Silent sufferers of domestic tragedy

Infanticide: Study highlights violence against the youngest
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The Independent Online
Every 12 days, on average, a baby less than a year old is killed in Britain, and it is just as likely to have been killed by either parent, according to research.

Infants are "silent victims" - four to five times more likely to be killed than people of any other age - Professor Channi Kumar of the Institute of Psychiatry said. Using Home Office statistics from between 1982 and 1988, he discovered that the chances of being a victim of homicide are "maximal" in the first year of life; 20 per cent of those infants are killed on the day they are born.

The killer is nearly always the biological parent. "We have traditionally thought that infanticide is an offence committed exclusively by the mother," Professor Kumar said. "But it is quite astonishing to us that, looking at the statistics, while it appears that on the first day of the child's life, the deaths are almost all committed by the mother, after the first day fathers and mothers are equally represented - if anything, fathers slightly more so."

Mothers tend to kill their children by means such as suffocating and drowning, whereas fathers who kill their children do so by more violent means.

Despite the introduction of the Abortion Act - there are now 100,000 abortions a year - the rate of infanticide has remained fairly constant over the decades.

The present Infanticide Act protects mothers in that it recognises that the balance of mind may be disturbed after childbirth, and so sentencing tends to be less severe. Men who kill a baby are more likely to be convicted of murder or manslaughter and sent to prison.

Professor Kumar said that a parent could be driven to kill a child by exposure to violence themselves, loss of control, mental illness or personality disorder. He said it was possible that the number of deaths was under- reported with some of the deaths attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Cases such as that of the man convicted last week of killing three of his children were the exception, however. "It is most commonly a single disaster. It is not usually an offence that is repeated," Professor Kumar said.

He called for more systematic studies of parents who kill their babies to see if there are any common factors, such as psychopathic tendencies or mental illnesses. With more information, deaths could be prevented, he said.

"There is a huge amount of interest when an adult is killed in the community, say, by a schizophrenic. This is a problem which might happen once every month, every two months. There is a crisis and we are told we must target the risks. But an infant is killed every 12 to 14 days - that is 30 homicides a year."