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Homicide of Infants: A Cross-Sectional Study

J Clin Psychiatry 2007;68:1501-1509

Objective: To describe the sociodemographic, clinical, and forensic characteristics of people convicted of killing infants, including their outcome in court and the gender differences in these characteristics.

Method: A consecutive case series of people convicted of infant homicide in England and Wales (1996-2001). Information on social demographic and clinical characteristics of perpetrators was collected from psychiatric reports prepared for court. Detailed clinical information was gathered from questionnaires completed by mental health teams for those in contact with mental health services.

Results: Of the 2660 identified perpetrators that were convicted of homicide, 112 (4%) were convicted of infant homicide. Fathers killed 56 infants (50%); mothers killed 35 (31%). Forty-nine infants (44%) were killed within 3 months of birth, and 87 (78%) within 6 months. Seventeen perpetrators (24%) had symptoms of mental illness at the time of the offense. Thirty-eight (34%) had a lifetime history of mental illness. In total, 16 (14%) had been under the care of mental health services. Ten women (29%) were diagnosed with affective disorder, and 25 men (53%) had a history of alcohol or drug misuse. Men were more likely to have previous convictions for violence compared to women (p = .01). Most male perpetrators received a custodial sentence (N = 71, 96%), whereas 28 women (74%) received community sentences or hospital disposals.

Conclusions: This study highlights the need for increased perinatal assessment and parenting support to encourage parents to seek help. Further research using a psychological autopsy methodology focusing on criminological and psychiatric antecedents may improve our understanding of why these deaths occur and prevent future tragedies.