THE safety of South African children is at a major risk. It is a painful reality that the country is facing, as news reports continue to report more children deaths.
The country has not had time to grieve and consolidate the young losses as children continue to go missing or fall prey to violence.
As communities pray and work hard to protect their children from harmful outside predators, they sometimes overlook a danger to children that is much closer. This is a branch of the child murders occurring in the country.
The act of filicide refers to the act of a parent killing their child. Child murders across the country that have involved a biological parent or parental-figure as the perpetrator has also seen an increase in the country between 2021 and 2022.
CEO of Save The Children, Steve Miller said: “Violence against children must not, cannot be tolerated. We need to work towards ensuring that no children are murdered in our country in the coming year. A 5.6% decline is not good enough.”
The act of filicide, infanticide or neonaticide (the act of parental killing of a child beyond one month to a year and the murder of a new-born up to 28 days respectively) are described by the University of Witwatersrand’s Professor Ugasvaree Subramaney, as one of the most heinous crimes to commit.
Subramaney explained that contributing factors to filicide, or particularly pertaining to maternal filicide, included mental illness with various independent biological, psychological and social factors at play. Another factor Subramaney mentioned is interpersonal violence (IPV).
“It’s not always easy as filicide itself is a complex and multifaceted issue. More importantly, training in the detection of symptoms must be enforced (training and psycho-education) at general practitioner level and other appropriate sites eg, antenatal clinics.
“Perpetrators are either not mentally ill and have personality disorders or are mentally ill,” the professor said.
Cases covered in the media include the May 2022 case of a father who poisoned three of children with laced energy drinks, or the case of 32-year-old eNgcobo mother Nomboleko Simayile, who was accused of bludgeoning her four children with a sledgehammer.
The cases mentioned are sensitive due to the circumstances contributing to their deaths being partially unknown (in respect to Simayile’s ongoing case). Whether the reasons be due to trauma, or of malignant choice, or due to mental health.
Subramaney said that outside factors often influenced the actions of a parent.
“One of the issues is that doctors and other healthcare professionals working in general practice or obstetrics, eg antenatal clinics and maternity wards, might miss it, due to not asking for symptoms such as those due to severe depression or anxiety, psychotic symptoms and homicidal thoughts/intent,” Subramaney said.
“This is of course in the context of mothers in the peripartum stage (which includes postpartum).”
It is pointed out that certain risk factors like a history of mental illness, socioeconomic conditions, substance use, intellectual impairment, family history or even previous history of homicide are important.
“The various factors pertaining to maternal filicide in particular ,include mental illness with its various independent biological, psychological and social factors at play, one of which is interpersonal violence (IPV).
“Women are more likely to kill their children in the neonatal stage, but toddlers and young children have been known to be victims too,” Subramaney said.
However, Subramaney said, those factors are not always linked as the reasons. In some cases of maternal and paternal filicide, the reasons may be malicious. “Paternal filicide is often linked with spousal revenge, personality disorder or substance use on the part of the father.
“This occurs regardless of the age of the victim; ie older children may be affected.”
The shift from individual to parent is an enormous life change, one that many people aren’t equipped for. The role of medical professionals in the support of new parents is especially important.
When the risk is due to mental illness, trained professionals (eg psychiatrists or other mental health care practitioners trained in risk assessment and perinatal care) are better equipped to detect such risks.
“Expectant mothers may well suffer from undiagnosed mental illness (see above), but psychological issues and social factors in expectant mothers are also not routinely assessed and managed,” Subramaney said.