Who murders children? The latest research profiles child killers, but can it help detection?
Raj Persaud and Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm
Child murder remains a rare crime, 5-6 per million of children aged from birth to fourteen years, twenty to forty homicides a year compared with between one to two hundred annually killed on the roads.
But despite its rarity, enigmatic patterns are emerging from the latest research, which can help track down perpetrators, and assist parents in protecting their families.
Forensic experts begin building a profile of the killer, just from the age of the victim. If a child of five or older goes missing and is feared dead, it is highly likely the perpetrator is someone outside the family.
A recent survey of a decade of consecutive child homicides in England, by Colin Pritchard and Tony Sayer from Bournemouth University, published in the ‘British Journal of Social Work’, established homicidal assailants of children younger than 5, are much more likely to come from within the same family.
The contrasting profiles of intra-familial as opposed to that of extra-familial killers are vital clues deployed by the police during a search.
For example, in the Pritchard and Sayer study entitled ‘Exploring Potential ‘Extra-Familial’ Child Homicide Assailants in the UK and Estimating their Homicide Rate: Perception of Risk—The Need for Debate’, none of the ‘Extra-familial’ assailants killed a child under five.
In contrast to this picture for ‘extra-familial’ killers, previous research confirms the majority of assailants in child murder, particularly those below 5, are in fact the victim’s parents. Most are mothers, often suffering mental illnesses such as forms of post-natal psychosis, whilst all the natural fathers who killed their children, then committed suicide.
Of the five extra-familial killers investigated in Pritchard and Sayer’s research, all were males aged nineteen to forty-two and had multiple past convictions. One was termed a Multi-Criminal-Child-Sex-Abuser while the remaining four were Violent-Multi-Criminal-Child-Sex-Abusers. Pritchard and Sayer argue this high level of previous criminality reflects chaotic backgrounds. Of the five ‘Extra-familial’ killers, four had some known previous contact with their victim, but were not in any type of ‘familial’ relationship.
Pritchard and Sayer emphasise ‘Extra-familial’ doesn’t mean totally unknown to the victim – an absolute stranger, as in the completely random killing of Sarah Payne. Often, the child is familiar with their assailant. In the case of Ian Huntley who killed Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, his partner being a teaching assistant at the school where he was a caretaker, meant he was trusted by children.
A study entitled ‘Sexually Motivated Child Abduction Murders: Synthesis of the Literature and Case Illustration’ by Kathleen Heide, Eric Beauregard and Wade Myers from the University of South Florida, and Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, confirms two main subsets of offenders. One group who have sexually sadistic urges are aroused and gratified by the suffering and the killing of young victims. But these are different from sex murderers who kill primarily to avoid apprehension, and not specifically for sadistic gratification.
Published in the academic journal ‘Victims and Offenders’ this US review also confirms the police can infer a lot about who committed the crime just from the age of the victim. When a child is younger than 5, the suspect (equally likely male or female) is most probably from within the same family, not motivated by molesting, and tends to kill using their hands. When the child is between the ages of 5 and 12, the suspect is most often male, a close friend or a stranger, sexually compulsive, killing using means such as strangling. Finally, if the child victim is between 13 and 17, the suspect is most likely to be a close friend or a stranger, sexually driven, killing with weapons.
Heide and colleagues also report on the most complete previous study of sexually motivated child abduction murders. Analysis of 621 cases representing 44 states across the USA showed that in 44% of the cases the victim was deceased within one hour post abduction. Within three hours, 74% of victims were dead. Fast action in missing children cases becomes vital because US data suggests there is typically a two hour delay with the initial missing child report.
Heide, Beauregard and Myers also report location patterns now play a crucial rule in the way forensic science is used to apprehend culprits. They report studies which conclude in the majority of cases (72%), the radius from body recovery site to murder scene is less than 200 feet. The distribution was different when it came to journey from the initial contact setting to the murder site: 31% travelled 0–199 feet, whereas 43% trekked 1.5–12 miles.
Christine Gregoire an Attorney General from the State of Washington in the USA reports the killers are usually at the initial contact site for legitimate reasons. They either lived in the area or were engaging in some routine. She also reports most child abduction murders are opportunistic. Only in 14 percent of cases was the victim picked out because of some physical characteristic. The initial contact site is
within 1/4 mile of the victim’s last known location in 80% of cases.
Gregoire explains in her paper entitled ‘Case Management for Missing Children Homicide Investigation’ that in only 9% of cases is the body openly placed to facilitate discovery. She therefore wants searchers placed at intervals approximately equal to the height of the victim.
In our clinical experience, these geographical patterns contribute enormously to the emotional distress for police involved in these cases. They always know time is fast running out, yet they may have extensive areas to search. But eventually, most frequently, the child is still discovered close to home.
Gregoire argues parents need to be most aware children are not immune from abduction simply because they are playing near where they live. In fact, US data suggests well over half of abductions that led to murder took place within three city blocks of the victim’s home and approximately one-third within one-half block.
Also, given how common child battering is, according to the authors of the most recent and definitive study on the subject – entitled ‘Who Kills Children? Re-Examining the Evidence’ just published in the ‘British Journal of Social Work’, it remains an enigma just how rare child homicide remains.
The authors of the research, Colin Pritchard, Jill Davey and Richard Williams from Bournemouth University, point out it’s estimated eleven children per day are seen in hospital casualty departments up and down this country with suspected physical child abuse. So there is only one death to 188 possible abuse-related A&E admissions, of under four-year-olds each year. Pritchard and colleagues argue these statistics indicate the exceptional nature of those who actually kill children.
Heide, Beauregard and Myers describe a personality profile of a typical extra-familial perpetrator – shy, anxious, reserved, feeling inferior; taking refuge in fantasy, where they become omnipotent and powerful. But the more they take flight into the imagination, the more real it becomes. This imaginary world gets so familiar, it’s inevitably enacted.
As a result of this secret inner world, family, neighbors, and friends never guess who is capable of such a crime.