Newborns killed or left to die by a parent: a population-based study

JAMA. 2003 Mar 19;289(11):1425-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.289.11.1425.


Context: Interest in the discarding or killing of newborns by parents has increased due to wide news coverage and efforts by states to provide Safe Haven legislation to combat the problem.

Objective: To describe the characteristics of these cases in North Carolina.

Design, setting, and population: Case series derived from data on all deaths among liveborn infants 0 to 4 days of age reported to the North Carolina medical examiner from 1985 through 2000.

Main outcome measures: Incidence of newborns known to have been killed or discarded by a parent; epidemiological characteristics of newborns and parents.

Results: There were 34 newborns known to have been killed or discarded by a parent, comprising 0.002% of all liveborn infants during the 16-year study period, giving a rate of 2.1 per 100 000 per year. A total of 58.8% were male, 41.1% were white, and 52.9% were black. For 29 cases, the perpetrator was determined to be the mother. Among mothers, 50% were single and 20.6% were married (marital status of the remainder was unknown). Thirty-five percent had had other children. Eight mothers (23.5%) were known to have received some prenatal care. The mean age of the mothers was 19.1 years (range, 14-35 years) and more than half were aged 18 years or older. The most common causes of death were asphyxiation/strangulation (41.1%) and drowning (26.5%).

Conclusions: In North Carolina, at least 2.1 per 100 000 newborns are known to be killed or left to die per year, usually by their mothers. It is unknown how many of these deaths might be prevented by Safe Haven laws. Efforts to educate the public about these laws need to target the general public. Where resources are limited, the focus should be on on adolescent pregnancy prevention programs, young adults, prenatal care clinics, and married women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infanticide / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Infanticide / statistics & numerical data*
  • Infanticide / trends
  • Male
  • Marital Status
  • Mothers / statistics & numerical data
  • North Carolina / epidemiology