When looking at motivations for familicide there have been a number of theories put forward. In 2007, Harper and Voight found the head of the household is usually responsible for familicide due to believing that they can no longer care for their families.
Familicide: multiple victim homicide within the same family, usually including one or more children, where the person responsible is also a member of that family.
A difference between men and women who carry out this crime in terms of their motivations has also been noted with Leveillee et al (2007) finding that men who kill their children are more likely to have done so as a form of revenge against their partner and the children’s mother.
Women, however, are more likely to have killed their children out of a belief that they are saving them in some way. This was an issue which presented itself in the Andrea Yate’s case, where due to severe postpartum depression. Mrs Yates drowned all five of her young children in the bathtub of their home believing she was saving them from the devil and from wrongdoings.
Some clear agreed upon characteristics of familicide are that the crime is almost always carried out by a male offender, and most often with a firearm. The correlation between a final act of familicide and a history of domestic violence within the home and family is high with a study by Anna Campbell finding that intimate-partner violence had occurred in 70% of the 408 cases she had studied.
Such domestic violence is not always reported and therefore on police records. In many cases, it is reports from family and friends that reveal such prior violence within the home with up to 75% of cases having no police involvement, and therefore no arrest records, for such incidents. It is clear however that domestic violence within the home heightens the risk for familicide occurring in the future.
Further findings from Campbell include that unemployment was indeed a risk factor for familicide, but only when there was already a history of domestic violence within the home. Losing a job on its own was not deemed to be a factor which may lead to the murder of the entire family followed by the suicide of the offender. Equally access to a firearm also featured as a significant risk factor. With the majority of familicides being carried out using a gun, access is an important issue.
Within an abusive relationship, the time at which two partners separate has been identified as especially vulnerable in relation to familicide. It is at this point that a partner may realise they are losing their family and consider taking drastic action. Jealousy and revenge may also play a role.
There have been many cases of familicide which have now become infamous and cases which stick in people’s minds. Bruce Blackman, Steven Sueppel, John List and Ronald Gene Simmons are some of the historical cases which the familicide model is often based on.
A case in the United Kingdom which although happened over 30 years ago is one very much still in the public eye is that of Jeremy Bamber. A son and brother who was convicted of the murder of his parents, sister and two young nephews using a firearm at the family farmhouse in Essex in 1985. Bamber is in prison for this crime but has always maintained his innocence, pointing to his sister, who had known mental health issues, as the real perpetrator of these murders.
There are strong opposing views on gun ownership and whether such easy access to these weapons are indeed a risk factor for familicide or are simply a weapon that is intended for protection but some individuals chose to use for more deadly purposes against their own family.
Familicide is commonly intertwined with the term ‘family annihilator’ stemming from the act itself, that of family annihilation. Most researchers agree that this act is a form of mass murder due to the multiple victims involved. A study carried out in 2013 by Elizabeth Yardley, David Wilson and Adam Lynes has been particularly influential in this field. They focused on male British family annihilators studying cases which occurred between 1980 and 2012.
They highlight the different theories and categories that family annihilators have been placed into. Such as the ‘altruistic filicides’ and ‘revenge killers’ put forward by Hodson in 2008 when studying fathers who purposely intend to kill their children and in many cases their partner and the children’s mother.
In the Elizabeth Yardley study authors took a step further by examining 59 cases of familicide where children were killed (but not necessarily a partner or the children’s mother) and suggested four different types of British male family annihilators: anomic; disappointed; paranoid and self-righteous. Cases may not be straight-forward in terms of falling into one of these categories exclusively and as a result, it is common for male annihilators to fall into multiple categories, something which needs to be examined case by case.
In their sample, 57% of cases occurred inside the family home compared to 17% in a country lane somewhere no doubt pre-selected by the offender. In 32% of cases, the method of killing was stabbing followed by 15% of cases involving carbon monoxide poisoning from a car exhaust. Most offenders were employed and aged between 30 and 39 years old at the time of the murders. In 68% of cases, the male annihilator committed suicide after the murders.
Professor David Wilson, an author of this study has stated that “family annihilators have received little attention as a separate category of killer” and they are “often treated like spree or serial murderers, a view which presupposes traits, such as the idea that the murderer ‘snaps’, or that after killing their partner or children the killer may force a standoff with the police“, which is not an entirely accurate representation of these killers.
Familicide is a truly horrific crime, often wiping out generations of the same family in one snapshot of time. It is a crime which appears to be increasing and the more understanding we can obtain on the motivations, triggers and methods of such killers, the better chance we have of reducing how often these devastating acts do occur.
- Campbell, J.C., Glass, N., Sharps, P.W., Laughon, K., and Bloom, T., “Intimate Partner Violence, Trauma, Violence & Abuse,” 8 (July 2007): 246-269.
- Harper, D. W, & L. Voigt. (2007). Homicide followed by suicide an integrated theoretical perspective. Homicide studies, 11, 295- 318.
- Hodson, P. (2008) Family Annihilators: Why Fathers Murder Their Own Children. Marie Clare Magazine
- Léveillée, S., J. D. Marleau, & M. Dubé. (2007). Filicide: a Comparison by sex and presence or absence of self-destructive behavior. Journal of Family Violence, Vol 22, Issue 5, pp287-295
- Wiley. (2013, August 15). Characteristics of family killers revealed: The male dominated crime most common in August. ScienceDaily.
- Yardley, E., Wilson., D., and Lynes, A. (2014) A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980-2012. The Howard Journal, Vol 53, No. 2. pp-117-140
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