed by social workers.
“Child protective agencies should be encouraged to be receptive to accepting children into their care who are unwanted, even if no abuse has yet occurred.
“Clinic staff [should] receive additional training in the Children’s Act regulations, so as to enhance their ability to detect abuse and neglect and to make the reports and referrals in terms of the act.
“Fathers should also be screened … for stress factors such as poverty, in which the impact is amplified when these men have psychological issues stemming from childhood. As with mothers, depression in fathers has a detrimental effect on children’s development.
“Parenting classes, emotional support, and emergency numbers to call when parents/caregivers are overwhelmed can be helpful in preventing child homicides.
“Parents/caregivers need to be supported within their neighbourhoods after the completion of programmes and classes, if they are to maintain their resilience.”The psychology of filicide
Bianca Dekel says attachment theory and epigenetics provide a framework to understand child killers.
What is attachment theory?
“It suggests the parent-child relationship plays a role in the development of mental representations of self and others, which provides the foundation for relationships and emotional regulation.
“Loving parenting promotes secure attachments [so that] children become securely bonded and emotionally balanced adults/parents. Harsh/rejecting parenting promotes adverse attachments and the development of an inability to regulate and interpret their own feelings and those of others.
“Interactions with [children] are largely influenced by the caregiver’s own attachment style and are affected by whether or not the individual has resolved early traumatic experiences.
“A parent’s adverse attachment style with his/her children can result in him/her exhibiting poor parenting skills. He/she may battle to tolerate feelings that have reawakened painful childhood memories of abuse from his/her own parent. Therefore, he/she may act out aggressively toward his/her child.”
What is epigenetics?
“It has emerged as a theory to aid in the understanding of violence in later life. Social/environmental factors play an instrumental role in human biology and social/environmental insults can leave long-term indelible scars on the body and brain.“For example, epigenetics demonstrates that there is a direct link between maternal care and neurological development/cellular modifications of the child, and proposes that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life from conception are critical in terms of the effects of early experience on neurological development.
“The sustained effects of these cellular modifications form the basis for the developmental origins of vulnerability to violence. Therefore, early traumatic life experiences become embedded in the ‘memory’ of a person.”