Parents who kill their children: Why would someone do the unthinkable?

The troubling allegation against Trent Spencer Butt is gut-wrenching, and brings with it a host of sobering and painful questions.

Most notably, why would a parent kill his or her own child? Their own flesh and blood?

That’s a question being asked by many throughout Newfoundland and Labrador following an unfathomable tragedy in Carbonear on Sunday.

Police believe 37-year-old Trent Butt killed his five-year-old daughter Quinn and then set fire to his modern home on a quiet street in the Conception Bay North town.

He faces charges of first-degree murder and arson, but neither charge has been proven in court.

Dads a greater threat

Experts have long tried to understand why fathers and mothers commit filicide, the term used when a parent kills their own child.

The answer is difficult to come by, but it’s clear that dads are more likely to kill children than moms.

That’s the case about 60 per cent of the time, says Peter Jaffe, a professor in the faculty of education at Western University in Ontario.

Research also shows that when dads kill their children, they typically do it out of revenge after a partner has left the relationship, and there is usually a history of domestic violence, said Jaffe.

“The way for the father to get back at the mother for getting out of the relationship is to kill the thing that is most precious to her, which is her child or children,” Jaffe told the St. John’s Morning Show on Thursday.

Moms typically kill infants

Jaffe said mothers who commit filicide tend to do so following a mental health breakdown, such as postpartum depression, and their victims tend to be younger, usually an infant.

He said fathers typically kill offspring that are older.

“You’re dealing with extreme circumstances,” noted Jaffe, but he said these cases are rarely out of the blue.

A host of tell-tale signs — prior history of domestic violence, actual or pending separation, depression, stalking and threats — are usually noticed by family, friends and frontline professionals such as social workers and police.

“In Ontario when we find a child killed by a parent, on average there’s nine different professionals that have been involved in some way … in the prior years leading up to the homicide,” he said.

Because filicide is something most people can’t even comprehend, Jaffe said many don’t know what to do when they see the warning signs.

He said research shows that greater public awareness is needed, and those close to a situation should encourage a troubled parent to seek help.

“It’s essential that the community gets involved. You’ve often heard that it takes a village to raise a child, well it also take a village to protect a child.”

A strained relationship

Firefighters rescued Trent Butt from certain death. He’s now in serious condition, but is expected to live. Desperate efforts to save Quinn were unsuccessful.

The tragedy followed the marriage breakup of Quinn’s parents, and a custody sharing arrangement that sources say was strained.

Court documents also show the relationship between Butt and his estranged wife was volatile, with Butt charged with three separate counts of assault against the mother dating back to 2013 and 2014. All three charges were dismissed.

The tragedy has rekindled dark memories of the death of Zachary Turner 13 years ago.

The 13-month-old and his mother, Shirley Turner, both died after the mother committed murder-suicide by walking into Conception Bay in August 2003.

Turner was facing extradition to the United States on a charge that she killed her former lover two years prior.​

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