The future well-being of a society is directly linked to its ability to care for and educate its young. Among families that cannot effectively care for their young without assistance, lie one of the sources of future violence and criminality. Until we learn this, we will continue to build more prisons at a much higher cost than early prevention and treatment. Until we fully recognize and support the importance of the parental task of caring for its young, we will not stop the cycle of violence.
Steffensmeier and Haynie (2000) found that economic disadvantage and social disorganization was associated with adult female homicide. Campbell (1993) suggests that women express violence in response to stress and frustration. Katherine Ramsland has proposed several reasons for aggression by women (Court TV Crime Library, 2005). Some work in partnership with boyfriends or husbands who beat them if they do not cooperate, some are impulsively violent, and some are methodically cruel. Elizabeth Epstein (2005) found that among the relationships of 109 alcoholic women, 61% reported some violence. In 23% of the couples, the woman was more violent and in 11% of the couples, the man was more violent. Dobash et al., (1992) point out that female and male rates of spousal murder in the US are very similar, while the perpetrators of spousal abuse are predominantly male.
A study of female violence (Seifert, 2008) indicated that adult females with histories of aggression had moderate to severe behavior problems that began before the age of 13, assault of an authority figure, impulsivity, delinquency, running away from home, substance abuse, beliefs in the legitimacy of aggression as a means to an end, few pro-social peers, behavior problems at school, home or work, not successful in school, job, or as a home maker, family violence and low warmth in family of origin, and lack of appropriate boundaries in family of origin or present family. A third of those with chronic assaults lacked remorse, and had positive attitudes toward antisocial behavior, emotional displays that were flat or out of control, deviant peers, and excessive absenteeism from school or work in addition to the general characteristics cited above. Additionally it appears that the number and the severity of traumas experienced by a woman are associated with the number and severity of behavior problems a woman has. The CARE 2: Chronic Violence Risk and Needs Assessment (Seifert, 2008) identifies the risk and resiliency factors associated with youthful female violence, as well as needed interventions. Research continues on the female adult version of this tool.
Females are most likely to kill a spouse (19% of victims of female homicide), a friend/acquaintance (17%), or a boyfriend or girlfriend (10%) and least likely to kill an employee/er (.1%) or a sibling (1%) (BJS). Twelve percent of US homicide offenders (BJS) and 12% of identified serial killers are female (Newton, 2000). The motive for 41% of female serial killers is money (14% of male and female combined). Substance abuse is more likely to be involved when an abused woman murders her abusive male partner. Additionally, most mothers who kill their children are psychotic, under stress, isolated, have long histories of mental illness, and have been abused or exposed to domestic violence as children.
An example is Aileen Wuornos. She was born in Michigan in 1956. Aileen’s childhood was full of abandonment and despair. The killings and molestations taking place around her as a youngster foreshadowed a life in prostitution and murder that would later unfold. Aileen was never able to form an attachment to a peer group nor have the capacity to formulate empathy for others. She ended up confessing to six murders, claiming and then refuting she committed them in self-defense.
Before Aileen’s biological father served time in prison for molesting a child and later hung himself in his cell. Her mother left Aileen and her brother, Keith, with the children’s maternal grandparents when Aileen was only 4 years old. Having given birth to her children as a teenager, Aileen’s mother lamented that they were “crying, unhappy babies.” At age 6 Aileen suffered facial burns while setting fires with lighter fluid.
Aileen later revealed that she had sex with her brother at a young age (a claim that is not verified). She was often truant from school and was pregnant at age 14. In this same year, her grandmother went into violent convulsions and died-there was suspicion that Aileen’s grandfather was to blame.
Aileen soon entered a bleak existence of hitchhiking and prostitution, picking up along the way several charges of drunk and disorderly behavior and assault (Court TV’s Crime Library, 2005). She was later charged, convicted, and executed for the murder of six men with whom she had sex. Had Ailene’s family had early intervention to see that the emotional needs of the children were met, her murder spree might have been avoided.
So it is true for other girls. Early identification and intervention into violent homes is essential to stop the brutal cycle of family violence. We can no longer ignore the precursors of female violence. As a society, we must intervene early with therapy and family supports for all families exposed to domestic violence.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a psychotherapist with over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. Dr. Seifert has authored the CARE and numerous articles. She speaks nationally on mental health related topics and youth violence. She is an expert witness in the areas of youth and adult violence and sexual offending. Her latest book is coming soon: How Children Become Violent: Keeping your Kids out of Gangs, Cults, and Terrorist Organizations. For more information go to http://www.drkathyseifert.com