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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Child Homicide -- United States

Homicide is one of the 5 leading causes of death in the United States for all persons 1-17 years of age (1). In 1978, 5.1% of all deaths nationally among persons 1-17 years of age were due to homicide, as compared with 1.0% of all deaths of persons greater than or equal to 18 years of age. Since 1925, homicide rates have risen over 6-fold for persons 1-4 years old and over 2-fold for persons 5-14 years old (1). In 1979, homicides of children (persons 18 years old) accounted for over 90,000 person years of potential life lost.

From 1976 through 1979, 9% of homicide victims reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation-Uniform Crime Reporting System were 18 years old (2). Three percent of these child homicide victims were less than or equal to 1 week old and 9% were 1 week but 1 year of age. In 1979, child-homicide rates for males were 3.3/100,000 males and for females, 2.0/100,000 females. For children less than or equal to 12 years of age, homicide rates for males and females were similar, but for children over 12 years of age, homicide was predominantly a male victim/male offender phenomenon. Age-specific incidence rates for child homicide in 1979 are shown in Figure 1. Rates peaked for infants and teenagers.

The relationships between victims and offenders varied with the victim's age, regardless of his/her sex or race (Figure 1). Nationally, 29% of child homicides were perpetrated by the victim's parent or stepparent, 35% were perpetrated by an acquaintance, and 10% were perpetrated by strangers. The offender could not be determined in 26% of child homicides. As the age of the victim increased, the relationships shifted from being intrafamilial to extrafamilial in nature. The majority of homicides of 3-year-old children were not committed by relatives, and for victims over 12 years of age, homicides by acquaintances consistently predominated.

For most child homicides, the event precipitating the homicide was poorly described, and the description varied with the relationship between the victim and the offender. The majority (78%) of intrafamilial homicides had undefined precipitating circumstances; 18% involved an argument; and the remaining were due to miscellaneous causes. Forty-four percent of homicides by an acquaintance involved an argument; 5% involved a gang fight; and 51% had undefined or miscellaneous precipitating circumstances. Twenty-two percent of homicides by a stranger involved arguments; 37% occurred during the offender's perpetration of another crime; and 41% had undefined or miscellaneous precipitating circumstances. Overall, 25% of all child homicide incidents occurred during arguments; 3% during gang fights; 4%, during sexual assualt by the offender; and 10%, during the offender's perpetration of another crime. Fifty-eight percent had undefined or miscellaneous precipitating circumstances.

As with the relationship between victim and offender, the weapon used in homicide varied with the age of the victim, . This variation was independent of the child's sex, race, or relationship to the offender. The use of bodily force or a blunt object predominated for victims less than or equal to 9 years of age. Guns or knives were used in over one-third of the homicides involving victims over 3 years of age and in over one-half of those involving victims more than 9 years of age. Overall, guns were used in 40% of child homicides; knives, in 15%; strangulation, in 6%; and other specified means, in 31%. The weapon was not specified in 7% of cases. Reported by the Office of the Center Director, Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Interest in the problem of violence toward children has grown in association with the public's increasing awareness of the issue of child abuse. Data on child abuse are limited by variations in definition and in surveillance methods; however, a recent national study estimated the incidence of child abuse at 3.4/1,000 (3). Although child abuse is not specifically a parent/child phenomenon, authors frequently concentrate on this aspect of the problem. Similarly, studies of child homicide have concentrated upon cases of child homicide by parents (4-6). The information presented in these studies indicates that homicides committed by parents constitute a minority of all child homicides and represent only one end of the child homicide spectrum. In fact, there appear to be 2 patterns of child homicide. The first predominates when victims are less than 3 years of age. This type of child homicide is characterized by familial violence, ill-defined circumstances, and the use of bodily force rather than guns or knives. It could be defined as fatal child abuse. The second type of child homicide, predominantly involving victims over 12 years of age, is characterized by extrafamilial violence, association with arguments or the offender's criminal behavior, and the use of guns or knives. This pattern may represent a child thrust into an adult environment or life-style for which he/she is not developmentally prepared and in which he/she is not properly supervised. As a major and increasing cause of death, this type of child homicide and violence is now generally ignored, but merits public health attention and might be defined as fatal parental/societal neglect. Homicides involving victims 3-12 years of age appear to be a mixture of these 2 homicide patterns. Preventive measures based upon parent education, family planning, neighborhood networking, and stress reduction may have an impact on fatal child abuse. Research is needed to determine whether such measures will also have an impact upon fatal parental/societal neglect and whether this second pattern of child homicide represents extrafamilial duplication of intrafamilial violence.


  1. National Center for Health Statistics. Advanced Report Final Mortality Statistics, 1978. Monthly Vital Statistics Report, 1980;29 (Supplement 2):23 #6 and unpublished data.

  2. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States 1979. Washington, D.C. United States Department of Justice, 1980.

  3. National study of the incidence and severity of child abuse and neglect: study findings. DHHS Publ. #81-30325 (OHDS), Washington, D.C., 1981.

  4. Adelson L. Slaughter of the innocents: a study of forty-six homicides in which the victims were children. N Engl J Med 1961;264:1345-9.

  5. Myers, SA. Maternal filicide. Amer J Dis Child 1970;120:534-536.

  6. Scott PD. Fatal battered baby cases. Med Sci Law 1973;13:197-206.

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