On the outskirts of Allentown, Pa., in late February two teen-age boys were arrested in the stabbing and bludgeoning deaths of their parents and their 11-year-old brother.
A few days later and only four miles away, a 16-year-old was arrested in connection with the shooting deaths of his mother and father. Investigators found a note they say is from the teen: “I want a movie to be made for me after I kill everyone.”
The next Sunday--March 5--a 15-year-old boy was charged with shooting his parents to death in Newnan, Ga. Police say he was mad at them because they gave him a curfew.
While these crimes, committed one after another in a blaze of national publicity, suggest an alarming trend, in fact there is no increase in the number of children who kill their parents. But there has been an increase in knowledge about why they do it.
FBI figures on parricide have remained consistent over the last 20 years. Between 300 and 400 parents are killed by their children each year in the United States. In 1993, the latest year statistics are available, the number was 306.
The recent murders are still under investigation, but researchers have come to some conclusions about parent killing after studying other cases. They say to look to the victim for answers. More often than not, that’s Dad.
According to experts, parricide is most often the desperate act of a teen-age boy who has been emotionally, physically or sexually abused to the breaking point by his father. Often, he has tried unsuccessfully to get help. His father is most often the target. Mothers, sisters and brothers are also killed, but more rarely so, and often as an afterthought.
“I’ve had occasions where, in the explosion of rage, the kid simply assaulted everybody in sight, even though the target was the father,” says Ronald Ebert, a Boston-area forensic psychologist and parricide expert.
“In my experience, usually the father is a tyrant,” says Charles Patrick Ewing, a forensic psychologist and professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
As many as three out of four cases involve sons who kill their fathers, often after years of abuse. The typical parent killer is 15 to 17 years old--the most volatile period of adolescence--mild mannered and an average achiever.
The typical father who is slain is quiet, over-controlling and physically abusive. “To the outside world, the father might seem like a well-meaning, capable, concerned parent,” says Dewey G. Cornell, a psychologist based at the University of Virginia. “Behind closed doors, their high standards become cruel, and their demands become demeaning.”
There are other kinds of parent killers. Some sons kill fathers to protect their mothers and siblings from battering. Mothers are killed too, often if they are abusers or if they stood by as the father lashed out at the child. A few killers are psychotic. Fewer still kill for money.
Only about 8% of parricides are committed by girls. “Women generally turn their rage inward,” Ebert says. “In fact, it is common that women will be self-destructive rather than aggress against someone else.”
“Boys often feel that murder is their last resort,” Cornell says.
“For that (murderous) moment, the sons become their fathers,” says Paul Mones, a Santa Monica attorney who is considered one of the foremost experts on parricide.
Mones defends children accused of murder, often on the grounds that the killing was an act of self-defense after years of paternal abuse and pleas to officials falling on deaf ears. “They are victims acting to protect themselves,” Mones argues in his 1991 book, “When a Child Kills” (Pocket Books).
He defended a teen-ager who, after enduring beatings with a 2-by-4 over a long period, killed his parents with an ax in 1985. Mones also defended an abused girl who shot her truck-driving father to death in Texas in 1991. The boy was convicted and is serving time in prison. The girl was acquitted.
Mones’ self-defense arguments and similar defenses by other lawyers are increasingly successful. “The law is starting to recognize the abuse excuse,” says Ewing, who has testified for Mones.
A judge cited past abuse when he let two Oklahoma boys off the hook for killing their abusive father in 1993. Residents in Rush Springs, Okla., rallied behind Herman and Druie Dutton, 15 and 12, after learning that their father kicked them with steel-toed boots, ordered them to throw darts at their 10-year-old sister and beat them if they didn’t steal enough groceries from the market.
Neighbors, teachers and relatives complained to authorities about the abuse, but they say nothing was done. According to reports, Herman aimed the rifle his father gave him for Christmas at his sleeping dad. (Many children kill their abusers when they are most vulnerable--when they are asleep.) Druie allegedly pulled the trigger. A judge deferred the boys’ verdict until April 7, 1996. If they abide by the law, the charges against them will be dismissed.
Perhaps the most famous case involving an abuse defense is that of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who were 21 and 18 when they killed their parents. Their first trial ended in a hung jury last year. A new trial begins in June. But the case is not typical because the Menendez brothers were older than most who commit this crime.
Authorities agree violence begets violence. A child who has been abused learns that physical force is a way to solve problems. “Children who are physically abused are at a much higher risk of becoming violent themselves,” says Myriam Miedzian, author of “Boys Will Be Boys” (Doubleday, 1995), a book about male violence.
Men are also biologically more prone to violence than women. But there are cultural factors at work as well. In Japan, where there is more reverence for male elders and mothers are more likely than fathers to be the disciplinarians, matricide is more common than patricide, Ewing says. “It is more classic in this country for sons to kill fathers.”
Abusive fathers have been tolerated by American society throughout history. “Women and children were considered ‘property’ up until World War II,” Ebert says. “It was quite acceptable for a man to slap around and abuse his wife and children. In fact, it was thought of as the right way to be a parent.”
Finally, experts weigh in the availability of guns and a pop culture that increasingly glorifies gunslingers: Today, “it’s not seen as much of a big deal to kill somebody,” Miedzian says.
To stop the killings, authorities say popular culture needs to tone down violence, social service agencies and police need to take more seriously claims of child abuse (many kids had asked for help before they killed), and fathers need to be trained in the ways of parenting.
“The preponderance of abuse is perpetrated by men,” says Deanne Tilton Durfee, chair of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. “Yet almost all child-abuse prevention programs are aimed toward women. Parenting classes, counseling, community outreach are all focused toward the female caretaker.”
“Improving the quality of fathering,” Miedzian says, “is a major key to decreasing violent behavior in boys.”
Nonetheless, experts predict more of the same. Child-abuse statistics continue to creep upward, with the number of reported incidents at about 1.9 million a year nationally. The annual number of children killed by parents or caretakers (a large majority of them are boys) hovers at about 2,000--six children slain for every parent killed.
Says Mones: “Fathers don’t have as much to worry about as children do.”