When Parents Kill Their Kids

In the annals of crime, this one appeared particularly horrific: Lam Luong, a 37-year-old shrimp fisherman, accused of throwing his four young children, two boys and two girls, all under the age of 3, off a bridge near Mobile, Ala. to their deaths. No bodies have been found, and though prosecutors say Luong has confessed to killing his children, Luong's attorney says the confession was coerce and that his client gave the kids to a woman who disappeared with them. While the case is being resolved, it serves as a reminder of many high-profile instances in which parents have been accused of killing their kids.

Dr. Paul Appelbaum is a professor of psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and the author of "The Clinical Handbook of Psychiatry and the Law." He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Raina Kelley about why parents kill their kids and the motivational differences when mothers and fathers commit these types of crimes. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What would lead a father to kill to his kids?
Paul Appelbaum:
There's relatively limited research on men who kill their children. What we do know about the behavior is that broadly, these men tend to fall into one of two categories: One, fathers with a serious mental illness such as depression or psychosis who are led by their illnesses. A severely depressed father may believe that he's a poor provider, condemning his children to a life of poverty and unhappiness, so he feels like the killing is an altruistic act to save them from a miserable life. And it is very likely that the father will commit suicide after he kills his kids. One thing you can say about the Luong case is that he should be watched very carefully for suicidal impulses. Psychosis, such as schizophrenia, psychotic depression or a bipolar psychotic disorder, can lead to the delusion that he has been ordered by God to kill his children. So in a psychotic way, the father is still doing this for the sake of their children.

The second group is associated with the physical abuse of children. Those tend to be situations where the father loses it. There's typically a pattern of previous abuse, and this one time it goes too far, perhaps farther than the father intended.

In cases where parents kill kids, what are the possibilities for a defense based on the presence of a mental illness?
In contrast to popular belief, well under 1 percent of cases involve even the consideration of insanity, and when such a plea is used, it's unsuccessful three out of four times. And the more horrific a crime, the less likely it is that it will work.

For the most part, a jury is making a determination whether or not it's fair to punish a person for a particular crime. The more horrific a crime, the less likely it is that a jury will find any excuse that mitigates it. Andrea Yates is a very big exception to that rule. After her first trial, there was an enormous amount of publicity and a lot of public education regarding postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis and that was what enabled the jury to find her not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of her children.

Why do mothers like Andrea Yates or Susan Smith get so much national media attention while it appears that fathers who kill don't make nearly as much news?
We tend to see mothers as having much closer bonds with their children. And, the dependence and the helplessness of a child on its primary caregiver suggest to us that the mother is closer to a child and hence the crime is more monstrous. And from an evolutionary perspective where in a Darwinian sense the purpose of life is to perpetuate their own genetic endowment, there's nothing that seems more unnatural then ending the lives of one's own children and ending one's future in a genetic sense. And also from an evolutionary perspective, it's more certain who a child's mother is rather than the father. It's said that 5 percent of the population don't know who their father is in the sense that the father they think they have isn't their father. So the biological relationship and the dependence leads people to assume this act committed by a mother is so much heinous.

Is there a difference in the psychology of mothers and fathers when they kill their kids?
If you compare mothers who kill to fathers who kill, mothers tend to kill young children, newborns, and it's often a result of either postpartum depression or to hide the evidence of a birth such as if a very young mother panics. The children tend to be older when fathers do it, and that may dovetail with physical abuse.  Also, when mothers kill their children, the ratio of boys to girls tends to be even.  When fathers do it, they're more likely to kill their male offspring.

Why?
There's no definite answer to that; but maybe Freud was on to something when he described an Oedipal struggle between son and father. The son may be seen as a threat to an incredibly insecure father.

Are there other differences?
Mothers are more likely to be psychotic and less likely to try to kill themselves afterward; but there's not a lot of research out there cataloging the differences.