Fathers who kill their children – the latest psychological research gets inside the mind of Mick Philpott?
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm
Mick Philpott has been jailed for life after an arson attack which killed six children; the trial judge described him as disturbingly dangerous with no moral compass. The father of 17 children was trying to frame a partner who had dared to leave him. Philpott also boasts a long history of violent control of women. In 1978 he was sentenced for attempted murder after stabbing 13 times a partner who left him. When one of the women he was co-habiting with took her children and left, Philpott hatched a plot to frame her for arson, on the eve of a child custody hearing.
George Osborne waded into the controversy by linking Philpott’s chronic unemployment with the crime, arguing that the welfare state is subsidising inappropriate lifestyles.
But what do psychologists and psychiatrists who have actually studied these rare crimes – termed filicides – make of the motives of these killers?
Research establishes that the global rate of child homicide is 1.92 for girl victims and 2.93 for boy victims in the age group 0–17 years, per 100,000 inhabitants. Although considered rare, researchers believe it’s possibly the most underreported form of homicide. A recent comprehensive Austrian and Finnish study uncovered a rate of 5 per 100,000 inhabitants, substantially larger than official statistics, emphasizing the covert nature of ﬁlicide.
Mick and Mairead Philpott had convened a tearful news conference after the house fire, as part of their attempts to disguise the true nature of how the children died. Psychologists raise the question of whether this pattern is repeated elsewhere. Are some child deaths attributed to accidents or illness, actually hidden homicides?
In one of the most recent studies, entitled, ‘Gender differences in ﬁlicide offense characteristics—A comprehensive register-based study of child murder in two European countries’, gender differences immediately post-offense emerged; mothers cleaned up and tried to hide the body more often than fathers. Forensic psychologists argue covering the body is a gesture of shame, implying that the killing doesn’t ﬁt the offender’s self-image.
Hanna Putkonen, Sabine Amon, Markku Eronen, Claudia Klier, Maria Almiron, Jenny Cederwall and Ghitta Weizmann-Henelius, who conducted the research, found fathers killed their children most often during the morning or night, while mothers offended evenly throughout the course of the day. This could be explained by the fact fathers in this research were more often employed, and mothers more often homemakers.
The authors, based at institutions such as Vanha Vaasa Hospital, Finland and the Medical University of Vienna, point out that one of the distinguishing features of men who kill their own children is that they are more likely to be employed in comparison with men who commit other kinds of homicides. This suggests that George Osborne should be better briefed about the psychological dynamics of parents who kill their children, before politically exploiting the controversy.
Family disintegration has been found to be a key precipitating factor for fathers who kill their children. It seems there are two main psychological patterns – a father who becomes depressed, and in a very negative frame of mind, believes that he must kill himself and also his whole family, particularly his children to protect them from future suffering. The second type is more angry and kills his children in a fit of rage – the act declares – ‘if I can’t have them then you can’t and no one can’. Divorce and separation are often risk periods for filicide.
It would appear that Philpott’s actions fall into the second category.
It’s the controlling aspect of Philpott’s personality which appears most relevant. The welfare benefits aspect of the tragedy has preoccupied the media, but Philpott’s behaviour was not that psychologically unique in terms of what the research on filicide reveals. These studies raises the much more important question currently neglected by the media and government – were there enough warning signs that social services should have been more alert?
Philpott apparently used his conviction for attempted murder of a girlfriend in 1978 to terrify and intimidate the other women in his life, by threatening what he would do to them if they did not bend to his will.
The judge in the trial explained that Philpott regularly beat his first wife, with whom he had three children, before abandoning her in his 40s for a 16-year-old. He then repeated the pattern by controlling his new partner with physical and sexual violence, threats and emotional abuse. Philpott then met and married Mairead, who not only allowed Philpott to have a relationship with Lisa Willis, but allowed her to live in the house.
Philpott’s level of control over the women even extended to not permitting them front door keys. A father of so many children – 17 – some psychologists would argue this alone should have alerted local social services of the possibility of abusive and neglecting relationships in the household. They should have been more vigilant, particularly once Willis had the temerity to flee.
With this history of violence and control any woman abandoning him and taking children away was likely to precipitate a dangerous reaction. Lisa Willis left and took her children, and this was indeed this incident that appears to have provoked his arson attack.
His use of a violent method and the age of the children Philpott killed, also fits the patterns uncovered by this most recent study published in the academic journal ‘Child Abuse & Neglect’. Filicidal mothers used different methods than fathers; neglect, drowning, and poisoning were employed by more mothers while violence, for example, shooting was used by fathers. Mothers killed younger children than fathers, and older children have been found more likely to be killed with weapons.
Sara West, Susan Friedman and Phillip Resnick in their study entitled ‘Fathers Who Kill Their Children: An Analysis of the Literature’ found fathers were far more likely than mothers to kill their spouses during the commission of filicide – was there possibly an unconscious wish to kill the mother, as well as the children, in the Philpott case?
The authors based at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, explain that in ancient times, fathers practiced filicide regularly; according to Roman law, the father had absolute dominion over his children (patria potens) and was even encouraged to destroy the deformed. It was a Greek custom to have infants examined by the elder men of the community, who ordered the death of the deformed or weak. Both Aristotle and Plato, the authors contend, believed this practice was a form of preserving the integrity and size of the population
In modern times, Familicide, where the whole family is killed, is a crime almost always committed by men, report West, Friedman and Resnick.
This is based on the father’s proprietary view, the authors explain, in their paper published in ‘The Journal of Forensic Sciences’, that he is the head of the family and has control over their destiny.
According to this research, the annihilation of the entire family, at some subconscious level is what could have been driving Mick Philpott, and he has indeed, in many senses, achieved this.