By Raj Persaud and Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm
Child murder remains a rare crime. Generally in the U.K., there are between 20 and 40 homicides a year of the 5-6 million children ages 0 to 14. For comparison, there are between 100 to 200 children killed each year on the roads.
But despite its rarity, enigmatic patterns are emerging from the latest research, which can help track down perpetrators and help parents protect their families.
Forensic experts begin building a profile of the killer by first looking at the age of the victim. If a child older than five 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 was published in the British Journal of Social Work. The study found that 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 of extra-familial killers, previous research confirms the majority of assailants in child murder cases, particularly those below five years of age, are in fact the victim’s parents. Most are mothers, often suffering mental illnesses such as forms of post-natal psychosis. Interestingly all the natural fathers who killed their children, followed the act by committing suicide.
Of the five extra-familial killers investigated in Pritchard and Sayer’s research, all were males aged 19 to 42 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 emphasize that extra-familial doesn’t mean totally unknown to the victim an absolute stranger, as in the completely random killing in the U.K. of Sarah Payne. Often, the child is familiar with their assailant. In the case in the U.K. of Ian Huntley who killed Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, Huntley’s partner was then a teaching assistant at the school where he was a caretaker, which meant he was trusted by the 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 have sexually sadistic urges and are aroused and gratified by the suffering and the killing of young victims. But this group is distinct from sex murderers, who kill primarily to avoid apprehension and not specifically for sadistic gratification.
Published in the academic journal Victims and Offenders, this review conducted in the United States, also confirms that police can infer a lot about who committed the crime just from the age of the victim. When a child is younger than five, the suspect, who is equally likely to be male or female, is most probably from within the same family, not motivated by the urge to molest and tends to kill using their hands. When the child is between the ages of five 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 and 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 U.S. showed that in 44 percent of the cases the victim was deceased within one hour after they were abducted. Within three hours, 74 percent of victims were dead. Fast action in missing children cases becomes vital because data suggests there is typically a two-hour delay after a child is reported missing.
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 that in the majority of cases (72 percent,) the radius from the 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 percent travelled 0–199 feet, whereas 43 percent trekked 1.5–12 miles.
Christine Gregoire an Attorney General from Washington State 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 percent of cases.
Gregoire explains in her paper entitled “Case Management for Missing Children Homicide Investigation” that in only 9 percent 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 running out fast, 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 that children are not immune from abduction simply because they are playing near where they live. In fact, data suggests that 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 that 11 children per day are seen in hospital casualty departments up and down the U.K. with suspected physical child abuse. So there is only one death for every 188 possible abuse-related A&E (Emergency Room) admissions, of children under four years old 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, experiencing feelings of inferiority; 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.
Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London, Helinä Häkkänen-Nyholm, PhD is the CEO and forensic psychologist of PsyJuridica Ltd. She has worked for over ten years as a psychologist in the legal field and is a former criminal profiler of the Finnish police. She is one of the leading experts in Finland on psychopathy and narcissism and the editor of two books on psychopathy, and the author and co-author of numerous scientific publications on violent behaviour. She currently specialises in providing counselling on issues related to coping with psychopathy in families and workplaces. Dr. Häkkänen-Nyholm is also an Adjunct Professor both at the University of Helsinki, where she runs the Forensic Psychology Research Group, and she is attached to the Univeristy of Eastern Finland.
A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post
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