Globe and Mail

More babies become victims, but overall homicide rate down

Report says infanticides in 1998 rose to almost double the year before

The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 8, 1999

Canadians are killing their babies at an alarming rate.

Statistics Canada reported yesterday that nearly twice as many infants under 12 months old were slain in 1998 as in the previous year.

Their parents were the culprits in the majority of the slayings.

The figures are all the more startling given that the overall homicide rate in Canada plummeted to its lowest level in 30 years, according to the federal agency's figures.

"It's a rather frightening increase over one year," said Julian Roberts, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa. "Most people don't think of newborns when they think of homicide. They typically think of organized gangs or a drug deal gone wrong. But newborns are a very high-risk group because they are so vulnerable."

In 1998 -- the year for which the most recent figures are available -- 23 infants under the age of 1 were killed, compared with 13 in 1997. That contrasts with an average annual figure of 12 during the past decade.

Fathers committed the homicides in 11 of the 23 cases in 1998, while mothers were responsible in six of the instances. In one case, both parents were involved.

The stresses and demands of bringing up a newborn can be overwhelming and that helps explain why some parents kill their young, said Rosemary Gartner, a criminologist at the University of Toronto. Parents who don't want a child are also more likely to kill it in its first year of life, rather than after they have had a chance to form an attachment to it, she added.

However, Prof. Gartner cautioned that the 1998 figures may be just a blip on the radar screen as a trend is not discernible yet.

"I wouldn't make too much out of the numbers. Statistically speaking, the numbers aren't significant. If this happens three or four years in a row, then I think we need to pay attention."

Growing recognition of child abuse and better detection of infant killings because of the increasing number of autopsies performed on babies, dictated by provincial legislation, may also help explain the rise in the figures, she added.

Still, others believe that child welfare has taken a sharp turn for the worse recently.

"The well-being of children has degenerated over the past few years," said Bruce Rivers, executive director of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, adding that the number of abused children showing up at the doorsteps of his agency has climbed by between 10 and 15 per cent in each of the past three years.

Mounting poverty, mental illness and crumbling social structures and family networks all contribute to child abuse, and ultimately to child deaths, Mr. Rivers said.

"I would have every reason to believe that we'll have more children in our system in the coming months unless we address the causes of abuse," added Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, an umbrella group of child-welfare agencies.

While the number of baby killings rose in 1998, the homicide picture showed a decline over all.

There were 555 homicides in 1998, 31 fewer than in 1997 -- a 30-year low. The homicide rate was 1.83 killings for every 100,000 people in the country, a 6.2-per-cent drop from 1998 and the lowest level since 1968. After hitting a peak of 3.03 for every 100,000 in 1975, the rate has generally been declining, Statistics Canada said in its annual report.

The rate last year was less than a third of that in the United States.

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