Twelve days ago, America experienced one of the worst school shootings in history. Twenty children and six adults were killed when Adam Lanza burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and opened fire with guns and rifles. The massacre shocked the world and caused the country to ask how and why it happened.
The children of Sandy Hook are the highest-profile murder victims, but they are not the only ones. According to figures released by UNICEF, over the past decade more than 20,000 American children have been killed in their own homes by family members.
America has the worst record of child abuse in the industrialized world, and more children die each week in America than died in the school shooting on that day: Twenty children died on Dec. 14, and it, quite rightly, outraged the world. Twenty-seven children died the week before and the week after and nobody noticed. Americans and the news media pay little attention to children murdered every day across the country.
A small sample of children killed (or nearly killed) by parents making news in the weeks before and after the Sandy Hook killings: Camilia Terry of Cleveland was arrested for killing her three-year-old son Emilliano; she claimed he’d been kidnapped but after his body was found in a trash bag at a landfill, her story changed. Nicole Fitzgerald of Baltimore stabbed her two-year-old son to death. Jennifer Lynn Emerick of Huron, Michigan, suffocated her 23-month-old son. Jessica Elizabeth Rhodes of Pennsylvania beat and shook her 14-month-old son so badly it nearly killed him; he suffered brain bleeding and swelling, and eye hemorrhaging.
Kristine Davis of New Hampshire poisoned her seven-month-old son. Veronica Herrera of Boise, Idaho, killed her 2-year-old daughter and burned her body in a barrel in the back yard of her home. Lashay Patterson and her live-in boyfriend, both of Philadelphia, beat and burned her five-year-old son to death.
It’s a national tragedy when one man with a gun kills 20 children at once, but when parents do it one at a time every single day in this country it barely makes the local news or raises an eyebrow. Why?
Part of the reason is that the Connecticut shooting perfectly fits the typical “Stranger Danger” social narrative: an evil male preying on other people’s innocent children. It’s the stereotypical murder, something we can all recognize and fear. But when it’s a mother (or, less often, a father) killing her own child, it’s often ignored because, after all, as horrific and tragic as the crime is, at least it’s her own child, not someone else’s.
It’s also a largely invisible crime because of how the news media reports the killings. The murder of children by parents is so common that stories about it merit only a few seconds on the nightly local news, or a paragraph or two in a newspaper or website. Unless it’s a sensational case (such as Susan Smith who drowned her two boys after claiming a Black man abducted them, triggering a national search in 1995), these killings never make the national news and stay off the social radar as a serious issue.
When we briefly hear about a local parent who killed their child, it’s easy to think of it as a rare, horrific aberration instead of something that happens every single day in towns and cities across the country. If each of these child murders made the national news — an average of three or four every day — the public would react as they have in the wake of the recent massacre.
The Sandy Hook victims were also brought into vivid, emotional detail by the press. We know their names, their faces, their interests, their favorite music, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Except in rare, high-profile cases — such as Caylee Anthony, for example — children killed by their parents are quasi-anonymous; usually the only details offered are their names, ages and how their bodies were found. They are presented in news stories as grim statistics, not real children, so why would the public care about them?
Another reason the murders are treated different is that public tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre can be related to, or used to support, specific social agendas, including addressing gun control, mental health issues and even bullying. But when the issue is parents killing their children, the causes are much murkier and harder to address.
Solutions may involve improving community service support for families, drug treatment programs, and domestic violence intervention — mundane social services that aren’t as headline-grabbing as gun bans.
The children killed every day in our communities are no more important than those who died in Sandy Hook, but they are no less important, either.