Fatal maltreatment by mothers: a proposed framework

Child Abuse Negl. 1989;13(4):481-9. doi: 10.1016/0145-2134(89)90052-5.


This paper proposes a framework for understanding fatal maltreatment by mothers based on an in-depth study of incarcerated women. Despite its extreme outcome, fatal maltreatment is not homogeneous. While the specifics of each case varied, the circumstances leading to the fatality followed a similar progression. The framework is characterized by a recurrent pattern of abuse culminating in the fatality. All of the women had abused the deceased child prior to the fatality. The women provided warning signals to professionals and to members of their personal networks (kin, friends, neighbors) by alerting them to the abusive incidents. The fatal incident was not a one-time assault, but the exit point of a continuing pattern of abusive interactions that was maintained by the woman's ability to explain, rationalize, and minimize the abuse to herself and to her network. Future research efforts must be directed beyond the fatal incident to the circumstances leading up to it. Intervention and education must be aimed beyond biological parents to the wider network and community.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Denial, Psychological
  • Female
  • Homicide / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infanticide / psychology
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Mothers / psychology*