How could a loving father kill his own child?

Lisa had no worries about leaving her partner Steve with their son: he had always been good at soothing him. But the baby died that night of multiple injuries. He is just one of 40 children murdered by their fathers in the past decade. By Angela Neustatter

Lisa Gearing sits on the sofa with her son Jake, who's almost one, sleeping beside her in his buggy. On top of the TV there are several colour photographs of baby Steven. Lisa gestures towards them: "When I got pregnant with him my partner Steve and I were dead chuffed. We'd been trying for a child for a long time."

She was 17, Steve Cunningham was 19, and it seemed like a return to the "brilliant" early days of their relationship. They had separated only a few months before, a split caused partly by disappointment at not being able to have a child and partly because Steve had been drinking heavily. But they got back together and decided to try again and, almost immediately, Lisa found she was expecting. "Steve changed his life. He more or less stopped drinking," she said. "He fed Steven, changed his nappies and cared for him a lot when I went to the shops or out with my Mam."

But, within two months of baby Steven's birth, Lisa fell pregnant again. "This time it was quite different. When I told Steve, there was no reaction. That was like a slap in the face. He didn't want to talk about it much after that. He wasn't working and may have worried about how we'd manage. But why didn't he say?"

She wonders about this, just as she wonders why he didn't tell her that he had things on his mind and didn't want to look after the baby on that night last May when Lisa was going down to the bingo hall. "I settled Steven, who was a very easy baby. He did wake sometimes and cry, but Steve had always been good at soothing him."

Soon after 9pm, there was a phone call at the bingo hall from Steve's father saying the baby had breathing problems. When Lisa phoned Steve he was hysterical. "He kept saying `the baby's not breathing... I've bruised him trying to resuscitate him'. Even then he was making up his story. Then he just shouted `the baby's dead!'."

They were both taken in for questioning. Lisa was released after a couple of days but Steve was kept in. He was initially charged with manslaughter after he admitted shaking baby Steven because he was crying. An autopsy found 47 bruises on the child's body, two fractured femurs, a liver so badly ruptured it was torn loose, and severe brain damage. Rather than "shaken", police believed the baby had been violently battered. After hearing about the child's horrendous injuries, the jury found Steven guilty of murder by an 11-to-one majority.

Lisa gave birth to Jake in November. While Steve was on remand they exchanged letters until Lisa asked him not to write to her any more. The trial began in January. She went to court every day, hoping to hear something that would help her understand what happened that awful night.

She feels nothing but anger and hate towards Steve. "I'd like to see him hanged," she says. She knows that one day she will have to tell Jake - who looks "the spit" of his father - exactly what happened to his older brother. She looks at me with enormous eyes in a face framed by hair cut to half an inch - it was a mane of curls once, but she chopped it off after the murder verdict.

She asks: "How could he kill his own child?" How indeed. It is the question asked with incredulous horror each time we hear of a father murdering his own child. And we have heard it chillingly often of late.

Last month, there was the case of Peter Stafford, 37, who stabbed his three young children and his wife to death before hanging himself. Weeks later, David Price gassed himself in a car with his two young children on the seat beside him.

Over the past decade some 40 children in Britain have died at the hands of a father. Last year, Steven Carter and Peter Madin set fire to cars with their children inside, then killed themselves. Simon Smith smothered his three babies soon after each was born because they would not stop crying. And Scot Kenneth McKay intended to kill his six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter when he took them hostage at their Glasgow home and slashed their throats with a six-inch knife. His son spotted the front-door key on the floor and pushed it underneath with his foot so police could get in. Had he not, they would certainly be dead. McKay then slit his own throat in front of them.

But why do these men, who have often lived with their children and cared for them lovingly, as Steve Cunningham had done, suddenly turn and kill them?

Adam Jukes, a psychotherapist who works with violent men, has written two books: Why Men Hate Women (Free Association Books) and Men Who Batter Women (Routledge). He sees these killings as "the ultimate act of revenge". They most often occur when the relationship with the mother has broken down and she has custody of the children.

"These men are full of fury at being rejected and losing their children. They dwell on their hurt and rage and often demonise the woman to a point that is completely out of touch with reality - they may convince themselves she is a danger to the children. And the one power they know they have is to inflict lifelong suffering on the mother by taking the children and leaving her alive."

This may explain the impulse, but what happens to a person that they can take a knife and stab their young to death, deliberately drive them to a beauty spot and set fire to them, pick them up and slam them against a wall? To understand we have to grasp the power of the psychotic state, says Ged Bailes, consultant forensic psychologist at the Norvic Clinic, a secure psychiatric unit in East Anglia. These men, he explains, frequently go into a psychotic state where they lose touch with reality and normal empathetic feelings. They can be flooded with overwhelming feelings, hallucinations, compulsive drives and an utterly negative view of the world. In such a state, they can convince themselves that taking the children is what must be done.

Bailes believes revenge can be a motivation, but also suggests other scenarios: "A man with a lot of personal worries, who is deeply depressed, can go into psychosis and have delusions which convince him that the children are in danger, their minds controlled, possessed by demons and that it would be kinder to end it all. Or he may want to take the children with him to a `better place'." Then there is the man whose own inadequacies and frustrations flood over him and he takes his rage out on the child.

This could be what happened with baby Steve, suggests Jukes. Lisa's mother described how, after a few drinks, Steve would often break down and describe how he had been savagely beaten by his drunken father from babyhood onwards. "When his own son cried and he couldn't soothe him it's quite possible he was overwhelmed with the murderous rage he experienced towards himself from his own father."

Men are not, of course, the only ones who murder their children - in the past five years there have been four cases of mothers killing their babies. But Julie Bindel, Assistant Director of the Research Centre on Violence, Abuse and Gender Relations at Leeds University, says these are almost always a result of a mother's despair and depression at not being able to cope with the children in her care. It is not an act of rage and revenge.

She is convinced that if we looked deeper into these paternal murders we would almost always find a history of domestic violence. This often begins during pregnancy, she says: "Even before the children arrive they are problematic, a threat, getting in the way of the man possessing the woman completely, and getting all her attention."

We might also do well to look at the degree of distress that men experience when they lose their children, in the view of Jim Parton at Families Need Fathers: "If a man is violent he may forfeit the right to contact with his children, but I see mothers punishing fathers out of anger after a relationship breakdown by making contact very difficult when there has been absolutely no domestic violence. These men do become despairing and very angry." That was found, too, by the authors of the academic study Absent Fathers (Routledge) who state: "A major grievance was the difficulties fathers had seeing their children."

Mike Nash, a former policeman turned counsellor, points to the culture of blame that overtakes such cases. "Ultimately there can be no excuses made for these killings and we should be clear that those men who remain alive and in prison must take responsibility for what they have done and show remorse before they are ever released."

Lisa Gearing picks up Jake who has awoken. "I know Steve is not going to spend life in prison, that he'll be out and starting a new life. I don't like that. But it would help to know that he feels the pain of what he has done as I do. Every hour, every day."

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?