The American Anthropological Association calculates that more than 200 mothers a year kill their children. If you’re like most moms, that figure puts a chill down your spine and leaves you hopelessly wondering “why?” It seems almost unfathomable that any parent could put their innocent child to death, but it often occurs in the wake of deep mental illness. Even so, many of these shocking cases leave psychiatric experts puzzled and left with only theories to explain the homicides.
Take the most recent case of Leshanda Armstrong, a young mom who successfully killed herself and three of her four children this week by driving her van into a river near New York City. There have been several similar instances in the past few decades. Many of you will especially remember the Andrea Yates case in 2001 in which she drowned her five kids in a bathtub.
Sadly, the United States leads the way in rates of child homicide compared to other nations. But what exactly pushes these parents to the brink of doing something so devastating? Interestingly enough, women commit an equal rate of child murders to men versus their disproportionate rate of overall violent crime in comparison to men.
Most motives stem from mental illness and can result from continuous abuse over time, psychosis, the birth of an unwanted child, and rarely, as a tool of revenge. Most hard to swallow are “altruistic killings” where parents believe they are doing right by killing their child, such as to put them out of imagined or real suffering.
Many parents who commit murder have been suffering from depression or thoughts of suicide for quite some time, and may kill their children before they kill themselves in a way to keep their children with them. Despite the kill, many experts contend that mothers view their children as extensions of themselves, and therefore project their suicidal feelings onto their young ones. Men are more likely to commit suicide afterwards than women, with no specific research as to why.
However, a study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children depicts a difference in how moms kill their children versus dads. Men are usually much more violent in their methods, while women usually tend to use “softer” methods and commit murder around the home. Women are even more likely to dispose of corpses in a way that respects the bodies, wrapping them up as if to protect them.
Even with all this talk of mental illness, the insanity defense is rarely effective in court and a plea for consideration will be rejected three out of four times, according to Columbia psychiatry professor Dr. Paul Appelbaum. Despite all of the publicity surrounding Andrea Yates and her diagnosed postpartum psychosis, she is a “very big exception to that rule,” he states.
Despite detailed analysis of motives, many investigators still scratch their heads in response to cases like these. Many neighbors, friends, or relatives will express positive views of the parent who killed, saying that they loved their children and were very functional parents. Some might have even appeared happy before they did the dreadful deed.
We may never know the root of these disturbing stories, but still cringe at every case where innocent children suffer these deadly consequences.