Step-parents less likely to kill children than biological parents: study
Nov 23, 2011 – 11:42 PM ET
Cinderella's evil stepmother and two stepsisters.
By Karen Seidman
MONTREAL — Forget the evil stepmother — a new study from the Universite de Montreal shows that Cinderella probably should have been a lot more fearful of her biological parents.
The findings in Jean-Philippe Quenneville's psychology master's thesis show that for 182 children under the age of 12 who were killed in Quebec between 1990 and 2007, the biological parents were responsible in more than 75 per cent of the cases.
Contrary to popular perception, step-fathers were the aggressors in only 11 per cent of the cases.
While Quenneville agrees that step-fathers represent a high proportion of cases, in terms of absolute numbers, he said, biological parents are still responsible for far more cases of child murder.
Furthermore, step-parents were less likely to use a weapon or direct action to kill a child; they were more often guilty of abuse or neglect. But biological parents were more likely to set out to kill their children.
Of the 139 deaths attributed to biological parents, 28 were the result of ill treatment and all other cases involved the use of a weapon or direct action, such as strangulation, drowning or poisoning. In cases involving step-parents, a weapon was used in four out of 20 cases and 14 deaths resulted from ill treatment.
"The methods used by biological parents are much more lethal, which indicates that their true intention is to kill, contrary to step-parents," said Quenneville.
Although child murder is still rare, the cases tend to be rather high-profile, as has been the case with the ongoing Shafia trial and with cardiologist Guy Turcotte.
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It's enough of a problem that, last month, Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc said he was putting together a committee of experts to come up with suggestions on how to prevent what looks like an increase in family violence.
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Quenneville's study should provoke an interesting debate among psychologists who espouse the Cinderella Effect, which argues that children are much more likely to be mistreated at the hands of their step-parents than at the hands of their genetic parents. Quenneville said his findings are similar for step-fathers, but there are still so many cases among biological parents that he set out to discover why.
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Among primates, the aggressor is usually a male who joins a new group and kills the offspring of the female he hopes to conquer to maximize the odds of reproduction.
Some psychologists argue that this reproductive strategy is used by humans and explains why child murder occurs when a new partner or spouse arrives in an established household. But since biological parents may be even more likely to kill a child, Quenneville felt that explanation doesn't delve deep enough.
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In non-human primates, the biological parents are rarely guilty of child murder while it is the opposite for humans. Quenneville looked for clues to understand this. One important one is that child murder is practised in all societies and is often related to difficult economic conditions.
Quenneville believes one reason for child murder is an evolutionary mechanism to help control parental investment, in line with other cultural expressions such as contraception, abortion and adoption. The higher the investment, the greater the odds that the parent will want to invest in cases with the best chances of success.
For example, when twins were born in several pre-industrial societies, it wasn't uncommon to eliminate one of them if it was deemed too difficult to raise both of them properly. Also, when a higher economic value is placed on male offspring, young girls can be at risk, as has been seen in China and India.
But he in no way believes this explanation justifies the practice.
"Today, with all the other methods of birth control, killing offspring is clearly pathological and not a reproductive strategy," said Quenneville.
Posted in: Canada, News Tags: Adoption, Birth Control, Cinderella Effect, Guy Turcotte, Health And Fitness, Jean-Philippe Quenneville, Karen Seidman, Quebec, Sexual And Reproductive Health, South Asia, University Of Montreal, Yves Bolduc