The first step in protecting children from harm is to understand the psychology of those most likely to harm them. No one knows this fact better than Myrna Dawson, a recognized homicide sociology professor at the University of Guelph, who in her recent study gave the world a glimpse into the mind and motives of parents who kill their children.

Dawson’s study on filicide — the murder of children under the age of 18 by their parents — is the most extensive review on the subject available to date, consisting of 1,612 cases of children in Canada who were killed by their parents from 1961-2011. The first-of-its-kind study aimed to find a common motivation behind this heinous crime in order to better prevent it.

According to a recent press release, while conducting her research, Dawson found many repeating trends and patterns, and noted that “cases of filicide by mothers and fathers often differ in a variety of ways, as shown by this study and other research.”

For example, Dawson found that fathers were most likely to be accused of killing their own children, and this fact was especially true in the case of stepfathers. However, although less mothers committed filicide, women made up the largest majority of parent murderers under the age of 18.

In addition, relationship status patterns also differed among the sexes. Four out of five women accused of the crime were noted as being single and never married. On the other hand, about two-thirds of men accused of the crime had at one time been married, but were either divorced, separated, or widowed at the time of the crime. In addition, fathers are more likely than mothers to commit suicide after killing a child than mothers are, although Dawson did note that the likelihood of either parent committing suicide has decreased in recent years.

While the findings are enlightening, Dawson hopes that her research will eventually be used to save lives. "It's important that intervention and prevention approaches consider these and other potential differences in determining best practices when responding to families who may be at risk," Dawson said.

One particularly noteworthy similarity between all cases of filicide was family rife. All incidences of family abuse and filicide increased with sexual jealousy, suspected infidelity, and ongoing child custody disputes. Due to this, Dawson believes that family court systems need to better coordinate their responses to at-risk families in order to best prevent such tragedies.

Source: Dawson M. Canadian trends in filicide by gender of the accused, 1961–2011. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2015.