The Daily Mail has today published an article about fathers who kill their children. It is so full of errors and misguided, misleading pseudo-scholarship that it demands a response and refutation, but the Mail has blocked comments.
The article follows a long line of such articles dating back to 2006 like Olga Craig’s in the Sunday Telegraph, India Knight’s in the Sunday Times, Lorna Martins’ in the Observer or Zoe Williams in the Guardian which attempt to portray fathers as natural murderers and a menace to their children. The only difference is that this time the article is not by a journalist but by an academic.
Elizabeth Yardley is billed by the Mail as a ‘top criminologist’; she is actually a minor academic at a minor university which was formerly a polytechnic, I can’t find any other articles or publications by her which would justify the hype.
There have been 71 cases [of parents murdering their children] since 1980 – and the numbers are speeding up alarmingly. In the Eighties, fewer than one child a year was murdered by a parent. Over the past decade, numbers have risen to two or three a year – a rate that is increasing steadily.
Now, accurate figures for child homicides are very difficult to obtain, and vary from about 50 children a year to over 200. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Much depends on what region is covered; figures can refer to England and Wales, the UK, or Britain, but won’t necessarily specify.
- The definition of a child can vary: it might mean children up to the age of 18 or up to the age of 16; one study only covers children up to the age of 14. Sometimes babies and infants are excluded.
- The definition of ‘kill’ can vary; it might include deaths from neglect, for example, or from other causes but while in a parent’s care. Sometimes investigations are ongoing or inconclusive. Some deaths will be from controversial causes such as shaken baby syndrome.
- The definition of parent is not often clear and does not always imply biological relationship. Figures can include step and adoptive parents, unmarried partners, and carers.
Yardley’s statistic averages at 2 children killed a year. She doesn’t specify, but let’s assume she just means England and Wales. If we take the official Home Office figure for victims of homicide under the age of 16 in England and Wales we get an average over the 10 years from 1998 to 2008 of 70. Did Yardley mean 71 cases each year, perhaps? But the Home Office figure is for all homicides, not just those by parents. Either way, Yardley’s figure is so inaccurate it casts serious doubt on anything else she might say.
Are these deaths on the increase? Again, the data is limited, but figures from the British Journal of Social Work suggest a dramatic decline from 93 in 1974-76 to 10 in 2004-06.
Yardley claims the vast majority of these murders, 59 of her 71, are perpetrated by men, but again this is a false figure. The official Home Office figures show that 54% of children murdered by a parent are murdered by a father or step-father.
She says she calls these men ‘family annihilators’, but this is an American expression which has been around a long time and it usually applies to someone who kills children and their mother but not himself. This is quite distinct from the phenomenon Yardley describes in which a parent kills their children and then themselves; these cases are usually called ‘murder-suicides’. The case of Julian Stevenson which prompts Yardley’s article does not fit this category, but it is too early to comment reliably when the case has not yet come to trial.
Yardley says she has examined ‘all of the cases of murders by parents of their children since 1980’ but if she has only looked at 71 this is clearly not true; all of these murders would number a couple of thousand.
From statistical inaccuracy Yardley drifts into a world of wild fantasy. She says that these men ‘feel that their masculinity is being threatened… they believe they are losing the one thing that makes them feel like successful men: their families’.
They are, in some twisted way, wresting back control not just of their children, but often of their wives, too.
Killing their children is the most shocking and dramatic way they can think of to shout to the world: ‘Look how powerful I am.’
In murder, many are also seeking the ultimate revenge. They know that in killing their children they are killing the things that are most precious to their former wives.
All this, of course, is pure, bigoted speculation, it isn’t based on any evidence. Indeed, everything which follows in Yardley’s article is supposition, based on her own warped understanding of male psychology.
Her only perceptive comment is the recognition of a correlation between these extreme cases and family court disputes over contact. Scratch the surface of these crimes and you will consistently find a story of separation, obstructed contact, the futile quest in the family courts for a solution, separation-related financial difficulties, drug and alcohol abuse, descent into absolute despair and hopelessness. One thing Yardley never mentions is that these parents are clinically depressed.
Child murder is an extreme reaction to a real danger. A parent who threatens the other with sole residence and total exclusion from their children’s lives makes no idle threat: the default approach of the family courts to child disputes is immensely dangerous and in private law this threat to family integrity can have catastrophic consequences. These parents believe no one will ever be able to separate them again if they kill their children and then themselves. At the same time murder is the most extreme way of carrying out the threat. The correlation is simple: there is no other situation in which a parent’s contact with a child is reduced to such a pitiful trickle; there is no other circumstance in which a parent is put under such horrendous pressure. When children are taken from parents entirely, as they are in public family law, there is no opportunity for contact or for murder.
A reader’s comment to a newspaper story helps us to understand far better than Yardley can,
I once suffered severe depression, I had two young children. When I planned to take my own life of course I was going to take them with me. The thought of leaving them to grow up without their mother was unthinkable, and seemed infinitely more cruel than peacefully taking them with me. Right or wrong, that’s how it felt, and maybe it’s how she felt. Please don’t condemn just because you don’t understand. Things are not always black and white.
A father wrote in to an on-line forum,
I know; thank God I pulled back: your wife has betrayed you, your home is gone, then your children are removed and the courts allow it. I was told by judge T, in his first ever words to me, “you see your children too much.” My ex wife packed in her job, the police assisted her in removing the children, then lawyers were telling me to leave my home. I wanted to die when I heard that; later I felt like my loving children would be desperate without me, so it made sense I should take them in that fire of depression that swept over me… Luckily I started to pull out of that manic stage.
Yardley is surely correct when she says, ‘these parent-on-child killings are going to continue happening with increasing regularity. Marriages are going to continue breaking up. Fathers are going to continue feeling aggrieved and powerless’.
But she is not correct to conclude, ‘there is no way of predicting which men are going to carry on being loving fathers — and which are going to act on these feelings and turn into Family Annihilators’. That is just scare-mongering and playing to the cameras.
In research for the Wave Trust George Hosking wrote that for domestic violence to occur there must be ‘an interaction between two components’. The first is the range of personal factors which cause an individual to have a propensity towards violence. The second is the influence of external triggers or social factors; these will be harmless and won’t contribute towards violence unless there is a pre-existing propensity. When a parent who is prone to depression is subjected by the family courts to the appalling denial of their status as a parent which has become routine, tragedy happens.
Consider the case of Angela Schuman who was jailed for 18 months for the attempted murder of her two-year-old daughter Lorraine. Schuman had recently been divorced from her husband, Julio Cesar Tumulan Nava, whom she had met when 7 months pregnant with Lorraine. She had lost custody to him and was struggling to cope; she had written in a letter, ‘I had no hope of receiving help from the court or elsewhere. I do believe in the afterlife. Solving the problems of this world seemed no longer possible’. A psychiatrist had said she was suffering from a ‘depressive disorder’ as a result of her loss of contact with Lorraine.
Where Yardley’s poisonous article leads is to create a fear in resident mothers that ‘allowing’ their children to have contact with their fathers will put those children at risk of violent murder. It will lead to the loss of contact between many children and perfectly harmless, loving and committed fathers, and in one or two cases it will lead to the very phenomenon she pretends to deplore.