What you need to know:
- The primary reasons why a parent will kill their own child are spousal revenge, fatal maltreatment, psychosis, altruism, and not wanting the child
- The months of July, August, and September are the most likely for incidents of filicide to take place.
In March 2021, a 37-year-old man strangled his two children to death and then hanged himself to death in Mbooni East, Makueni County. The two children were aged 4 and 9 years old. In April 2021, detectives arrested a man in Kisii County who was accused of slitting his son’s throat. These are just two of the many incidents of men turning against their own kids. These shocking incidents leave questions unanswered, including why a man, a father, would turn against their own children in such a brutal and deadly manner.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Ngarachu, a psychiatrist consultant based in Nairobi, there are five reasons why men kill their children. “The primary reasons why a parent will kill their own child are spousal revenge, fatal maltreatment, psychosis, altruism, and not wanting the child,” she says. These five reasons will tend to manifest during certain times of the year. Psychologist Dr. Chris Hart says that the months of July, August, and September are the most likely for incidents of filicide to take place. Almost 90 percent of those who commit these murders are men. This is echoed by Dr. Ngarachu. She says that once an act of filicide has been committed, a high number of the perpetrators will proceed to commit suicide. “About a third of mothers who kill their own kids commit suicide. Fathers are twice as likely as these women to commit suicide after committing filicide. Fathers will also tend to kill more of their children at a go than mothers,” she says.
This filicide-suicide setup does not happen out of the blue. Dr. Hart says that parents who commit suicide after filicide view their family as a form of possession that they cannot bear to leave behind, or whose destruction and consequences they can’t face. “In the first scenario, the father will consider and decide to commit suicide. He will then decide to kill his kids and sometimes his wife because he cannot bear the thought of leaving his family behind. In the second, he will kill his kids without the thought of suicide. Once he commits the act and begins to realise the consequences and the burden of guilt he will face, he will end his own life as an escape,” says Dr. Hart. There are also fathers who will kill their kids to relieve them from suffering that may be real or imagined. “These kinds of perpetrators commit the act based on delusional perception or hallucinations that a child is suffering or is on the verge of great suffering,” says Dr. Ngarachu. This suffering might be economic such as dire poverty, hunger, or even health-related such as a chronic illness. It could also be delusional, such as the conviction that a child is possessed by evil spirits. Incidentally, this kind of filicide is also closely associated with acute psychotic filicide, in which psychotic parents kill their kids with no comprehensible motive. “Such parents suffer from conditions such as schizophrenia in which a person’s sense of reality is impaired,” says Dr. Chitayi Murabula, a consultant psychiatrist and mental health advocate. “If psychosis is involved, a parent may kill after losing the knowledge that the child is his and instead believe that the child is a dangerous alien or demon,” he says.
Extension of domestic violence
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) global study on homicide, killing of children and young adults 2019 says that acts of murder on children are perpetrated by men as an extension of their domestic violence towards their wives. “Women are disproportionately affected by intimate partner violence. The male perpetrator will kill his children in order to inflict maximum pain and suffering on the woman,” says the report. Pre-existing violence is one of the biggest risk factors in filicide. This violence could be physical, emotional, psychological, or even sexual. A father who has delusions that his child is a product of infidelity will also have a record of abusing the child for a long time. Dr. Hart says that this abuse will eventually lead to direct murder or accidental death and will be ruled as fatal maltreatment filicide. Other risk factors include the breaking up of a family, a blended family, and financial disturbances such as a job loss or getting auctioned.
There are certain instruments that enable filicide such as the availability of weapons. “The thought of killing could remain just a thought, but the presence of a weapon such as a machete will trigger the action. In the absence of weapons and harmful tools, it wouldn’t be possible for many perpetrators to kill their kids with their bare hands,” says Dr. Hart.