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"Parent-child murders increasingly rare
'Not an epidemic': High-profiles cases are not evidence of a growing trend, statistics show"

The National Post, By Brad Evenson, March 16, 2002

At first glance, it appears North America is suffering an epidemic of child murder.

This week, as Texas mother Andrea Pia Yates was convicted of drowning her five children, RCMP officers began their grim search for the remains of six Vancouver Island children who died in a suspicious house fire. Their father was charged yesterday with six counts of first-degree murder. Two days later, the search for Toronto two-year-old Alexis Currie ended when her father led police searchers to her body. The same day, a Smiths Falls, Ont., father was charged with killing his daughter.

Yet appearances can be deceptive. The truth is such tragedies are increasingly rare.

In 2000, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 27 children died at the hands of their parents. The number was the same in 1975 when Canada's population was only 23 million -- 30% smaller than it is today.

In fact, parent-child killings reached their lowest ebb in a quarter-century in 1999, when 26 children died. That is about equal to the annual number of Canadians who starve to death, drown in bathtubs or walk into moving trains.

"Rates of violent crime are decreasing in terms of most indicators, and they're decreasing fairly consistently," said Dr. Philip Klassen, a psychiatrist in the law and mental health program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in Toronto.

"So not only isn't there an epidemic of child murder, there isn't an epidemic of anything as we continue to see a contraction of violent crime."

Dr. Klassen, who studies child murders, said the misperception of a widespread problem comes in the period shortly after a spectacular case, such as the Yates trial.

"They talk about copycat crimes ... but my personal feeling is that there is a copycat element to the media as well," he said. "That is, a murder that might not hit the front page gets on the front page if it happens the day after another murder of a similar nature.

"That's not intended as a criticism," he added. "That's human nature; you piggyback things on to each other like that because it adds to the momentum of the idea."

Even so, experts believe it is possible to reduce the number of child murders even further.

Nicholas Bala, a professor of law at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ont., draws clear lines between different types of child murders. There are cases of mental imbalance, such as that of Yates. There are cases in which parental anger leads to violence, as when a parent shakes a baby to death. And there are divorce or separation cases.

"Usually, it is the father that has lost custody but continues to have access, and is so angry that he intentionally kills his children, largely as a means of revenge," Mr. Bala said.

He thinks many of these separation-revenge cases could be avoided. "When you're dealing with anger ... people actually do get over their anger," he said. "And we know that the time of greatest danger is the period following separation. And if your legal system and our police system ... can protect the woman and children for a period of months, the [threat] will go down because his anger will slowly dissipate."

While men Read More ..equently kill children out of revenge, many women do so because of post-partum depression or other acute mental illness.

Whatever the cause, statistics show neither sex is less prone to child murder. Though men generally kill at 10 times the rate of women, the numbers are nearly equal when it comes to children. For example, in 2000, 15 fathers and stepfathers killed their children in Canada, compared with 9 mothers.

But three years earlier, 26 mothers and stepmothers killed children, compared with 21 fathers and stepfathers.