When parents kill their own children: Study zooms in on 'revenge filicide'

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Two South African academics found the motivation for revenge filicides were often linked to complex personal and interpersonal relationship problems.
Two South African academics found the motivation for revenge filicides were often linked to complex personal and interpersonal relationship problems.
PHOTO: Catherine Falls Commercial, Getty Images
  • Two South African academics have delved into revenge child killings and the possible motives.
  • Analysing cases committed between 2003 and 2021, they managed to identify 20 incidents of a parent murdering their child.
  • Dr Melanie Moen and Professor Christiaan Bezuidenhout found the motivation for revenge filicides were often linked to "complex personal and interpersonal relationship problems".

What possibly motivates a parent to kill their child?

In a first of its kind in South Africa, two academics delved into parents who murder their own to hurt their partner for retribution, termed "revenge filicides".

Dr Melanie Moen from Stellenbosch University and Professor Christiaan Bezuidenhout from the University of Pretoria conducted the study, recently published in the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling.

Although this type of case was difficult to identify, they classified 20 incidents committed between 2003 and last year.

They analysed court documents and media reports, finding in 12 of the cases, translating to 60%, the offender was married at the time. Their children were killed by strangling, hanging, poisoning, suffocating, stabbing, or beatings.

READ | Study finds why parents kill their children

"Spousal revenge killers murder their own child to inflict hurt or retribution on the partner, spouse or ex-partner. In this type of murder, the spouse specifically wants the partner to suffer and feel misery," the pair said.

Moen and Bezuidenhout found the motivation for revenge filicides were often linked to "complex personal and interpersonal relationship problems"; in several cases, the killer mentioned experiencing marital and relationship discord such as an argument, rejection, jealousy, and anger shortly before the murder.

The offending partner wants the receiving partner, who they believe inflicted emotional and psychological pain on them, to experience the same.

"The principle of lex talionis (an eye for an eye) comes to the fore with devastating consequences for the receiving partner and the children due to the reactive-impulsive expressive violent behaviour of the murdering partner, who ultimately wants to restore their sense of control and sense of self."
South African cases of parents killing their children over the past two decades include:
  • Nomboleko Simayile, 32, allegedly bludgeoned her four small children to death in Ngcobo in November this year. She died in hospital after falling ill in the holding cells of the local police station.
  • Sibusiso Mpungose of Pinetown was handed four life terms for killing his children by hanging them in 2019. He believed his wife was having an affair.
  • Zinhle Maditla killed her four children by poisoning them in 2018. She was convicted and sentenced to four life terms by the Mpumalanga High Court.
  • Marius van der Westhuizen, a former police officer, shot dead his three children in Cape Town in 2006, after a row with his wife. He was sentenced to 24 years in jail.

A breakup, a new love interest for the receiving partner, or a divorce that can strip the murdering partner of their investment, control and social status in the relationship were also among the reasons identified.

"Our analysis showed that a parent can kill a child because of a loss of social identity due to rejection, extreme rage and anger, blaming others for their misery, sadism, a desire to cause pain and a need to inflict harm," the researchers said.

"The sense of loss of social identity and the anger and disappointment experienced by the murdering partner becomes an overwhelming, blinding rage that sweeps away everything in its path.

The researcher added:

The murdering partner becomes enraged by the pain they experience and wants to hurt their partner or ex-partner because they themselves are emotionally and psychologically hurting.

The blinding anger was caused by extreme emotional distress, Moen and Bezuidenhout found.

"The accumulation of the overwhelming negative emotional experiences leads to a desire to cause pain at all costs, sometimes sadistically, to ensure a reciprocal justice balance, i.e., the murdering parent believes that killing the child will cause the spouse or partner to experience the same hurt and that this type of 'justice' will bring about some form of equilibrium."

In the cases they analysed, the pair found, at play, a form of narcissism, which is an extreme self-involvement to a degree that it makes a person ignore the needs of others around them.

"The narcissistic rage culminates in the murdering of the child to punish and hurt the other parent and to restore control. The 'narcissistic' injury has been counterbalanced by an act of revenge filicide. Sadly, the receiving parent and child's needs have been negated."

READ | 'We are living in cursed times': Mom arrested for killing 4 children with sledgehammer while they slept

According to a study by the SA Medical Research Council, released this month, there had been a decrease in deaths from child abuse and neglect between 2009 and 2017.

In terms of the researchers' findings, in instances where children are murdered and the perpetrator is known, data showed mothers were significantly less likely to kill their children in 2017 than in 2009.

Most children who died from abuse and neglect did so in the first year of their life, the researchers found, while most deaths occurred in rural areas.

Sex-related murder was found to have declined – one-in-five cases of girl-child killings included a suspected sexual element in 2017, compared with one-in-three in 2009.

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