Saturday, April 5, 2014

GateHouse: The horror of filicide, parents killing their own children

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
April 4, 2014
Last month, Ebony Wilkerson, a pregnant mother of three, drove her minivan into the ocean off the coast of Daytona Beach, Fla. The South Carolina woman and her three children—ages 3, 9 and 11—were all in the van. Their lives were saved by a couple of good Samaritans and fast-acting police.

Wilkerson is charged with attempted murder. According to a police affidavit, one of her children told detectives that "Mom tried to kill us."

The case is reminiscent of another South Carolinian, Susan Smith, who in 1994 murdered her two children. Smith confessed to letting her vehicle roll into the John D. Long Lake, drowning her 3-year-old and 14-month-old children strapped inside the vehicle.

The public was outraged when it learned that Smith led police on a fictitious manhunt for suspects that did not exist and repeatedly appeared before television cameras feigning distress and seeking the public’s sympathy. Smith blamed her behavior on troubles with her new boyfriend, who did not want the children around.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for children 4 years of age and younger. The media seems to focus on the fear of stranger abductions and brutal murders at the hands of predators. The reality is that 61 percent of children murdered before the age of 5 are killed by their parents.

Filicide, the deliberate act of a parent killing his or her own child, is also the third leading cause of death for American children ages 5 to 14, according to Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western University.

In 1969, Resnick created one of the most influential classifications of familial child murder. He developed five categories to account for the motives driving parents to kill their children. Parents who kill their children because they believe it is in the best interest of the child are categorized as altruistic killers. There are also psychotic killers; parents who kill unwanted children; accidental killers who kill as a result of ongoing abuse; and spousal/partner revenge killings.

One of the most recognizable psychotic child killings was that of Andrea Yates. The Texas mother of five killed her children in 2001. Yates drowned all five of her children—Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke 2; and Mary, 6 months—in the bathtub of the family’s home.

Yates was initially convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. An appeals court granted her a new trial. In 2006, she was found innocent by reason of insanity and continues to be institutionalized in a mental health facility.

One of the most extraordinary cases of child murder in the 20th century took place in Schenectady, N.Y. Unlike the Smith and Yates cases where the victims were killed during one tragic incident, these events took place over a period of nearly 14 years.

In 1986, Marybeth Tinning, a housewife and former school bus driver, was arrested and charged with the murder of her 4-month-old daughter, Tami Lynne.

Tami Lynne was among nine of Tinning's children, including an adopted son, who died before the age of 4 between 1972 and 1986. According to Mark Gado of the Crimelibrary, authorities suspected Tinning's first child died naturally — but she murdered the other eight children.

Tinning is serving 20 years to life for the killing of only the one child. Recently she was denied parole for the third time since becoming eligible for release in 2007.

Can filicide be prevented? Resnick and professor Susan Hatters Friedman believe it can. Filicide can often be the result of fatal maltreatment. Mothers who kill often abuse their children prior to killing them.

Intervention to protect the child and provide treatment for the parent is the highest priority. All 50 states have mandatory reporting laws for professionals who suspect child abuse. Parenting classes, emotional support, and emergency numbers to call when mothers are overwhelmed can be helpful in preventing filicide.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” is due out this summer. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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