More fathers kill their children, puzzling family violence experts

September 14, 1992|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- How to explain the inconceivable: father stabbing, shooting and choking their children to death.

"God knows we wish we knew the reason, because then we could do something about it," said Christine Butler, a lawyer and director of the Suffolk Battered Women's Advocacy Project. "We've been tearing our hair out trying to figure out how we could have seen these killings coming."

This year alone, at least a dozen Massachusetts children and young adults have been killed, police say, by their fathers or by their mothers' boyfriends. The victims range in age from 22 months to 23 years.

Police say that on Aug. 30 Jose L. Davila spirited his two young sons to a Methuen, Mass., motel, where he stabbed one and strangled the other. Davila, like many men who kill their children, immediately tried to commit suicide. He has been charged with two counts of murder.

Although no state or federal agency tracks these types of killings, few specialists dispute that they are on the increase.

"There's no question that there's been a dramatic increase nationwide in methodical family homicides," said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. "But I don't know that there's any way to predict with certainty who will commit these kinds of hideous crimes."

As difficult as it is to make sense of such murders, psychologists, women's advocates and groups that work with batterers are studying them in the hopes of preventing others. Though the acts seem desperately random, some patterns emerge.

For instance, men are far more likely to kill their children to get back at their spouses, said Irving B. Guller, a forensic psychologist and professor emeritus at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Psychologists say the murderers often are motivated by revenge, depression or a perverse sense of love. Women's advocates call the murders part of the same syndrome that leads to the battering of women: Some men view their wives, girlfriends and children as chattel.

"In killing kids, the motive may be to get back at the marital partner by killing the thing most meaningful to them," said Dr. Calvin Frederick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It's pure, unbridled hostility to the other parent."

Jamie Sabino, president of the Women's Bar Association in Boston, added: "Much of the issue around battering is possession. Kids are part and parcel with that. He thinks he owns the whole package, so he does away with them."

"One important aspect of family violence has to do with fear of loss," said Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College. "Quite often, people kill the very people they fear that they'll lose. It's morbid and perverse, but it's true."

In nearly half the slayings of Massachusetts children this year, the mothers also were killed. Several of the victims had sought restraining orders against their abusers, which psychologists say may have fueled the killers' fear of loss or desire for vengeance.

Other less obvious motives also may be at play.

"Some people are so depressed that they literally believe that by killing the kids they will save them from a miserable life," said Mr. Guller of John Jay College. "For that troubled mind, killing is perceived as an act of mercy."

Some psychologists say men despondent over their inadequacies as providers may conclude that their families are better off dead. This motivation is especially prevalent in tough economic times, when layoffs abound. In these cases, the men may also kill themselves.

Like the rise in the number of battered children, specialists say, the murders stem from a national temperament that celebrates violence.

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