A decade of pediatric homicide: a retrospective study at the Medical University of South Carolina

Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 1999 Jun;20(2):169-72. doi: 10.1097/00000433-199906000-00013.


More than 3 million children are abused and/or neglected each year in the United States. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of these cases result in homicide by child abuse or child neglect. Causes of death range from blunt force trauma and shaking to asphyxia to immolation. We retrospectively reviewed all pediatric forensic cases referred to the Medical University of South Carolina Forensic Pathology Section over the past 10 years, from January 1986 to December 1995. Of these, we looked only at children < or =5 years of age. The majority (342 cases, 69%) of these deaths were classified as natural, 96 (19%) as accident, and 60 (12%) as homicide. Of the homicides, we examined the cause of death; age, gender, and race of the victim; relationship to the perpetrator; time interval between injury and death; and the initial history given as to the cause of the injury. The cause of death fell into nine categories, the number one category being head trauma. Forty-five percent of the homicides were by head trauma, 12% by abdominal or body trauma, 25% by asphyxia (with half of these due to drowning), 10% by carbon monoxide poisoning or thermal injury, and the remaining 8% involving cases of neglect, stabbing, and poisoning. The majority of the homicide victims were male (67%) and black (67%). Forty-six percent were < or =1 year of age. Approximately 25% of the homicide cases were designated as shaken baby syndrome (SBS). In 97% of the cases, the assailant was known to the victim and was a family relative in 77%. Sixty-three percent of the assailants were female and 45% of the assailants were male; in 12%, the assailants were both parents, and in 1 case, the assailant remains unknown. Of the asphyxia deaths, 87% of the assailants were female. The time interval between injury and death ranged from minutes to hours in most cases to months in cases of repeated abuse and chronic injury and sequelae. The time interval between injury and the onset of symptoms remains unknown in most cases due to inconsistencies in the history and lack of credibility of the caretaker. The most common initial history given was "a fall" (20%). We report our findings of a decade of pediatric homicides to increase awareness of the common scenarios and case histories, demographics of the victims, causes of death, and perpetrators of pediatric homicide.

MeSH terms

  • Asphyxia / enzymology
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Homicide / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • Wounds and Injuries / etiology